This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 15, 2004

Identity, academic freedom go head-to-head at Catholic U.


When the bishops gathered behind closed doors in June, the central question they faced in developing a statement on “Catholics in Political Life” was whether pro-choice Catholic politicians like John Kerry should be welcomed at the Communion table.

The Kerry Communion flap largely faded when the bishops decided that the decision to deny Communion rests with each bishop individually. At the time, however, the dispute overshadowed two lines in that more than 1,000- word statement declaring that Catholic institutions “should not honor” [emphasis in original] or give “awards … or platforms” suggesting support for individuals “who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Those lines were not an afterthought.

With the academic year now in full swing, the question of honors and platforms for politicians and celebrities who support abortion rights has become prominent at Catholic universities and colleges, highlighting age-old tensions over academic freedom and the Catholic nature of institutions of higher learning.

The immediate focal point is The Catholic University of America, where 52 faculty members charged last week that restrictions on who is welcome to speak at a university-sponsored event “limit the range of views available on campus [and] undermine both our educational mission and the university’s reputation.” Some of the university’s 2,800 undergraduate students were similarly energized, with dozens joining in an Oct. 6 sit-in outside the school’s university center. Nearly 700 members of the university community signed a “petition for free speech,” declaring that “our rights to the free flow of information and knowledge [are] being challenged in our university.”

The unlikely cause of the current flap is Stanley Tucci, an award-winning actor, writer and director. Among the actor’s many credits, Tucci cowrote, co-directed and starred in “Big Night,” a highly praised 1996 film set in an Italian restaurant.

As part of a weeklong citywide Italian Cultural Institute-sponsored film festival, the university’s Media Studies Department planned to invite Tucci to a program where he would discuss his work. Word of the pending invitation reached Vincentian Fr. David O’Connell, the university’s president, on Sept. 14.

“I received word today that the Media Studies program is contemplating inviting actor/director Stanley Tucci to campus for some program,” O’Connell said in an e-mail to the school’s provost and dean. “Tucci is well-known for his public support of the pro-choice/pro-abortion, pro-Planned Parenthood position. You can see this if you Google his name and pro-choice. I am sorry but we cannot have him, plain and simple. You’re going to have to bite the bullet on this one.”

And so they did. Tucci was not invited. But the story was just beginning.

On Sept. 16 The Washington Post ran a story describing the Tucci non-invitation, further riling a campus already buzzing with rumors about the event and O’Connell’s role in dissuading the Media Studies Department from inviting Tucci.

It is exactly the type of reaction O’Connell had hoped to avoid earlier in the summer when he explained to key campus constituencies his interpretation of the bishops’ statement related to “platforms” and “honors.”

On July 26 O’Connell wrote to the campus’ College Republicans and College Democrats. The directive related to “platforms,” he told them, “is clearly intended to describe any appearance, speaking engagement, rally and so forth of any person who acts contrary to fundamental Catholic moral principles and teachings.” He continued, “Why do I bring this to your attention? Because I do not want the university or you to be embarrassed by extending an invitation, in an election year, to anyone to whom this new policy applies. Many times, over the past seven years, the university has been put in the awkward position of having to rescind or cancel such an invitation extended by members of the university community, especially students. Such actions invariably draw negative attention to the university and create much discomfort within the community here.”

Writing in his online column on the university Web site in August, O’Connell reiterated the message. “I hope and pray that the university will not be placed in a position, during this election year especially, in which I would have to rescind invitations extended to any advocates of abortion.”

He followed that with an Aug. 26 note to the school’s administrative council and academic deans, in which he enclosed the bishops’ statement. “I send this to you now, before the semester begins, so that you know I cannot approve pro-abortion/pro-choice speakers on campus. This is not part of any vast right-wing conspiracy or an assault on academic freedom. It is simply what we, as a Catholic institution, are obliged to follow as an expression of our Catholic identity and mission.”

On the day the Post first reported on the flap, O’Connell met with the university’s academic deans and provost. He repeated his concerns about associating the university with pro-choice figures. The group agreed, however, that no “absolute prohibition” was in-place and “that we needed to review each invitation on its merits and on a prudential case-by-case basis.”

Still, the issue didn’t die.

Approximately 70 professors attended a Sept. 23 meeting of the Faculty Assembly, where opposition to the school’s speaker policy was the main topic of discussion. That was followed by a statement from members of the Arts and Science faculty charging that “since few persons in public life agree wholly with Catholic position on abortion, the death penalty, and justifiable grounds for waging war, consistent application of the newly issued directives must finally be unsustainable.”

Said the statement: “Academic freedom is among the most cherished ideals of the American academic community in which The Catholic University of America claims membership.” Further, said the faculty members, “license to speak in a university setting derives from and is contained within … areas of competence, not from adherence to a set of external norms.”

It is here that divisions between O’Connell and the vocal faculty members become most evident. Fundamental moral principals enunciated by the church, he told NCR, are not “external” to the university, but an essential element of its identity and mission. Abortion, he said, is different because the church teaches that it is intrinsically evil and does not allow for the nuance that exists on other issues such as the death penalty.

