I believe it was Andy Warhol who predicted that everybody would someday experience 15 minutes of fame in our celebrity obsessed society. Well, last school year Vanderbilt Catholic had its 15 minutes. The student president and I appeared everywhere from Fox and Friends to Huffington Post as Vanderbilt became ground zero in the battle over religious freedom on campus. Now that the 15 minutes are over, we are going back to business as usual proposing Jesus Christ and forming his disciples at Vanderbilt -- wiser for the experience.
Here are the facts. During the previous school year, a Christian fraternity expelled two members from active membership. The young men in question identified themselves as homosexual. In response to the fraternity’s action, the university launched an investigation to determine whether the expulsions violated the university’s non-discrimination policy. In the process of the investigation, the university decided to reinterpret the policy. The administration removed a religious exemption clause from at least one document and began enforcing the policy with stricter scrutiny.
These changes by the university administration caught Vanderbilt Catholic by surprise. When it was time for student organizations to submit their constitutions during the previous school year, the student leaders sent in a hastily drafted constitution at the last minute shortened to fit on one page and waited for the routine rubber stamp from the administration. But something different happened. A few groups who had explicit religious criteria written into their constitutions were not approved. I am embarrassed to admit now that I hardly realized what was going on: Christians were losing the freedom to practice their faith on campus. The sticking point turned out to be qualifications for leadership in the organizations. The university insisted that any student be allowed to stand for any office in any organization. This policy was meant to protect expression of individual autonomy. Some of the religious groups, however, balked at the policy as an assault on their corporate religious identity and mission. The university threatened immediate loss of recognition to these organizations but ultimately relented and placed them on provisional status for the school year.
Although the groups who had been targeted were embroiled in meetings with the administration over last summer, I was blissfully unaware of the looming controversy until the beginning of this past school year. On the way to an orientation event, two chaplains of other religious groups whispered conspiratorially to me that the university was going to require explicit adherence to the stricter interpretation of the policy: that is to say, that there could be no religious criteria for leadership. I was incredulous and brushed their worries aside as paranoia. These chaplains turned out to be right about the policy, but at the crisis point it was Vanderbilt Catholic and not their student groups who declined to submit to the policy.
As the first semester wore on, the specter of the policy began to loom larger – but not clearer. There were meetings and more meetings with all sorts of administrators and groupings of the chaplains. I eventually realized that there were not merely two sides to this debate. The administration had a practical faction led by the Dean of Students office and an ideological faction led from the top by the Chancellor and the Provost. The Dean’s office was being pragmatic and trying to accommodate religious groups whereas the Chancellor, Provost, and others at the top of the administration were adamant about applying the policy without accommodation for religious groups. Solutions were worked out with the Dean’s office only to be shot down when they reached review at the top of the administration. The religious groups were thus frustrated by the administration’s lack of clarity about its own policy. We at Vanderbilt Catholic were waiting for the administration to put the policy in writing before making a decision.
On the religious side, there were at least three factions: there were those who from the beginning agreed and complied with the policy, those who disagreed with the policy but were unwilling to confront the administration, and those who were unwilling to accept the policy no matter the consequence. There was a veneer of unity among the religious groups at the beginning with everyone claiming to support those unable to accept the policy, but this unity soon degenerated in the face of the administration’s unrelenting insistence that religious groups comply. In the end, it was only Christian groups with a strong sense of identity and mission who were willing to stand up to the administration.
At the initial review, Vanderbilt Catholic was found to be in compliance with the university policy – really by our own negligence. We had sent in a constitution that was not explicit about qualifications for leadership. We assumed that only a believing and practicing Catholic would be qualified for leadership, but this assumption on our part was not written into the constitution. Most of the religious groups on campus likewise failed to communicate their expectations for leadership. They, like us, received approval essentially by mistake, a mistake enabled by the Dean’s office, which was trying to keep as many groups as possible “in the boat.” When Vanderbilt Catholic realized the situation, we made it clear to the administration that even though we were found in compliance based on the text of our constitution, we were in practice no more compliant than the groups on provisional status.
Once upon a time, that is to say, just over a year ago, the Vanderbilt administration and most campus religious groups got along reasonably well. For almost 100 years following its break up with the Methodists, Vanderbilt has prided itself on being a secular institution. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt had robust religious organizations operating as a sort of subculture. Religious life actually provided a degree of diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness to a campus social life that is dominated by the exclusivity of fraternities and sororities. I think that the Dean of Students office was ready to accommodate the concerns of the religious groups because they knew the role of religious organizations in mitigating the negative aspects of the predominant Greek-letter student culture at Vanderbilt. The power of the fraternities and sororities is so strong that the administration does not impose its non-discrimination policy on the Greeks, even though these groups exist only by virtue of discrimination – not only in leadership but also in membership and based on the most superficial factors. The treatment of the Greek organizations by the administration provides a foil to the treatment of religious groups.
