Peter Steinfels’ speech “What if There Were No Catholic Higher Education” provided a jumping off point for a wide-ranging discussion about how Fordham’s Catholic Identity can be strengthened.
The discussion, which was held on Feb. 23 in the President’s Dining Room at the Lowenstein Center on the Lincoln Center campus, was the first of three held on each of Fordham’s campuses. Patrick Ryan, S.J., vice president for University mission and ministry, led the talk, which centered on Steinfels’ keynote address to the Institute for Administrators in Catholic Higher Education at Boston College in 2005.
Father Ryan told the gathering of about 25 administrators and retired faculty members that what interested him most in the speech was the notion that a university stripped of its religious identity, like the classically Protestant universities such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton, was somehow diminished.
“There are certain types of discourse that would not go on if a university did not have a certain religious identity,” he said. “There’s a possibility of raising questions of ethical and moral concern that—in a sort of liberal, secular environment—might be said to be a matter for your private faith. If you’re a Catholic professor at Harvard or a Jewish professor at Ohio State, you may have opinions, but they are never to interfere with your academic work, as it were.”
A good deal of the conversation also centered on whether students and faculty sufficiently appreciate the Catholic identity of the University. Steinfels, the co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, identified 15 “Dos and Don’ts” in his address. John P. McCarthy, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history and former director of Fordham Institute for Irish Studies, called attention to the sixth item, which suggests talking with new professors about the University’s religious mission earlier in the hiring process.
“He is very firm on his doubting some of the almost fig leaf efforts at showing Catholic identity,” McCarthy said, “whether it be confining Catholic studies to just one or two departments, or having an occasional speaker, or even identifying the University with the order that started it rather than the church itself.
“He makes it quite clear when he says it’s not just about hiring Catholics,” McCarthy continued. “Very often you can hire non Catholics who, in many ways, are infinitely more sympathetic or receptive to the church than any nominal or former Catholics on the faculty.”
Father Ryan responded by recounting how in a discussion with a Jewish member of Fordham’s Law School about the Jewish doctrine of just war theory, the faculty member said he relied upon the works of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. This, Father Ryan said, is an example of how Fordham’s charge of promoting social justice rooted in Christianity comes through in ordinary teaching.