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A Jesuit at Western Michigan

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

A number of people have asked me to clarify the issues involved in my leaving Western Michigan after five years on the faculty of the university in its department of philosophy and religion. I am happy to do so, while suggesting that a more complete picture may be gained from The Hungry Generation (Religious Attitudes and Problems at a State University), which is being published early in 1967.

Instead of repeating what may be found in the book, I prefer here to give a chronological sequence of the events, beginning with the university’s invitation in 1962 and ending with the university’s reversal of position in 1966. By way of epilogue, I am adding some of my own conclusions and possible guidelines for the future.

The background of my appointment goes back to 1958, when I served as Catholic consultant to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, standardizing agency for teachers’ colleges and departments of education. My work with the association was to cooperate with the Protestant and Jewish consultants in evaluating a five-year research program on “Religion and Public Education.” Western Michigan was one of the pilot institutions for the project and a member of its school of education was national coordinator. One result of the study was that Western founded a department of philosophy and religion. Dr. Cornelius Loew of Union Theological Seminary became head of the department.

Early in 1962, the Provincial of the Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus, Rev. John A. McGrail, S.J., was approached by a representative of Western Michigan about having a priest teach Catholic theology on the faculty: “The priest hired would be asked to set up a program of Catholic studies. It is hoped that a four-year program might eventually result.” Officials at Western called it a pioneering project.

The idea of a state-supported university hiring a Catholic theologian is a revolutionary one, and the opportunity offered to advance the cause of the Church and true religion would be enormous. Obviously the man to fill such a position would have to be a scientific theologian who was able to resist the temptation to proselytize, and in no sense would he be under the authority of the Newman Club chaplain or have any pastoral obligation at the Newman Club.
He would be, of course, as free as any other professor to carry on any activities, pastoral or otherwise, which he might wish when he was not at the university. It is essential in the hiring of this professor that he be in no sense presented by the church or any of its agencies as an official candidate for the position.
Dr. Loew (head of the department) wishes simply to hire the best individual he can find, and the fact that he might be a priest or a member of a religious order must remain coincidental so that there would be no danger of difficulty on the Church-State question.

As a result of the invitation, I visited the university in April, during which time I had conferences with members of the faculty, the dean, and vice-president of the institution. One problem seemed insurmountable, the dilemma between sectarian teaching (which the university feared was inevitable for a Catholic) and academic freedom (to which I appealed in my conferences with the administration). One paragraph in the university’s official policy on academic freedom was crucial.

The teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his subject, but he should be careful not to introduce into his teaching controversial matter which has no relation to his subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.

During the conferences with the administration, I was told that I would be hired if I taught Catholicism as I would teach Confucianism, by standing apart from my subject and not giving the impression of commitment. My reply was that if I could not be trusted to avoid proselytizing or was denied the freedom given others to teach what I believed and as I believed it, I was not interested. So I left Kalamazoo with no intention of returning.

By the time I reached Detroit that day to tell the Provincial of my negative decision, the administration at Western had changed its mind. They phoned the provincial residence to say that I was being offered the teaching position on “his terms.”

On that assurance, I later accepted the offer to teach, besides other courses, Fundamentals of Catholic Theology and Catholic Moral Theology. The agreement was for a two-year contract, subject to renewal. Approval by the state board of education included the rank of associate professor and a starting salary of $8,500.

The freedom of which I was given verbal (not written) guarantee was at first respected, although from the beginning certain limitations were placed on me, e.g., the university’s insistence that I pay income tax from which as a man vowed to poverty I am legally exempt. So concerned was the administration that by the end of the first week of class I was warned either to sign the tax-exemption waiver or leave the university. Similarly I was told to avoid any public ministrations as a priest.

I went along with these restrictions because, at the time, I felt the university was basically behind me and that we were engaged in a common enterprise that had great potential for the future of higher education. My classes were an immediate success. Altogether I taught nine different courses, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and Understanding the New Testament. But the most popular were the offerings in Catholic doctrine and moral. By the third semester, I was teaching more than half the students in the department, 560 out of 1,100 for the year, although seven men were on the staff.

This occasioned criticism and led to an order from the administration that my classes should be reduced, eventually to 35. Other classes became equally limited in theory, but in practice this affected only the Introduction to Religion which attracted students because it served as a required Humanities substitute, whereas my courses remained pure electives. As requests for the Introduction course increased, new faculty were hired, so that at one time or another all six Protestant ministers in the department taught this Humanities replacement.

