The Baxter Affair

(Click on act numbers in the text for audio)
Act One
Act Two
Act Three
Act Four
Act Five 
Related Material

ACT ONE: Quare fremuerunt gentes .....

  • During the fall semester of 1996 the theology department at Notre Dame (or at least several of its senior members) and the Faculty Senate were throwing a "hissy-fit" (as we say in the Freddoso household) about Fr. Malloy's appointment of Michael Baxter, CSC, to the theology department over the objections of a majority of the department. There's no problem getting access to the department's view of the situation; they were not silent about it for a long time and their complaints surfaced repeatedly in the fall semester's meetings of the Faculty Senate, culminating in the Senate's passage on December 3 of an "erosion of confidence" resolution directed at Fr. Malloy. You might also want to check out an article written by a senior theology professor for one of the campus publications, Common Sense.

  • The Faculty Senate, for its part, seemed intent on burying truth and justice under complaints about procedure: "Nothing personal against Baxter, you understand. Our gripe is with Malloy's handling of the situation." Easy to say if you're not the junior faculty member who was falsely and unjustly labeled 'unqualified' by a majority of his colleagues in the theology department; and easy to say if--and this is the case with at least a couple of senators who do not belong to the theology department--you refused to look at Baxter's work despite the fact that you know more about the topic of Baxter's research than the vast majority of those colleagues. Then, too, the "erosion of confidence" resolution itself was not limited to procedural matters but, among other such things, warned darkly that "the President's decision harms the Theology Department and the University generally by taking action in such a way and of such a sort as bears clear potential for lowering the academic qualifications of their faculties." The clear implication is that this potential was realized in the appointment of Fr. Baxter.
  • All semester certain members of the theology department vociferously urged the rest of us on the faculty to treat their business as our business. Once they had gone to the national press, it was time for us to do just that.

ACT TWO: Redde nos constantes in periculis ......

  • Well, for anyone interested in truth, justice, and, so to speak, the un-American way, it would be good to start with Robert Blakey's dissent from the report of the Faculty Senate's Academic Affairs Committee, including the new preface that Blakey added after the vote on the "erosion of confidence" resolution.
  • An article on the Baxter affair appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. So you should next look at a letter attesting to Fr. Baxter's credentials that was sent to the Chronicle by a group of distinguished scholars who have worked with Baxter and/or are familiar with his research in Christian moral theory and his consequent criticism of standard accounts of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. In keeping with its standing policy, the Chronicle insisted on printing only three names with the letter when it appeared in the February 7, 1997 issue. However, the letter with all the signatures appeared as a paid advertisement in Notre Dame's daily student newspaper, The Observer, on February 6, 1997.

  • The Blakey report contains the following excerpt from a review of Baxter's dissertation written by the chair of the theology department:

    • "The supreme irony, of course, is that [the candidate] wants an appointment in our institution that is the embodiment of the Americanist tradition. How does [the candidate] hope to be a member of a community which holds as its ideal: God, country, and Notre Dame? ...Finally (and the influence of his major professor is clear here) his vision is one of either/or... while the Catholic tradition is both/and ...He also shows traces of his mentor's habits of pugnaciousness and bombast but in conversation pulls back when challenged."

    This, along with Fr. Malloy's letter explaining his reasons for appointing Baxter, provides some of the background for my own letter to the National Catholic Reporter, which appeared in that publication shortly after it ran its first story on the situation in the December 13, 1996 issue.

ACT THREE: ..... et populi meditati sunt inania?

  • Although my letter to the NCR elicited favorable responses from all over the country, it did not please everyone. In particular, Richard P. McBrien, Crowley-O'Brien-Walter Professor of Theology and Chair of the Faculty Senate, objected strenuously to my reading of the Baxter affair. With Fr. McBrien's permission, I am posting here a brief correspondence between us.
  • Peter Walshe, Professor of Government, didn't like my letter, either, as he told readers of the National Catholic Reporter in no uncertain terms. (The editing is the NCR's.) First, he calls me "ultra-orthodox" and "Opus Dei-connected." I plead guilty on both counts, though I'm a bit puzzled by the distinction between 'orthodox'--which I often use to describe myself--and 'ultra-orthodox'; maybe it has something to do with sex. At any rate, Walshe then proceeds to question what he takes to be my analysis of the situation and claims that Baxter is after all just a neo-conservative. Perhaps he doesn't know about Baxter's federal conviction for an anti-nuclear arms protest or about Baxter's open charge that Catholic colleges and universities have deteriorated into "vocational centers for training in democratic ideology and capitalist theory and practice." In any case, I suggest that you read Pamela Schaeffer's article below and make up your own mind.

