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McCormick disinvited in New Orleans

NCR Staff

University of Notre Dame alumni in New Orleans, warned by an archbishop that some people might be offended if Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McCormick spoke in the archdiocese, canceled a lecture they had scheduled for mid-January.

McCormick, who had already purchased his airline ticket to travel to New Orleans for the Jan. 16 lecture, was informed Dec. 20 by Eric Tanzberger, president of the Notre Dame Club that its invitation was being withdrawn.

Tanzberger reportedly told McCormick, a Jesuit, that he was simply abiding by the wishes of Archbishop Francis Schulte, who had informed alumni that "some persons might find objections" to McCormick's visit.

McCormick writes regularly on moral and ethical issues, particularly in the area of medicine and sexual ethics. His positions on some matters have raised eyebrows among church conservatives, but he has never been disciplined or censured.

Schulte was unavailable despite repeated attempts by NCR to contact him. Tom Finney, communications director for the archdiocese, said Schulte had nothing to say beyond the letter he had written to McCormick (see text below). Finney said he had no idea what criteria Schulte used to determine if a speaker would offend people in the archdiocese nor did he know if Schulte monitored all Catholic groups and the speakers they invited.

According to a Jan. 4 story in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, however, "As some alumni involved in the McCormick invitation see it, Schulte was upset at the prospect of McCormick's appearance in New Orleans, so much so that the alumni club felt it necessary to withdraw the invitation to preserve cordial relations with Schulte and avoid controversy."

Schulte told The Times-Picayune that he informed the club of his feelings to help them avoid a public relations problem. Schulte said he feared public criticism from conservative Catholics in the archdiocese, but emphasized, as he did in a subsequent letter to McCormick, that he did not forbid the theologian from speaking in New Orleans.

"There have been cases where I said I don't think some person should be speaking in the archdiocese," Schulte told the paper. But, he added, the McCormick case was not one of them. "I didn't say, 'I wish you'd uninvite this guy.' I never said that," he told The Times-Picayune.

"I said for the sake of the university, it might be better to have another," he said. "But if you want to have McCormick, I can't say no."

Tanzberger interpreted Schulte's comments as a "high level of concern," according to the paper's account, and felt he had to convey that concern to the board of the club and ultimately to McCormick.

According to The Times-Picayune, the club originally sought approval from the archdiocese's Office of Religious Education for a list of possible speakers made available annually by Notre Dame for its Hesburgh Lecture series.

McCormick was one of the approved names returned by the office. It was just before the lecture that Schulte learned of McCormick's scheduled appearance.

According to the newspaper account, Schulte then shared his concerns with Mike Read, described by the archbishop in his letter to McCormick as "Mr. Notre Dame" and someone who helped the archdiocese obtain football coach Lou Holtz as a speaker for a fundraiser.

In discussing the incident with the newspaper, Read said, "I have such profound respect and admiration for Archbishop Schulte, I thought it not in the best interest of the club to do something that might meet with his disapproval," according to the story.

"I told the club, 'It's probably not in our best interest to do this. We have to live here, we have to work with this archbishop going forward."

Read emphasized, however, that Schulte did not demand a cancellation, but rather gave "a word of caution that we were dealing with someone who was not noncontroversial, and there might be some reaction."

Tanzberger said the club listened to Read's comments and then, in what he described as a difficult call, passed on the wishes of the archbishop to McCormick.

McCormick, the John A. O'Brien Professor of Christian Ethics, has been a member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1986 and is the former Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics. He is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and was awarded its Cardinal Spellman Award in 1969. Since 1965, McCormick has written the widely read "Notes on Moral Theology" for the journal Theological Studies.

He has written or edited 16 books, including the recent The Church as Moral Teacher; Persons, Patients and Problems; and Corrective Vision: Explorations in Moral Theology.

He has received 13 honorary degrees and taught fellow Jesuits moral theology for 17 years before going to Georgetown.

The Hesburgh Alumni Lecture series is offered each year through Notre Dame's network of more than 200 alumni clubs. The lectures are delivered by faculty members nominated by their colleagues and the deans of the university's colleges and law school.

McCormick said the lecture he planned to give was titled "Moral Theology in the Year 2000," and was based largely on a chapter of Corrective Vision (Sheed & Ward, 1994).

