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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Archbishop calls foul on Catholic basketball coach


St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has called Catholic presidential candidates on the carpet for supporting abortion rights, now wants a Catholic university to discipline its basketball coach for making pro-abortion statements.

Rick Majerus, coach of the St. Louis University Billikens, has a high profile in college basketball. After taking the University of Utah to 10 National Collegiate Athletics Association tournaments, he was lured to Missouri by Jesuit-run St. Louis University. His hiring last April electrified students and alumni. But his popularity and high profile have drawn him into public conflict with the orthodoxy-enforcing St. Louis archbishop.

Majerus attended a rally for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign Jan. 19. At the rally, he gave a television interview in which he said that he is a pro-choice Catholic and supports stem-cell research.

Three days later, Burke was in Washington for the annual Right to Life March. Speaking there to reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the archbishop called on St. Louis University to discipline Majerus.

“I’m concerned that a leader at a Catholic university made these comments. It can lead Catholics astray,” Burke told the newspaper. “As a Catholic, you just cannot hold these beliefs.”

Responding to Burke’s comments, Majerus told the Post-Dispatch he “respectfully” disagreed.

“I do not speak for the university or the Catholic church. These are my personal views. And I’m not letting him change my mind,” the coach said.

What if any action the university will take is not known. University officials have remained mum on the subject.

The autonomy of St. Louis University, sponsored by the Jesuits and governed by a board of trustees, has been well established over the past decade, including judges’ seals of approval.

In 2006, St. Louis University went to court to defend its eligibility to apply for about $8 million in tax increment financing for a sports arena it wanted to build. The court ruled that despite the university’s Jesuit origins, it is not a religious institution and isn’t prohibited by the state constitution from accepting public development funding.

The Missouri Court of Appeals decision cited the fact that the university has an independent, largely lay board of trustees. Only nine of 42 members are Jesuits. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in April 2007.

In 1997, Burke’s predecessor Justin Rigali, now the cardinal in Philadelphia, battled the school over the sale of its teaching hospital. Rigali, who opposed the sale to Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a for-profit hospital group, demanded the university board seek church approval before moving on the sale. The board objected, saying that though the school was culturally tied to the Catholic church, it was independent of formal church structures and did not need such approval.

Rigali, with backing from a good number of American prelates, pursued the case to the Vatican, but the university board, guided by its president, Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Biondi, went ahead with the deal.

Months later, the Vatican announced that it approved of the property transfer. Rigali reluctantly accepted the Vatican ruling.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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