  • (For the record, I don't consider myself a neo-conservative, either. Well, at least, most neo-conservatives don't live in predominantly black middle-class neighborhoods. Admittedly, our next-door neighbors are white and male--all eight of them residing in a group home for mentally handicapped adults. My favorite is Jack Spillner, who likes to borrow cigarettes from me and to play football with the kids.)

ACT FOUR: ..... et humiles in prosperis.

  • Well, here it is, a second and splendid piece in the National Catholic Reporter (January 31, 1997 issue) by Pamela Schaeffer, who obviously did her homework on this one and propounded the fundamental political and theological issues about as clearly and fairly as one could hope for. If you're a Christian and an intellectual, ask yourself after you've finished reading this piece: "Wouldn't it be intellectually (not to mention spiritually and morally) stimulating to have this young priest-scholar around to talk with, to challenge, to be challenged by?" In other words, besides containing such evidence, doesn't the article itself stand as evidence refuting the implication that the appointment "lowered the academic qualifications" of the Notre Dame faculty?

ACT FIVE: Regnum eius regnum sempiternum est.

  • Two new pieces relevant to the Baxter affair appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 1997 issue of the Houston Catholic Worker. The first is a, shall we say, enthusiastic editorial by Mark Zwick, who may not understand all the intricacies of academic bureaucracies, but understands perfectly well what it is to pour oneself out in sacrificial love of God and neighbor, especially that neighbor whose needs are most apparent. The second is the testimony of Michael Hennessey, a sophomore at Notre Dame, who took Theology 268: A Faith to Die For in the Fall Semester and saw right through Fr. Baxter ........ to Dorothy Day, to Francis of Assisi ........ and (whether or not he realizes it yet) to Christ crucified.

EPILOGUE: Adversarius tamquam leo rugiens circuit quaerens quem devoret.

  • Unbelievably, on April 8, 1997 the venerable South Bend Tribune ran an article on the Baxter affair that was basically a rewrite of the original December piece in the National Catholic Reporter. It was as if, eerily, nothing had happened in the meantime, thus suggesting that the Baxter affair may be an eternal-return closed loop from which there is no escape. (Pretty creepy, eh?) On the other hand, since truth prevailed the first time around, we shouldn't give in to weariness, should we? (You have to hand it to the main protagonist for the other side, though; he's a wily one with lots of tricks up his sleeve, and is tireless in promoting his misrepresentations.)
  • Peter Walshe is an honorable man with a real thirst for justice. (I myself have long admired him, despite disagreeing with him rather profoundly on some important issues.) In a column published in the April 1997 issue of Common Sense, Walshe, apparently not having succeeded the first time around, is still looking for a principled reason to oppose Michael Baxter--a reason, that is, other than mere dislike of the people supporting Baxter. You can judge for yourself whether this second effort fares any better than the first; Mark Zwick for one doesn't think so. (If the Baxter affair really is an eternal-return closed loop, we can look forward to an infinite number of similar essays from Walshe. Maybe in one of them, Walshe will finally ask what, besides a deeply rooted animosity toward Pope John Paul II, he shares in common with those he has allied himself with.)

Related material:

  • Scott Moore, "The End of Convenient Stereotypes:  How the First Things and Baxter Controversies Inaugurate Extraordinary Politics," Pro Ecclesia VII:1 (Winter 1998): 17-47

  • Father Neuhaus replies to Scott Moore (First Things, June-July 1998)

  • Baxter Replies to Neuhaus and Aufill (First Things, August-September 1997)

  • Michael Baxter and the Theological Salad Bar, by Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (First Things, May 1997)

  • Is America all too much with us?: Some of the Church’s leading scholars respond to Michael Baxter's 

  • charge that Catholics are too cozy with the culture, by William Bole (Our Sunday Visitor, May 4, 1997)