Michael Baxter and the Theological Salad Bar

Rev. Richard John Neuhaus
First Things, May 1995

Last time I discussed Father Michael Baxterís Pro Ecclesia article in which he excoriates theologians and historians who suggest a too-neat fit between Catholicism and the American Way of Life. Fr. Baxter is at the epicenter of a furious dispute at the University of Notre Dame. The theology faculty refused him an appointment to the department, the president of the university appointed him anyway, and the faculty senate then censured the president. Amidst all the charges and countercharges, I confess to finding myself in an unusual position.

You may recall that I was critical of Fr. Baxter for his construing of Christianity "within the limits of morality alone." That is the same question around which Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University and I have been conducting a friendly argument for years and years. Hauerwas is Baxterís mentor and was his dissertation director at Duke. Father Richard McBrien, who was for many years chairman of theology at Notre Dame and is now head of the faculty senate, is the sworn enemy of Hauerwas, whom he accuses, as he accuses Baxter, of being "sectarian." The hostility of McBrien played a significant part in Hauerwasí leaving Notre Dame after fourteen years and going to Duke. So you see how the plot thickens.

For Hauerwas and Baxter, the Great Satan is "liberalism" and all its works, and all its pomps, and all its ways. In their view, the American political experiment is liberal to its rotten core, and Baxter in particular thinks the very core of the core is the First Amendment that pretends the state is "neutral" to religion when in fact it is an insidious instrument for taking Christianity captive to provide "legitimation" for a capitalist, consumerist, warmongering society. His is a very severe indictment indeed.

I believe Hauerwas and Baxter are wrong about many things, but they are intelligently wrong on things very much worth arguing about. We share the conviction that authentic Christianity must be, in many respects, emphatically countercultural. This is inescapably the case with respect to the conflict between the "culture of life" and the "culture of death" so powerfully described in, for example, the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. (The old guard at Notre Dame has a demonstrated talent for complexifying the "simplistic" formulations of such as Pope John Paul II.) At the same time, Baxter in particular has a social, political, and economic analysis that leads him to unambiguously assault aspects of the American condition that I believe should be supported, albeit critically. Both the assault and the support must be subjected to rigorous interrogation.

As for Fr. McBrien and the ancien régime of theology at Notre Dame, they represent a generation that tends toward, to put it delicately, flabby and uncritical accommodationism. Catholicism is identified with the "Americanist" readiness to trim Catholic distinctives in order not to offend cultural sensibilities. Of course, thatís how I describe their position; they say they are engaged in sympathetic dialogue with the culture. But most everyone agrees that for the establishment the alignments that matter are defined by the old liberal/conservative polarities. Liberalism as an abstraction can be criticized at the edges, but never in a way that might raise a doubt about oneís being a liberal. For McBrien and his liberal colleagues, the chief foe is a Vatican that gets in the way of a thoroughly "Americanized" Church. Baxter and those of like mind think that Americanization is not the solution but the problem.

Baxter is on most questions a theological conservative, but on matters social and political he is pretty much an unexpurgated lefty, as was the case with his heroine, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. His politics would be no problem for Notre Dame, were it not driven by a theology so suspiciously orthodox. Father Lawrence Cunningham, current head of the theology department, says that, since Baxter has been imposed on them, he wants to make him feel at home. "Iíve always argued that the Catholic tradition is like a big salad bar," Cunningham says. "There are a lot of things you can put on your plate, and one of those is a religious identity that stands against the predominant culture." Itís hard to have a really good argument with a salad bar. Baxter wants an argument, and he wants it to be a theological argument.

He doesnít buy it when Cunningham says the Catholic approach is "both/and" rather than "either/or." That, says Baxter, is a logical fallacy. "If one wishes to espouse a both/and approach in theology then one is logically compelled to allow both the both/and approach and the either/or approach." It is more than a nice debaterís point. I know from limited experience that Father Either/Or Baxter can be a difficult man, but the theological difficulties he poses are very much needed by the bland and wilting salad bar Catholicism of the Notre Dame theology department. Perhaps the fact that I was so critical of him last month will prompt some in the department to look upon him more favorably. After all, if Neuhaus disagrees with him so strongly he canít be all that bad. That was not my intention in writing the piece, but Iím always glad to be of service.