“I can’t fathom why some people don’t understand that,” said O’Connell.

Further, said O’Connell, the university is a unique institution. “This is the only university established by the pope, founded by the bishops, sponsored by the bishops and governed by a segment of the bishops. It’s the only one like that in the United States.” One result of that relationship, said O’Connell, is that statements from the bishops’ conference related to platforms for pro-choice speakers “inform university policy and not the other way around.”

O’Connell draws a distinction between what is taught in the classroom and university-wide events that associate the school with objectionable speakers. Recently, he recalled, Democratic National Party chairman Terry McAuliffe -- an abortion rights Catholic -- addressed a politics class. The topic was political fundraising. O’Connell expressed no objection to McAuliffe’s presence as long as it was confined to the classroom, he said. “In my seven years as president, I have never interfered with anyone’s classroom activity,” said O’Connell.

And O’Connell has his supporters among the faculty. “I don’t think the [Tucci] decision is a problem at all,” said Sophia Aguirre, an associate professor of economics. “This is not an issue of freedom of speech, but of acting in accordance with the mission of the university,” said Aguirre.

That’s not good enough, however, for some longtime faculty members. “The faculty has to be resolute in this,” said psychology professor James E. Youniss.

As a young faculty member in the 1960s, Youniss said that he and others struggled to develop an atmosphere of academic freedom at the university. He pointed to the university’s “Statement of Aims,” developed during that era, which states that the university welcomes an atmosphere where “freedom is fostered and where the only constraint on truth is truth itself.”

But Youniss acknowledged limits. “These issues are reconcilable,” said Youniss. “We understand the nature of the institution and we don’t expect a Catholic university to be a venue for pro-choice or pro-abortion rallies.” But at the same time, said Youniss, “the role of a university is to inquire. We ask questions -- we are here to make intellectual waves -- but I don’t think we should be afraid of other ideas. We have our own scholars and we can argue with the best of them.”

For the immediate future, however, it appears that the most heated arguments at The Catholic University of America will be largely intramural.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

Speaker policies balance risk, dialogue

In their statement protesting speaker policies at The Catholic University of America, 52 members of the faculty said, “Our peer Catholic institutions have not interpreted the recent bishops’ statement as our university administration has done.”

The point seems well taken.

On Oct. 6, for example, gay-marriage advocate and pro-choice Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a featured speaker at Jesuit-run Fordham University. His topic: “Friendship: The Forgotten Relationship.”

“Fordham believes that it is important to provide our students with opportunities to examine and wrestle with the major issues of the day,” wrote Elizabeth Schmalz, the university’s assistant vice president for public affairs. “In inviting Mr. Sullivan to speak, the university is not endorsing his views, but offering students a chance to reflect on a contemporary issue -- and to do so within a faith-supported context.”

As a general rule, Schmalz said in an e-mail, “we hope to steer away from speakers who will attack and undermine the church’s teaching. Sometimes, however, speakers whom we invite to campus will wander into controversial areas. We accept the risks associated with inviting speakers to campus, however, since education is not always a neat enterprise.”

That policy -- avoiding speakers who directly undermine church teaching -- is widespread among Catholic colleges and universities, said Monica Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Abortion is a key test.

“As a general principle, the schools are very careful not to have pro-abortion speeches,” said Hellwig, though a pro-choice speaker who is addressing a topic unrelated to abortion would generally be welcome. Further, said Hellwig, the schools “are imposing a restraint on themselves not to give awards to people who are notoriously pro-choice.” Yet, said Hellwig, as a practical matter “it is very difficult to guarantee that any speaker will not talk about some topic that you object to.”

Meanwhile, students at the Marianist-run University of Dayton were slated to hear Oct. 12 from Brian McNaught, termed the “godfather of gay sensitivity training” by The New York Times. “We have students here on campus who choose different lifestyles so we need to be open, and listen to, and make available for every student” information that could be helpful to them “personally and professionally,” said Lou Etta Talbott, the director of Student Involvement and Leadership at Dayton.

Student groups at Dayton are required to get university approval before inviting speakers likely to contradict “the university’s educational mission, particularly topics related to its religious tradition, or which challenge the dignity or worth of the human person.” Meanwhile, since 2001, the university’s distinguished speakers series has included a wide range of well-known people, including addresses by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, television talk show host Phil Donahue, human rights activist Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, and ACLU president Nadine Strossen.

The June bishops’ statement has not figured into the university planning, said Talbott, though “we don’t even go there” when it comes to inviting speakers perceived as “blatantly out there” on issues of key concern to the church, such as abortion.

Fordham has noted the bishops’ directive.

“As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we listen carefully to what the bishops say, and try to fulfill our mission as an institution where the privileged dialogue between religion and culture can be carried out for the benefit of our students and the wider community we serve,” said Schmalz.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: