III. Academic Freedom

This conception of the intellectual life, which is the orthodox Catholic position, seems contrary to the prevailing view of modern society and of those Catholics who are becoming increasingly secularized in their thoughts and their actions. The prevailing view holds as a principle that the uncritical acceptance of religious doctrine not only inhibits, but even destroys the life of intelligence. The statement of this principle takes many forms, but they are finally reducible to the single contention that the believing Christian, since he refuses to submit his belief to rational examination and hence to the possibility of rejecting it, has traded the freedom of his mind for the blind security of unquestioned authority. The consequence is that Christian schools, in so far as they are subject to Christian Doctrine, are thought to be less free, and the education they offer is thought to be necessarily inferior. It is well, therefore, since this is the root objection, to consider it in some detail.

Since the Christian faith involves undoubting belief in certain assertions for which there is no natural evidence, but which are nevertheless taken as the ruling principles of thought and action, the intellectual life of a Christian is generally assumed to be less free. This is because intellectual freedom is customarily defined by the mentality of free inquiry, the mentality which sees itself as not enslaved to any fixed conception but free to subject every doctrine to critical examination and possible rejection. Academic freedom is supposed to be the protection and promotion of this intellectual freedom by institutions of learning. Accordingly, schools whose academic policies are based on religious doctrine limit academic freedom and thereby depress the intellectual life of the scholarly community. Such a view, for example, has been expressed by the American Association of University Professors:

Freedom of conscience in teaching and research is essential
to maintain academic integrity and fulfill the basic
purposes of higher education; consequently, any
restriction on academic freedom raises grave issues of
professional concern.
(Statement on Academic Freedom in Church-Related
Colleges and Universities; A.A.U.P. Bulletin, Winter, 67)

It is clear that they hold religious doctrine to be a restriction on academic freedom, for later in the same statement, the conditions upon which a religious school insists when it appoints a teacher are described as “institutional limitations on his academic freedom.”

Now inasmuch as this conception of intellectual and academic freedom is based on the principle of free inquiry — i.e. the position that every doctrine is subject to critical examination and possible rejection — it is suitable (and hardly unfair) to examine critically the general principle itself. If it claims to be a dogma, the only dogma immune to criticism, by what right does it claim its exemption from the general principle? Or, on the other hand, if it too is open to question, by what principle are we to justify our examination of it? Not by the principle of free inquiry, for it is presently under judgment and therefore in suspense.

To proceed further, free inquiry is usually justified by its effect in the pursuit of truth. More truths will be discovered, and more surely held, it is said, if all beliefs are subject to question and possible reversal. But such an assertion, if it is not a “dogma,” must be grounded on the actual examination of the issues upon which men have disagreed, a judgment where the truth lies in each case, and then a determination of whether and how much the principle of free inquiry was an advantage. It would then follow that the resolution of those issues — the test cases of intellectual progress — would be immune to criticism under the principle of free inquiry, since the value of the principle is predicated on their resolution.

A further difficulty is that the principle of free inquiry would be nullified by the achievement of its stated purpose. As long as a man is ignorant, it is consistent with his condition to remain open to both the affirmative and negative answers to the issue in question. But when and if he comes to know (which is the purpose of his investigation) the matter ceases to be doubtful to him, and his mind closes to the possibility that the opposite might be true. He is no longer free to doubt, except willfully. Thus by the assumed definition ignorance makes free, while knowledge enslaves. A reply to this objection might assume that knowledge is simply unattainable, inasmuch as all things are in all respects always changing, or inasmuch as our minds, not being omniscient, cannot reach the certain truth about anything. But this, as before, would base the principle of free inquiry on particular and controversial philosophical theories, which as a consequence would be immune to criticism under the principle.

Also, every criticism, unless it be simply an expression of the will to criticize, must finally be based on premises not subject to criticism. For if the premises of some criticism are themselves to be criticized, and the premises of this second criticism are in turn to be criticized, and so on, then either the process must rest in premises not subject to criticism, or all criticism is a game which begins anywhere and ends nowhere, advancing not a step towards the truth. Not even logical consistency can be established, for presumably the principles of logic are subject to criticism as is everything else.

Since academic freedom is thought to derive from and be justified by the principle of free inquiry, and since in turn considerations of academic tenure are supposed to be governed by the principles of academic freedom, the college professor comes to be judged by standards which have no relation to the purposes of his life as a scholar and a teacher. For it is usually maintained that the academic standing of a scholar should be determined by his “competence,” while at the same time academic freedom requires that competence be judged in abstraction from what is true and what is false in the area of his competence. But since knowledge of the truth is the end of all study and teaching, to judge a scholar in this way is comparable to judging a doctor while abstracting from all consideration of health and disease, or to judging a cook without tasting what he cooks.

As a result, when scholars must determine the professional standing of one of their colleagues, they must find some definition of competence which prescinds from the very purpose of competence; thus, they are compelled to fall back upon “accepted standards” of competence, standards which are either based on what is altogether secondary, or so vaguely and generally described as to be nearly useless as directives, or which even carry in disguise definite views of the true and the false in the various disciplines. But what is worse, the standards are thought to be standards precisely insofar as they are accepted; in other words, the accepted rather than the true is the standard not only in fact (because of human fallibility) but also by intent. Thus the consistent application of academic freedom becomes by definition the very tyranny which it is supposed to prevent.

Indeed, it would seem that the government of any institution by rules which prescind (or pretend to prescind) from all differences of belief, or which negate in principle the possibility of governing by the truth, must of necessity be tyrannical. For concrete and particular decisions must be made, about the curriculum, student life, hiring and firing, promotion and so forth, but cannot be directed by rules which by their abstract and negative character in effect deny that there are any rules. Thus, no individual decision can be really justified or condemned out of principle, leaving an infinite latitude in practice to the men who actually make the decisions, who thus rule by their own absolute discretion.

A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education

Click here for a full, printable version (PDF).

“I am most grateful for Thomas Aquinas College’s resolute fidelity to the Church and her teachings. The young people whom you serve certainly are being formed to think with the Church and to defend the Faith with courage and charity.”

– The Most Rev. William E. Lori

Archbishop of Baltimore

Chair of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty