Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Professor Kaveny goes on the attack

Over at the liberal Catholic Commonweal blog, Cathleen Kaveny, who once labeled me and her then-Notre Dame Law School colleague Gerard Bradley “Rambo Cathlolics,” goes after me again in a post under the charmingly intolerant title “A Catholic Mullah, Now?”

My old friend is unhappy with a little thought experiment I proposed here at Mirror of Justice and at First Things.  As she mischaracterizes it, I defended the right of a “hypothetical Muslim school to fire a hypothetical Muslim teacher who is caught drinking, carousing, and publicly flouting Muslim norms, both on campus and off.”  In my example, the “teacher” was not a teacher but an administrator, and he wasn’t “caught” doing anything because he didn’t try to hide anything he did—like drinking and buying an interest in a strip club.  But lay that all aside; it’s not important.

The important thing is that Professor Kaveny wants to give me a lecture.  Then she’s got a proposal for me. Before launching into her lecture, however, she can’t resist a bit of condescending sarcasm: “God bless, Robbie [sic]. The Muslim community in the United States must be so grateful for his attention and advice.”

But let’s lay the insult aside for now, too, and examine the lecture:

“Within the Catholic framework, the decision whether or not to fire a particular teacher is itself a decision subject to moral analysis. It conveys a normative message to the students. It shapes the community and it expresses the community's values. Its moral message is multifaceted; it is not reducible to a simple Facebook "like" or "not like" of the teacher's underlying offence, understood as an abstract moral proposition.”

I suppose this would be illuminating were it not for the fact that everyone already knows: (1) that the decision whether or not to fire a particular teacher is itself a decision subject to moral analysis; (2) that it conveys a normative message to the students; (3) that it shapes the community and expresses its values; (4) that its moral message is multifaceted; and (5) that it is not reducible to a simple Facebook “like” or “not like.”

But please don’t tell Professor Kaveny.  For some reason it’s important to her to think that the world—or at least the “Catholic mullahs”—needs her instruction on these points. 

Now let’s move on to her proposal.  It has four parts. Let’s take them one by one.

1.  “Let’s let the Muslim community take care of their own internal decision-making on these matters. Let's focus on the community to which we actually claim to belong—the Catholic community.”

Of course, the point of my little thought experiment was not to interfere in the internal decision-making of the Muslim community. The issue it explores faces every tradition of faith. I was offering a hypothetical case, as law professors and philosophers are wont to do, to identify and test principles. Kaveny, who is both a law professor and a theologian, knows that. But, for some reason, she’s pretending not to know. Let’s return the favor, and pretend that we don’t know she’s pretending.  

2. “Let’s agree that there’s a legal right for religious schools, including Catholic schools, to include morals clauses in their teachers’ contracts.”

Happy to oblige.

3. “Let’s agree that there are some instances where it is appropriate for a Catholic school to fire a teacher for morally inappropriate behavior.  I gave the example of the two married teachers caught canoodling in the broom closet. But the specifics matter. We can't decide every case according to the most extreme examples of misbehavior. We need to consider each case on its own terms. (And more broadly, in my view, "misbehavior" cannot be interpreted only or primarily as sexual misbehavior.)”

Yes, the specifics matter. We can’t decide every case according to the most extreme examples. No question about that.  As to the sentence in parentheses, evidently Professor Kaveny wants us to believe that there is someone somewhere who thinks that “misbehavior” can be interpreted only or primarily as sexual misbehavior.  It’s as if people don’t know about fraud, embezzlement, intimidation, alcohol and drug abuse, calumny, partiality, and even worse things that have nothing to do with sex for which people—including Catholic school teachers and administrators—have been fired.  But yet again, please don’t let on to Professor Kaveny that people know about these things. It evidently gives her pleasure to think she has instructed us.

4. “Let’s talk about the Montana case–a non-hypothetical case facing our community. Did the school act in accordance with the cardinal virtue of prudence, steadied by justice, and informed and elevated by Christian charity, in firing the pregnant, unmarried school teacher? Did it act in a pro-life manner? Did it teach Gospel values? Robbie, what sayeth thou about this particular case?”

So finally we discover what this is all about!  Cathleen Kaveny somehow got it into her head that my thought experiment was directed at the case of a teacher in a parochial school in Butte who conceived a child outside of marriage. And she thinks I devised the experiment to defend a decision to fire the teacher. So she tauntingly fires at me what she clearly regards as some rather pointed questions, imagining that they will reveal my “mullah” like harshness and rigidity.

But there's a problem.

Evidently, Professor Kaveny was not aware that I posted my thought experiment before I had heard about the case of the Butte, Montana teacher. It was not directed at that case at all. When, later, a Facebook friend provided some of its details and asked for my opinion, here is what I said:

“If [the teacher] were repentant, then I, as her fellow sinner, would support keeping her on. I’d even host the baby shower. The example being set for the school children in that case would be one of repentance and forgiveness—loving the sinner, even while rejecting the sin. Of course, if her intention is to flout the Church’s teachings, then it’s a different story. That’s what is going on when a teacher, say, moves in with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or enters into a civil marriage with a person of his or her own sex—or goes into the strip club business.”

So it turns out that the “Catholic mullah” Kaveny had targeted had in fact proposed what might be described as “act[ing] in accordance with the cardinal virtue of prudence, steadied by justice, and informed and elevated by Christian charity.” Indeed, the “mullah” responded to the teacher’s predicament “in a pro-life manner” and in a way that would “teach Gospel values”—down to hosting the baby shower.

But yet again, please don’t let on that you know.  Let’s not disturb her sense of moral superiority to those whom she derides as Catholic “mullahs”—and “Rambos.”

And while we’re at it let’s not point out that it is unfair and prejudicial to use the word “mullah” to suggest harshness and rigidity, just as it would be unfair and prejudicial to use the words “father” or “priest” to suggest a tendency to pedophilia or ephebophilia. We wouldn’t want our friends at Commonweal to think they are being illiberal—that they are falling short of the demands of prudence, steadied by justice, and informed and elevated by Christian charity—when they fail to treat the religious faith of Muslims with the respect with which we would expect others to treat our Catholic faith.


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