Following is the text of letters exchanged by McCormick and Schulte:

Where's the serious reason?

This letter was sent by McCormick to Schulte on Jan. 13.

Dear Archbishop Schulte:

It came to my attention on December 20 from the president of the Notre Dame Club in New Orleans, Eric Tanzberger, that I had been turned down as a lecturer to the Notre Dame Club by your office. As you know from your traditional moral theology, to curtail one's ministry in the church and especially to do this publicly demands a very serious reason. If this serious reason is not present, the one who does this curtailing is guilty of serious injustice. I am writing, first, to verify that you did indeed object to, or express reservations about, my speaking at the Notre Dame Club in New Orleans, and, if so, to ask for your reason or reasons for this action.

I have had extensive conversations with Tanzberger and Mike Read. From the latter I have learned that at no time did you attempt to cancel the lecture. But it also became utterly clear that but for the moral force of your reservation the lecture would have gone on as scheduled. In the real world of ecclesiastical affairs, both you and I know that the difference between an explicit veto and the exercise of moral force is a difference in degree, not kind.

I note several points about this action of yours. First, it is far from clear that you have any competence in this matter. This is an activity of the University of Notre Dame for its alumni and should require no prior approval from you. Indeed, I am surprised that the Notre Dame Club of New Orleans thought it necessary or wise to seek your approval. No other clubs, to the best of my knowledge, seek permission of their local ordinaries to invite lecturers.

Secondly, I note that I was not informed until December 20 that the lecture I was scheduled to give January 16 had been canceled. I had already obtained a non-refundable round-trip ticket and turned down a lecture elsewhere on the same date.

Thirdly, I would point out that it is a mark of common decency that, when a bishop exercises moral force to influence a decision about a lecturer from outside his diocese, he should deal directly with the theologian in question. Otherwise, we get involved in a sleazy cloak-and-dagger game, which does no honor to the magisterium.

Above I asked for your reason. I was informed by Mike Read that you expressed concern about proportionalism and the reaction of right-to-lifers to my presence. I am stunned at this, since all my writings on abortion and assisted suicide (e.g.) have defended the Church's position. The day is passed when bishops should allow themselves to be intimidated by right-wing extremists.

Let me recall for you what has been said of my two most recent books. In the September 30, 1989 issue of America magazine, George Hunt, S.J., the editor, had this to say about my book The Critical Calling: Reflections on Moral Dilemmas Since Vatican II.

Nowadays to be a competent Catholic moral theologian one must possess the following talents: the intellectual tidiness of a lawyer, the subtlety of a logician, the dispassionate skepticism of a philosopher, the retentive memory of an historian, the prudence of an investment broker, the common sense of a bartender -- and, at times, even the imaginative sensitivity of a poet. To these gifts must be added the mastery of scripture, theology in all its varied branches, of ecclesiastical law with and without its refinements, as well as expertise in biology and medical procedures, the throw-weights of various ballistic missiles, the latest theories in psychology, all the sexual vagaries proper to modern culture -- and countless other untidy developments.

Since God has not been prodigal in conferring this unique combination of aptitudes on many humans, it is a small wonder that there have been and are so few outstanding Catholic moral theologians. It is one profession, like lion-taming or sky-diving, where success is usually an either-or proposition, and the outcome cannot be fudged with indulgent qualifications. The moral theologian either persuades and convinces, or if he or she does not, all efforts, no matter how honorably expended, end up as a travel brochure to the isle of Atlantis.

These afterthoughts of admiration have been prompted by my recent reading of an excellent collection of essays composed by the finest American Catholic moral theologian of our generation, Richard A. McCormick, S.J. The collection is entitled The Critical Calling: Reflections on Moral Dilemmas Since Vatican II (Georgetown, $29.95, 414 p.). (By the way, this is the September offering of America's Catholic Book Club at the bargain price of $20.95.) I read almost every one of these essays before (several had appeared in America), but the experience of rereading was the opposite of repetitious, because: 1) each of the essays has been expanded and contains new and enlightening contextual material; 2) the essays are now framed within a common theme, a theme that provides a brilliant focus and interanimates what once seemed disparate investigations.