After two years, I was offered a renewed contract for one year, at which time the president of the university wrote: “The favorable response of students to your courses, and your own energetic loyalty to the University’s intellectual task point to the advantages which would be gained” if the contract were renewed. During the third year, however, I became convinced that I would not receive tenure, and that the reason was the crucial one raised in 1962 when I asked for freedom to teach theology as a doctrinal discipline. This was the substance of a five hour meeting of the staff, met for my benefit, until 2:30 in the morning, at which I was quizzed and contradicted on the question, “What do you think is the purpose of a religion department in a state university?” Finally I begged to be excused because I had a speaking engagement at Purdue University that afternoon.

By the end of the third year I experienced a variety of new limitations on my teaching. The course in Catholic Theology was removed from the curriculum against my wishes. The new course, in Catholic Tradition, was not to be theological but historical. Instead of teaching Catholic theology, I was to teach “descriptively about the history of Catholic beliefs.” At the same time, Catholic Moral Theology was also removed, without even consulting me. When I protested that this was a second breach of contract, the department allowed a substitute with a changed name. Yet both courses were so popular with the students, Catholic and Protestant, that some told me they waited two years to get into one of my classes.

In the meantime I urged hiring another Catholic theologian to help with the course offerings in Catholicism. It would not be a priest, I discovered, because the president of the university was against it on principle. This was consistent with the attitude from the beginning; a layman would have been preferred to a priest. Moreover, as the academic vice-president said in my presence, “I was warned about hiring a Jesuit to the faculty!”

When a Catholic lay theologian was interviewed for the department, I encouraged his appointment and made a special trip to Baltimore for that purpose. After he arrived on campus, Rudolf Siebert was informed that he was hired to replace the Jesuit priest. He has since publicly protested that this was not his understanding when offered a contract by the university. In the same way, he privately assured me it was not true that the department had unanimously decided against giving me tenure. In the past year and a half he has promoted the contrary.

When a renewed contract was offered in the fall of 1964, for two more years, it was no longer as associate but only as visiting professor. On inquiry, I was informed that this was done to avoid the prospect of my acquiring permanent status on the faculty.

In view of the changed situation, I agreed to teach only one semester per year of the two-year term which expired December 31, 1966. Yet all the while I decided against leaving the university earlier because I still hoped that some kind of compromise might be reached. Accordingly I had several private conferences with the associate dean, Cornelius Loew (former head of the department), and President Miller. But I felt they were not free to decide in my favor.

This was dramatically illustrated by two meetings of the department in the fall of 1965. First we were asked if we all wanted to teach a specified number of hours “outside the department,” in some field like Art, English or History. When the response was not favorable, we were told at the next meeting that this was not a request but an order: either to comply or leave. All complied, although the head of the philosophy side of the department has since left Western Michigan. Incidentally he was a church-going Episcopalian who favored Aristotle and Aquinas in his classes.

On pressing for an explanation for this unusual intrusion, we were given to understand that the department was offered the following option: either freeze the faculty as of now, with no assured prospect of additional personnel, or permit new teachers but require newcomers to agree to teach outside the department according to specifications to be determined by the university.

In May 1966, I received an unexpected letter from the associate dean, in which he took issue with three items in a press release about my appointment to the ecumenical commission of the Lansing Diocese: identification as associate and not visiting professor, being labeled a teacher of Catholic theology, and the implication that I was using the diocesan appointment as a wedge to stay on at Western. In reply I explained that I had nothing to do with the news release; that I had adjusted the new title in such places as Who’s Who in American Education; that I had been hired to teach Catholic theology; and that I was offended by the implied charge of dishonesty. The associate dean answered with an evasive apology, to which I replied (after consultation) with a summary of the five years’ infringement on my academic freedom.

At this time the Detroit News asked for a story about my leaving Western, to balance the front-page account of my appointment which the university had published in 1962. I agreed to release the story, carefully worded, and further agreed that the university should also be consulted to present its side of the case. With the news release of July 17, 1966, a new and public phase of the Western experiment began.

