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Thomas Albert Howard

L'affaire Hochschild and Evangelical Colleges

Is a Catholic out of place on Wheaton's faculty?

The Wall Street Journal did evangelical higher education and, just maybe, the task of Christian unity a favor when it published a front-page story on the plight of Joshua Hochschild (January 7, 2006). A philosophy professor at Wheaton College, Hochschild was dismissed from the faculty after converting to Catholicism. The president of Wheaton, Duane Litfin, ruled Catholic theology incompatible with Wheaton's statement of faith, to which all faculty assent at the beginning of their careers and renew upon signing their annual contracts, a customary practice at many evangelical colleges.

L'affaire Hochschild, as we might call it, is but the latest manifestation of a simmering conflict of opinion over how evangelical colleges should posture themselves toward the future. In many respects, the episode at Wheaton mirrors another celebrated incident from the1980s, when the literary critic Thomas Howard (no relation, oddly enough) was obliged to resign from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts (my home institution) after converting to Catholicism. Like Hochschild, Howard wistfully boxed his books, but his departure raised more questions than it settled. Hochschild's departure raises similar questions.

Is an evangelical liberal arts college (i.e., not a seminary and not a church), and one that prides itself on intellectual engagement, served by a statutory environment that effectively excludes all Catholics, and indeed most non-evangelical Christians, from the faculty ranks? Having commendably avoided the seductions of secularism in the 20th century, do evangelical colleges—such as, say, Wheaton, Taylor, Gordon, and Westmont—now suffer from another problem: superattenuated retrenchment, a defensiveness increasingly unbecoming in a world in which many evangelicals look upon the legacy of Mother Teresa about as favorably as that of Billy Graham? By refusing even the possibility of a single Catholic faculty member—including self-described "born again" Catholics or ...

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