Purge at Wadhams Hall

The Case of John Knasas is symptomatic of the real threat to academic freedom (and religious orthodoxy) in our seminaries and colleges.

It is often said that academic freedom in American colleges, universities and seminaries is threatened if a bishop has the right to judge whether those who claim to be teaching Catholic doctrine are indeed doing so. The putative objects of this threat, needless to say, are thought to be the innovative theologians, the dissenters, in short, liberals. Most of us will have difficulty imagining any bishop swooping precipitously down on any institution within his jurisdiction, but that the threat is to the dissenter is risible. The case of Dr. John F. X. Knasas makes it abundantly clear that if there is an endangered species on the faculties of our Catholic institutions of higher learning it is the small band of men and women who are loyal to Catholic doctrine and to the Pope.

Wadhams Hall College is the seminary of the Diocese of Ogdensburg New York. Its president bears the somewhat Dickensian name of Leeward Poissant. The bishop of Ogdensburg is the Most Reverend Stanislaus J. Brzana, S. T. D. John Knasas teaches philosophy at Wadhams Hall. He does now but he will not next year. His contract is not being renewed. Knasas is a Thomist. Knasas is critical of Charles Curran. Knasas takes the documents of Vatican II to mean what they say. Knasas is devoted to the Pope. John Knasas will not be teaching at Wadhams Hall next year.

The irony is that he might have left to accept the offer of a job which represents a considerable advance on the professional scale. He had been offered a contract to teach in the Center for Thomistic Studies, a graduate program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. John and his wife were inclined to accept and were about to when something happened.

What happened was that Bishop John Marshall paid a visit to Wadhams Hall and spoke with such eloquence of the importance of seminary teaching that John and his wife reconsidered their decision to leave. True, they would enjoy a considerably higher income in Texas; true, too, the opportunity to teach graduate students is one to which a scholar like Knasas cannot be indifferent. But Bishop Marshall’s homily had struck a generous and responsive chord and John and his wife informed the Center for Thomistic Studies that they would not be accepting the offer to come there.

A few weeks after this, Father Leeward Poissant informed John that his contract would not be renewed. John had been given no prior indication that such a decision might be made. It came completely out of the blue. In the aftermath of an edifying decision to forego professional advancement in the interests of the Church, it was doubly crushing. Needless to say, John wanted to know why. He had a talk with Father Leeward Poissant who subsequently produced a memorandum purporting to summarize that meeting. The document has ominous overtones of Soviet psychiatry.

The root of the problem appears to be a deep and rapidly growing attitudinal rift between yourself and many other members of the Wadhams Hall community. Despite your considerable talents, your spirit of dedication, and your professional accomplishments, you are clearly projecting a sense of alienation from your co-workers and from many of your students. This alienation is manifested in a sense of frustration, unhappiness, and tension which have resulted in your coming across in recent years as increasingly lonely, hostile, and aggressive in many contexts. This same alienation gives a new dimension to problems which might otherwise simply be treated as behavioral [teaching methods, personal interactions, participation in community events, etc.]. You do not appear to be fully conscious of the inner anger and dissatisfaction which your behavior suggests to those around you.

Now quite apart from the fact that Father Leeward is practicing psychiatry without a licence, the fact that this Orwellian jargon is taken to be straightforward English prose tells us a good deal about the atmosphere at Wadhams Hall. Apparently a lot of time is spent analysing the psyches of the staff. What about Knasas’s teaching?

Your lectures, notes, and examinations are often perceived as forms of indoctrination. Other opinions are given attention only to show their shortcomings rather than to show students what they can take from them to advantage. The type of theology you teach under the aspect of integration of philosophy and theology is similarly narrow and not in accord with the Documents of Vatican II considered as a whole.

One’s interest quickens at this point in the expectation that something substantive is going to be said. Nothing substantive follows. One would appreciate some gloss on this novel concept of “narrowness.” The memorandum continues in the same pop-psychology vein, reaching its nadir in the following:

I see this situation as analogous to that of a brilliant young executive whose conscious or unconscious stance on many issues is out of line with that of his co-workers and employer. He surely has a fine future ahead of him, but probably not within such a conflictual situation. I will do everything in my power to help you find a new position commensurate with your talents …

One who knows Knasas does not worry about his future. It is the future of seminaries like Wadhams Hall that is in doubt. Father Leeward Poissant appears to regard teaching and learning as some kind of therapy whereby one overcomes conflicts. Truth and falsity are absent from his mental landscape. The point of teaching is to show that truth is everywhere and nowhere.

The simple fact of the matter is that Leeward Poissant’s memorandum is a transparent effort to obscure with psychological jargon the fact that he finds it uncomfortable to have on his staff a philosopher who takes his task seriously, a Catholic who takes his faith to be a serious intellectual commitment and disturbs those of his colleagues who, like Father Leeward, regard fidelity to Church doctrine as a species of narrowness. Knasas discussed McBrien and Kung in his class and was critical of many of their views. In a written piece he questioned Charles Curran’s appeal to several historical instances as justifications or precedents of Curran’s own dissent. It is here the meaning of “narrowness” may be found. One who calls into question the writings of dissident, liberal or, in the case of Kung, discredited, Catholic theologians, is not answered. Rather he is said to have a psychological problem. The charge of indoctrination is raised. But it is quite clear who is really engaged in indoctrination. How embarrassed Fathers McBrien and Curran must be to have such champions as Leeward Poissant.

John Knasas is a familiar figure to Catholic philosophers in this country and Canada. He attends our meetings, he publishes in our journals, he is a participant in our common work. No one who knows him could fail to be outraged by the injustice that has been done him in the decision that was made, and most particularly in this Big Brother style memorandum of Father Leeward Poissant. I was outraged. I wrote to the bishop.

In my letter I said some of the things I have said here about Leeward Poissant’s memorandum. I suggested that this case could well be the most important one Bishop Brzana might face as ordinary of Ogdensburg. I continue to think that. What can be more important to a bishop than his seminary, the seedbed from which his future priests must come? Could any bishop sleep at night after reading such a memorandum as Leeward Poissant’s? Would not any prelate wonder about a subordinate who wrote like that? Style is the man, and on the basis of his memorandum, Leeward Poissant is a parody of a president. Bishop Brzana’s letter, I regret to say, could have been written by a machine.

“I am sorry,” he wrote, “about the difficult decision which had to be made in his case. The decision was made by the President, Father Leeward Poissant, for important reasons and not because of John’s fidelity to the teachings of the Church.” Presumably those “important” reasons are the ones contained in Leeward Poissant’s memorandum. The motto on Bishop Brzana’s coat of arms is beautiful. Deus caritas est. Indeed. But he is also justice.

The Center for Thomistic Studies, happy to have a second chance, renewed their offer, and John Knasas accepted and signed a contract to teach in Houston. It is a clear advancement professionally for John. The losers are Wadhams Hall and the poor seminarians there who will presumably be protected in the future from the kind of “narrowness” Knasas represents. And we will all be losers when men of John Knasas’s caliber are no longer to be found on the facilities of the country’s seminaries.

Let us indeed worry about academic freedom, the right of appeal and all the rest. But let’s discontinue the fiction that it is the radical and dissenter who is in jeopardy. The purge at Wadhams Hall lends force to the thought that the fascist is a liberal come to power.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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