Briefly, I stated that the issues at stake were greater than either my personal interests or the university’s policy; that I sought to teach courses in religion that answered to the full academic demands of the subject, but at the same time were addressed to the moral and spiritual needs of the students. In all the published statements of the university, before or since the recent publicity, the critical element appears to be the role of religious studies in a state university.

According to E. Thomas Lawson, present head of the department: “The academic discipline of religion has as its basic methodological principles and presuppositions those of the community of scholars and not those of the church, sect, or cult. This means that the discipline of religion involves inquiry and the ordered presentation of the fruits of that inquiry. In no sense should this discipline be catechetical, apologetic, evangelistic, moralistic, pietistic, dogmatic, or doctrinal.”

I quoted this statement of policy in my correspondence with the university, pointing out that it excludes Catholic, Protestant and Jewish doctrine from legitimate inclusion as curriculum study at Western. Instead it substitutes the principles and presuppositions of an anonymous “community of scholars,” who may be agnostics, secular humanists or atheists. Moreover, it denigrates by association the teaching of doctrinal Judaism or Christianity, correlating a highly intellectual theology with catechetics, apologetics, evangelism, moralism and pietism. It also insists, with emphasis, that religion should not be taught as faith expressible in doctrine but solely as phenomena to be studied through inquiry.

“How many times and in how many ways,” my letter stated, “I have argued against this monism. While freely granting that religion should be studied as phenomena through inquiry, I have urged that this should not exclude theology as the doctrine of a religious body. My whole ecumenical bent of mind has favored the teaching of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism; but my efforts in favor of doctrinal Protestantism were rebuffed, and in favor of Judaism by being reminded how few Jews there were on campus to pay any attention to them.” The fate of Catholicism was a matter of experience.

Dr. Loew stressed the university’s neutrality about the students’ commitment when they enter college. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor (September 30, 1966), he argued against my approach to the teaching of religion, saying that I wished to “provide students with a strengthening of the religious heritage which they bring with them.” According to him, “this kind of buttressing of the faith of students we feel is not the demand that a secular university can rightly meet.” When we discussed this privately later on, he modified the statement by admitting that such buttressing could not be the main purpose of religion at a state university, which I had never claimed. My plea was not to exclude intellectual maturation of the faith already possessed by students, while giving every encouragement to teachers who did the opposite.

Student reaction to my leaving Western gives some indication of how they view the administration’s conduct towards me, and what they want and look for in a department of religion. Among the letters received by the university was a protest from a clergyman who is not a Roman Catholic, now doing his doctorate studies. He wrote to the president and the board of trustees.

I have spent five and one half years of study at Western Michigan University where I received three degrees and a teaching certificate. Nonetheless I am ashamed that my alma mater has treated Fr. Hardon in such a manner. Also I have spent the past two years preparing to teach theology at a state university, but I certainly would never consider working for Western Michigan University with the reputation it has at present.
It is most interesting that Professor Loew said that Fr. Hardon “seems to feel that doctrine can be taught in a state university in the same way as in a Catholic or other religious school where indoctrination is taken for granted.” Just why Professor Loew believes “indoctrination” is not a legitimate function of a state university is very difficult to understand. “Indoctrination” means simply “to instruct in doctrines, theories, beliefs or principles” according to the second edition of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary.
The Detroit News stated that, according to Fr. Hardon, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish doctrines are not allowed to be taught at Western Michigan University. This to me is preposterous. It is the doctrines of the above-named faiths which have greatly shaped and influenced the history and culture of the United States and the world. How can a university student fully understand his country’s history and culture, and that of the world, if he is not free to study the tenets of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism? If a student is free to study Communistic and Fascist doctrines at Western Michigan University, then why should he not be free to study those of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism?
As a former student of Fr. Hardon at Western Michigan University, I can testify that he taught intelligibly and objectively, always taking care to be fair to all points of view. Few teachers in my opinion have given so much of their time and energy to teach and help students overcome their intellectual difficulties. Western has been fortunate to have him on its faculty. To dismiss him for the reasons given would not only be a grave injustice to Fr. Hardon but a tragedy for the university.

To all the letters of protest, the president of the university sent the same one-page reply. Its most significant statement says that, “The differences that presently exist between Dr. Hardon and his colleagues are of a very fundamental nature concerning the teaching of religion. I have every confidence that Dr. Loew reflects in his statements the feelings of the other members of the department.”