A large proportion of the student body at Vanderbilt is involved in Greek life, higher for women than for men. The Greeks wield a predominant influence on the culture of student life disproportionate even to their impressive numbers. There is no way, for example, to be a leader in student government without Greek membership. They run the biggest student philanthropies and activities on campus. There are no social outlets on campus that can rival the party scene offered by the fraternities. The norms of student behavior and dress are those set by the Greeks – just go to a Vanderbilt football game to see the “fratty” attire and behavior. Most students conform; many do not – and they pay the price of second-class social status for their lack of conformity.
The social norms promoted by Greek life at Vanderbilt are destructive to a life of virtue as well as to the “good life” envisioned by a liberal education. An emblem of the destructive influence of Greek culture at Vanderbilt is the phenomena of fraternity “formals.” The word “formal” would seem to indicate a party or dance with some degree of civility. In reality, fraternity formals at Vanderbilt are weekend road trips with dates in tow that presume cohabitation and drunkenness. For the honor of being asked to one of these formals, the young ladies are expected to decorate coolers for their dates’ libations. Although I have heard of individual arrangements being made to accommodate the possibility of preserving modesty and virtue, it is not the norm. I have never heard of a systematic challenge to the moral problems of formals nor of any objection on the part of the administration so long as legal liability is covered, perhaps because the destruction of sexual norms actually plays into the university’s hand. In the coming school year, for example, Vanderbilt will have co-ed hallways and suites in its dorms.
It is clear to see how Greek culture runs counter to Christian morality, but in many ways it runs just as counter to the liberal secularism of the administration: capable young women decorating beer coolers! Really? Is that what they have come to Vanderbilt for? Among the fraternities, the one exception to the social degradation of Greek life was the Christian fraternity BYX – the one that started all the fuss. Its formal, for example, required separate lodgings for the young men and women. At the football games, the BYX guys were the ones who painted up and cheered like normal college fans! But I digress…The Dean’s office knows that religious groups help to provide some sort of counter balance to the Greek culture of privilege and license that predominates at Vanderbilt, even as the same office actually oversees rush, the epitome of exclusivity, and exempts the Greek organizations from the non-discrimination policy. The Provost made the claim to me that Greek life was getting better at Vanderbilt, soon after a story appeared in the student newspaper which reported record numbers of arrests and hospital admissions for drunkenness after sorority rush this year. I could not believe the spin that I was hearing from the chief academic officer of the university.
I am dwelling on the exemption granted to the Greeks to show that the administration is not driven by the principle of non-discrimination in enforcing its policy on religious groups. If it were a matter of principle, then the Greeks would have to be included, and the administration’s position could be understood even if not agreed with. (But principles get in the way of autonomy!) If not principle, then what is driving the top administrators’ inflexible application of this policy to religious groups? I propose that it is hostility to robust religious practice. The administration will allow Vanderbilt Catholic to be as discriminatory in liturgy, for example, as we like. What practical difference does liturgy make, after all? It is when we suggest that students live their faith outside of church that problems arise. Religion is fine in private, if that’s your thing; but don’t let it out on the public stage. The Provost, who trumpets his Catholicism, said at a town hall meeting that he does not let his faith interfere with making good decisions. That about says it all.
So the lines were drawn: religious organizations wanting to be what they profess to be and an administration determined to implement a policy meant to restrict the practical influence of religion. Here is how it played out. After months of fruitless and frustrating meetings, the Chancellor reiterated the administration’s stance in a campus-wide email soon after Christmas – oops! – Winter break, I mean. He announced a town hall meeting but did not appear at it, leaving his subordinates to do his dirty work. That meeting proved to be as dramatic as it was pointless as there was still no official statement of the policy from the administration.