The result is a collection that is both retrospective and up-to-date simultaneously. Father McCormick first addresses the "foundational" questions relating to moral theology (such as dissent in the church, pluralism, theology and politics, the relationship of bishops and theologians) before moving on to particular pastoral issues (such as divorce, homosexuality, genetic technology, the AIDS crisis). He continually writes with remarkable lucidity and honesty (as well as humility when appropriate), and it is a reader's delight to journey alongside a highly intelligent and informed mind in its pursuit of Christian wisdom. Not only is the experience educative, however; it is also (and astonishingly) spiritually refreshing, because the reader comes to share in his genuine love of the church -- its rich tradition, cultural complexity and engraced potential.

Every bishop and chancery officer (most definitely!), every priest, seminarian, religious (definitely!), and every Catholic layperson eager for enlightenment should read this book. As the decrees of Vatican II hoped to do, this collection might convert us to "certain ways of thinking" with the church.

My most recent book is entitled Corrective Vision. It has been very well received. Indeed, Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., said of this book; "Writing on the difficult and often new issues in moral theology today is equivalent to finding one's way through a moral mine field. I know of no one who does this with wisdom and understanding better than Richard McCormick. Corrective Vision is truly a classic treatise for our times, badly needed and welcome indeed for all who care for truth in an era of intellectual moral anarchy."

With testimonials such as this, I believe it is my right to have specific reasons produced by you. I have no strong desire to travel to New Orleans. Indeed, I find travel increasingly onerous. However, I have been teaching moral theology and writing in the area for forty years. In my writings I have supported a strong and healthy magisterium in the church. I am deeply saddened when I encounter actions like yours, for to many of my colleagues it is clear that such actions, far from supporting a healthy magisterium, contribute instead to its erosion and non-believability. We both want to serve the church, but concerning your action, Archbishop, I must say non tali auxilio.

Sincerely in Christ,
Richard A. McCormick, S.J.

Polarization, controversy

(Schulte replied in this Jan. 22 letter.)

Dear Father McCormick:

Your letter to me of January 13 arrived in New Orleans when I was attending a series of meetings out of town. I placed a call to your office on Tuesday, January 21.

First let me say that I share your concern for a healthy magisterium in the Church. If any of my actions in this matter has weakened the health of the magisterium, I sincerely regret it.

When I received word that you would be speaking in New Orleans, I contacted Mr. Michael Read. To many of us here in the Crescent City, Mike Read is seen as "Mr. Notre Dame." He has been of great help to me and to the archdiocese in many ways, which have included contacts with the University of Notre Dame and indeed securing the services of Mr. Lou Holtz as a speaker at one of the major fund-raising dinners of the archdiocese.

Mike accurately reports our conversation. I told him that I was not "forbidding Fr. McCormick to speak in New Orleans." I did suggest, since New Orleans is not untouched by some of the polarization and controversy in the church today, some persons might find objections to your speaking here. I further suggested, however, this could be a fine opportunity for someone from the university to make known the very substantial efforts of which I am aware that the university has made in the last several years to foster its Catholic identity.

I hope that what I have just said may put in a clearer light how I viewed the situation.

With cordial wishes for a blessed and happy new year, I am

Sincerely yours in Our Lord,
Most Rev. Francis B. Schulte
Archbishop of New Orleans

Response totally inadequate

(McCormick's final reply was on Jan. 29.)

Dear Archbishop Schulte:

I received your letter of January 22 in response to my January 13 letter.

In my letter, as you will recall, I asked you to give me "specific reasons" for repeatedly expressing your reservations about my giving a Hesburgh lecture in New Orleans. Your response to my request is totally inadequate. It simply will not do to say, as you do, that "some persons might find objections to your speaking here." That could be said of the pope. It is no sustainable reason for the kind of public action that resulted from your disapproval.

Nor does it soften the matter to say "I told him [Mike Read] that I was not 'forbidding Fr. McCormick to speak in New Orleans.' " As I noted in my January 13 letter, Read made it very clear to me that, but for the moral force of your reservation, the lecture would have gone on as scheduled.

I believe that all of us in the church -- bishops, theologians, priests, educators, lay leaders -- must be publicly accountable for our words, actions, and policies. My advisers here at Notre Dame join me in insisting that you have failed that test.

Sincerely in Christ,
Richard A. McCormick, S.J.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997