On request, my comment on this statement was to agree that the differences are fundamental. I also agreed with President Miller’s observation that the issue at stake was “the manner in which religion should be taught at this University.” However, on both counts I felt the differences and the issue were too crucial to be left to the judgment of a handful of men within the department. They need to be discussed openly and freely, which was the main reason I took the liberty of publicizing the fact that my contract was not being renewed.

Several conferences I have had recently with the president and associate dean strengthen my belief that the basic problem for the university is the question of church and state. How can religion, and not just the philosophy or history of religion, be taught in a tax-supported institution without violating (as I was reminded by Vice President Siebert in 1962) the state constitution which forbids teaching sectarianism in a public university?

Whenever I suggested that secular humanism, or any other form of belief, was equally “religious” as an ultimate commitment and yet widely tolerated by state institutions, I was informed that this was not the intent of the law and that, besides, “dogmatic religion” but not “secularistic religion” favors the closed mind—whereas a university’s function is not to give answers but only to raise questions in the students’ minds.

This is my fifteenth year of involvement in religion and public education, going back to 1952 when I cooperated with the Indianapolis public school system to work out a syllabus for teaching moral and spiritual values in the junior high grades. Since then I have worked with a broad variety of agencies and school systems, the latest in the spring of 1966 on invitation of the Florida state board of education.

The more familiar I become with public education, the more clearly I see that state university administrators are scarcely interested in cultivating those values which, for the Catholic, are the Church’s most serious educational concern. In the words of the Vatican Council: “The Church is keenly aware of her very grave obligation to give zealous attention to the moral and religious education of all her children.” [1]

Where, as at Western Michigan, a department of religion is established, its function explicitly rules out the spiritual formation of the students. If, under duress or the pressure of public opinion, the university allows a Catholic or two in the department, his role is that of a symbol. It gives token evidence that the school includes also Catholics in the department. By no stretch of the imagination does the institution wish to give Catholics (or others) a chance to deepen the religious convictions with which they entered college.

From the state university viewpoint, this is perfectly intelligible. Administrators have repeatedly said they are not in the business of improving anyone’s morals or religious commitment. Moreover, officials are very sensitive to public opinion, notably of two classes of people: those with no religious affiliation and those with strong religious convictions.

Persons with no religious affiliation resent even the existence of a department of religion in a tax-supported institution. They argue that this is against the principle of church and state separation, and are willing to test their position in the courts. It was this kind of pressure which profoundly affected two state universities recently where credit courses in religion have been offered to Catholics, Protestants and Jews from religious teachers of their own persuasion.

Persons with strong commitment, who are not Catholic, are disturbed at what inevitably happens when attractive credit courses in Catholicism are offered in a state university. The classes become highly popular and draw not only Catholics but Protestants, Jews and agnostics. This is in sharp contrast with courses that are “denominational” but not Catholic-oriented. Thus in a given semester, I had 160 students in two sections of the Fundamentals of Catholic Theology, compared with 10 students who signed up for the comparable course in contemporary Protestant Theology.

I have been asked what I have learned from the Western Michigan experience. There are many things, not the least of which is a growing realization that the rising monopoly of state university education is detrimental to the moral and spiritual welfare of American youth. Even with the best of intentions, which cannot be assumed, it lacks the institutional and academic freedom to communicate the basic religious values commonly associated with church-related schools.

In terms of public higher education, two possibilities suggest themselves: each made more feasible now than ever before in our history. Catholic educators should cooperate ecumenically with like-minded Christians and Jews to help all young people in state universities receive credit courses in theology from trained teachers in their own religious tradition. In the same ecumenical spirit, Catholic leaders should collaborate with believers of other persuasions towards getting a just share of tax money (state and federal) for higher education in schools of the parents’ and students’ own choice.

The expression I have come to use is, “the freedom to learn,” which has never meant so much to me as during the past five years. It is impossible to go through what I experienced without coming to appreciate, at first hand, the limitations under which state institutions labor because of outside pressures that operate on the school administration; and the limitations under which the faculty labor because so often they can teach only a part of themselves and have to hold back on their deepest personal convictions. Yet these are preliminary to the third and worst limitation, under which those labor who desperately want-and need-to have their faith deepened, but are given little assistance in their struggle for spiritual maturity or even for religious existence.

[1] Declaration on Christian Education, 7.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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