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Catholic Colleges and the P.C. Freak-Out

Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, IN - MAY 17: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (C) is presented an honorary law degree from the University of Notre Dame by Richard Notebaert (R), the Chair, Board of Trustees and Provost Dr. Thomas Burish (L) during 164th commencement ceremonies of the University of Notre Dame in the Joyce Center on May 17, 2009 in South Bend, Indiana. Activists from around the country have gathered in South Bend to protest the university's decision to invite President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights, to deliver the commencement address today and to award him an honorary degree. (Photo by Jeff Haynes- Pool/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Dr. Thomas Burish;Richard Notebaert;Barack Obama

Tom Hoopes - published on 04/18/16

Campus cry-bullies and Catholic commencement critics

The 2015-2016 school year will be remembered as the year sensitivity on college campuses reached a crisis stage, leading to the resignation of a university president and a rebuke to the “cry-bullies” from the president of the United States.

But are Catholic universities — those that promote their Catholic identity — any better?

The evidence of secular campus insanity just doesn’t stop pouring in. This spring

  • At the University of Pennsylvania, a scheduled talk by the director of the CIA was shut down by students who opposed it.
  • Emory University banned sidewalk chalk because students were offended by Trump messages. Even the most vigorous defense of the university’s action fails to convince.
  • At Rutgers, students recently scheduled a forum to help talk through the pain of experiencing a heavily protested conservative editor’s visit to campus.

As an employee of a Catholic institution of education, I am on record here of suggesting Catholic colleges use the campus crisis as a recruiting tool. But now, at the end of this momentous academic year, comes a little push-back. Aren’t Catholics just as bad when we make a fuss over commencement and other addresses? Consider:

  • At Loyola Marymount, Bill Clinton — whose presidential veto kept partial-birth abortion legal — will be the commencement speaker. The Cardinal Newman Society objects.
  • The Archdiocese of Washington will celebrate Mass in response to a Georgetown student-group’s decision to host Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards on campus.
  • Now, Notre Dame is giving a Laetare medal to abortion supporter Joe Biden (along with pro-life Republican John Boehner) and the local bishop is objecting.

So … are Catholics speaking out of both sides of our mouth here? Are we saying to secular universities, “Free speech for thee but not for me?”

I hope not.

When Princeton’s Robbie George visited Benedictine College, he described three approaches to Catholic higher education: you can retreat from the Church and simply engage the world, retreat from the world and simply engage with Catholics or attempt to engage the world with the teachings of the Church.

He said the third kind was what is most needed today — and identified Benedictine College as one place that takes that mission seriously.

We do try.  As one of our philosophers puts it: “I’d like our students to learn to evaluate their lives; to think a little more about things they have always taken for granted, or things that they have never questioned before. … Like St. Paul says: ‘Test all things, hold fast to what is good.’ That’s what I want them to do with the world of ideas.”

I think the right distinction to be made here is between two kinds of engagements on a college campus. One is an academic discussion; the other is something else.

The U.S. Bishops’ 2004 “Catholics in Political Life” put it this way: “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms that would suggest support for their actions.”

There is a vast difference, for instance, between having Bill Clinton speak in a classroom or at a forum on modern politics and making him the guy who sums up your graduates’ education for them and sends them on their way.

I spoke about the question of ideological opponents on Catholic campuses with Msgr. Stuart Swetland, President of Donnelly College. He was director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic  Higher Education  and the Vice President for Catholic Identity and Mission at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., when the school adopted a new speaker’s policy.

“We worked painstakingly at the time to get a speakers policy … that would allow and encourage diverse views to be presented as long as the Catholic worldview was presented in a holistic way,” he said.

As soon as the new policy was written, it was tested when a department brought in a pro-gay marriage speaker. “We brought in Helen Alvare to speak at the same event. Both speakers had ample time to present their arguments and a respectful and thoughtful discussion ensued ,”  he said. “By the end of the evening the pro-gay marriage professor said, ‘I seldom get treated this well!’”

Benedictine College Matthew Ramage tries to follow the same approach, and cites the example of his personal hero, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — Pope Benedict XVI.

As a professor, Ratzinger’s mentor was professor of fundamental theology Gottlieb Söhngen, a “radical and critical questioner” expelled by the Nazis. For Söhngen’s fearless faith “no subject was untouchable, nothing taboo, and at the same time he was a man deeply committed to his Catholic faith,” writes historian Brennan Pursell.

You can hear echoes of Söhngen’s approach in Benedict’s address to American Catholic university presidents in 2008. “You are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of the evidence leads you,” he said. And you can hear echoes of Söhngen rock-solid adherence to the magisterium when he added, “It is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

At Catholic school, the faith of the Church should fearlessly face questions while never stop being identifiable as the faith of the Church. The truth can handle it.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College.

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