Finally over spring break, the administration issued the policy in writing, along with official interpretive documents. This is what Vanderbilt Catholic had been waiting for. The answer was clearly stated to the question of whether religious criteria could be used in selecting leaders: “No.” When I saw that “no,” I already knew in my gut what we would have to do, although I did not let my mind immediately jump to that painful conclusion. I consulted the Bishop. I consulted a good friend who is a very good lawyer. And when they were back from spring break, I consulted the student leaders. The meeting with the student board was both hard and inspiring. We met for three and a half hours on a Friday evening discussing all the ins and outs of signing the required affirmation of the policy in order to be a registered student organization. We were frankly looking for a way to sign it. I was reminded of St. Thomas More’s response in A Man for All Seasons about whether he would take the oath that Parliament had passed. He said that it depends on what the oath says. We could not escape what the policy says. It was for us a matter of principle. And so the Vanderbilt Catholic student board, with my full support – and that of the Bishop, declined to register with the university as a student organization for next year. That was it.
Now the 15 minutes of fame began. I think that we played a pretty good game of public relations and that Vanderbilt played a pretty bad one. Of course, they won. All the power is on their side, no matter how well we played. We even backed off from using power on our side that some of the other religious organizations pursued in the state legislature. We are officially unrecognized by the administration, even though they still want us around to offer Mass. They are not unmindful of how peculiar the total absence of Catholic life on campus would appear to students, parents, and alumni – as well as to peer institutions, who might desire to capitalize on it. I am not unhappy about the result because the corporate identity of Vanderbilt Catholic matters. We are who we are: a communion of the Catholic faithful, not a Vanderbilt club. What we offer to students is not what Vanderbilt offers. So practically speaking, we are not in a bad position. We have our identity and mission intact.
But why did this happen? Why have the Vanderbilt administration and certain religious groups, including Vanderbilt Catholic, not been able to find a way to coexist? The answer lies in the nature of the dispute. This is a clash not so much over a policy as over culture. Why was the administration so inflexible about allowing religious criteria for determining leadership in religious groups? I propose that the Vanderbilt administration is hostile to religious groups that maintain a practical mission and identity in the world. The administration of Vanderbilt exalts the postmodern freedom of autonomy in defining oneself in whatever way one wishes. Vanderbilt’s mission exalts “intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry” as well as “equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors.” In contrast, Vanderbilt Catholic offers to individuals coherent meaning and corporate identity relying on the traditional American freedoms of religion and of association to fulfill its mission “to propose Jesus Christ and to form His disciples.” Over the course of the year, the freedom that the university demands for individual autonomy proscribed the freedoms necessary to foster a communion of believers.
It thus comes down to culture. Vanderbilt offers a privileged place of self-fulfillment. I grant that Vanderbilt is impressive. There is no denying it. One can do an amazing number of things amazingly well at Vanderbilt. Nothing holds one back, certainly not moral norms. This is precisely the milieu that Vanderbilt seeks to offer its students and faculty. And it works. Vanderbilt alumni are an accomplished lot. Vanderbilt faculty do set the standard in many fields. There is no arguing with success. And this success is founded on the dream that the administration is trying to realize: maximal individual autonomy. The non-discrimination policy is a means to implement the dream of autonomy. Religion, especially religion that offers practical moral norms, is seen as an obstacle to autonomy. For example, if research calls for the use of embryonic stem cells, then moral objections need to be swept away. Remember: faith should not get in the way of making good decisions, according to the Provost. The progress that Vanderbilt embraces must not be slowed by such irrational factors as religion. One, however, rarely hears any reflection on the ends of the progress pursued and achieved at Vanderbilt. Achievement of any sort is an unquestioned good and cannot be questioned. This is the down side of radical individualism: it cannot see beyond itself, and it cannot question itself. At Vanderbilt, one does not hear such questions as: “What does this mean?” or “Where is it going?” These questions would slow the juggernaut of individual achievement. Things mean what the individual decides them to mean. Questions of meaning are questions that Vanderbilt cannot answer, and these are the very questions that keep popping up even in the midst of the most successful attainment of goals.
The need for meaning is why Vanderbilt students need Vanderbilt Catholic. These persistent questions beg for answers. Vanderbilt Catholic dares to offer answers to the “rage for order” that comes from having freedom but not meaning. In Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse, Matthew Arnold expresses the alienation experienced by modern man who has thrown off faith yet misses its consolations, that very modern frustration of having all the answers except the important ones:
Ah, if it be pass'd, take away,
At least, the restlessness, the pain;
Be man henceforth no more a prey
To these out-dated stings again!
The nobleness of grief is gone
Ah, leave us not the fret alone!
But—if you cannot give us ease—
Last of the race of them who grieve
Here leave us to die out with these
Last of the people who believe!
Silent, while years engrave the brow;
Silent—the best are silent now.
