Issue Date: October 15, 2004
Identity, academic freedom go head-to-head at Catholic U.
By JOE FEUERHERD
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 universitys reputation. Some of the universitys 2,800 undergraduate students were similarly energized, with dozens joining in an Oct. 6 sit-in outside the schools 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 actors 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 universitys 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 OConnell, the universitys 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, OConnell said in an e-mail to the schools 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. Youre 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 OConnells role in dissuading the Media Studies Department from inviting Tucci.
It is exactly the type of reaction OConnell 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 OConnell 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, OConnell 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 schools 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, OConnell met with the universitys 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 didnt die.
Approximately 70 professors attended a Sept. 23 meeting of the Faculty Assembly, where opposition to the schools 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 OConnell 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 cant fathom why some people dont understand that, said OConnell.
Further, said OConnell, 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. Its the only one like that in the United States. One result of that relationship, said OConnell, is that statements from the bishops conference related to platforms for pro-choice speakers inform university policy and not the other way around.
OConnell 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. OConnell expressed no objection to McAuliffes presence as long as it was confined to the classroom, he said. In my seven years as president, I have never interfered with anyones classroom activity, said OConnell.
And OConnell has his supporters among the faculty. I dont 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.
Thats 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 universitys 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 dont 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 dont 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004
|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: email@example.com