Achilles ponders in his tent,
The kings of modern thought are dumb,
Silent they are though not content,
And wait to see the future come.
They have the grief men had of yore,
But they contend and cry no more.
Since the Victorian world of Arnold, the alienation and loss of meaning produced by individual autonomy has progressed exponentially and yet the cure offered by a communion of faith is viewed even more suspiciously. Catholic faith, Jesus Christ Himself, seems a threat to this worldview of radical individual autonomy. Faith seems to hamper and to hold back individual expression by insisting on communion not only privately in worship but also publicly in practice. The reality of faith in Jesus Christ, however, is far different from the Provost’s caricature of it, which asserts that faith and good judgment are incompatible. Catholic faith denies none of the successes of reason and does not threaten the individual. Catholic faith does propose that reason alone cannot fulfill the human capacity for wonder in response to mystery and that autonomy cannot satisfy the infinite desires of the human heart made for communion. Catholic faith embodies true humanism because it proposes to answer fully the questions and desires of the human mind and heart which lie beyond the reach of reason and autonomy. Catholicism proposes that the answers are found in communion with Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church.
The administration does not fear religious groups who merely question. Questions are fine because they do not require us to change anything about ourselves. But questions alone do not get us very far. The whole academic enterprise is set up to produce answers, not just good questions. Sometimes that process is long and hard. Sometimes it takes wrong turns. But answers remain the goal. Why is it that we cannot offer answers about the questions of meaning? Establishing truth is what a university is about. Truth by definition excludes falsehood. Every scholar knows this. That is what the scientific method is about and the critical apparatus. Why is the attainment of truth about the meaning of things unacceptable to the Vanderbilt administration when it is desirable in every other area? I submit it is because answers about meaning are exclusive in ways that the administration will not tolerate. The meaning, for example, derived from the complementarity of male and female bodies and psyches is a meaning lacking in same sex relationships. There is a real difference. This difference is well and rationally articulated in Bl. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The answers of orthodox Christianity are unacceptable because these answers require surrendering individual autonomy as the source of meaning in favor of finding meaning by entering into communion. The Vanderbilt administration as the example of contemporary man fears that religion will be stifling or harmful to the individual, and sometimes it has been. But where did the university come from in the first place but from the quest for truth inspired by Christian humanism? It is the Catholic faith that taught us that we can question and that we can answer. Catholic anthropology is thus the basis for the modern university. Part of that anthropology is the conviction that human beings are fundamentally relational, not individual. This relational understanding of the human person is a basis for culture.
Culture is not an individual exercise. It requires cultivation and cultus – common effort and common ritual done in communion with others. We must lose our autonomy to find ourselves in culture. This spring I attended a student performance of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass at Blair, the Vanderbilt music school. That was culture. Not because it was classical music but because it was based on cultivation and cultus – common effort and common faith. The part of each musician would not have been much without the coordination of the whole. In this technological age, I guess that one person with a sophisticated enough machine could produce all those strains of music on his own. But it would not be the same. It would not be culture. There is a funny little thing that Haydn hid in the Credo. I give all the credit for this insight to Dr. David Cassel, a man of wonderful culture and faith. Was this change an early example of modern individualism throwing off the shackles of an authoritative and revered text? No, not at all. Dr. Cassel discovered that Haydn really did include the complete text -- just invisibly. In the music, Haydn went back to a Gregorian Credo and included the phrase where the words would have been. His audience schooled by a common cultus would have recognized it immediately, their ears supplying the missing words. Everyone in his original congregation – and remember that this was a Mass, really sung as a Mass – would have understood because they were part of a communion that shared a common culture. They knew the same words and the same chants. It is hard for us to recognize what happened because we have lost both the cultivation and the cultus of that culture. We have not entered into communion. The loss of culture is the price demanded by individual autonomy.
So that is what we came down to at Vanderbilt this year: a conflict not between two cultures but a conflict between Christian culture, which requires the incorporation of the individual into a communion, and the anti-culture of radical autonomy espoused by the university. The freedoms of association and religion are necessary for culture and communion. We have to be free to practice what we preach. The freedom required for radical individual autonomy cannot tolerate these corporate freedoms in any circumstance where they limit the individual’s determination of his own meaning and reality. An officially recognized religious organization at Vanderbilt, for example, must allow an atheist to run for president. Christian culture must give way to individual autonomy. And at least at Vanderbilt, it has. That is why Vanderbilt Catholic continues in its mission but distinct from Vanderbilt.