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Issue Date:  February 4, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Students can handle dissonance

The vetting-by-Catholic-teaching technique employed by some church authorities to determine who’s fit to speak in Catholic space was taken up recently by students at The Catholic University of America when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich came to the campus.

The students, harking back to a previous speaker who was banned because of his support at some point for Planned Parenthood, wanted Gingrich banned, citing his support for the death penalty, which, they said, contradicted church teaching.

National Public Radio’s morning audience was set straight by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (he has a beautiful, rich radio voice) who said without qualification that the church has always and unchangingly maintained a tolerance for the death penalty.

That’s true only in the narrowest sense, of course. If one consults the Catechism of the Catholic Church one runs into a qualification that renders a morally justified application of the death penalty “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” Pope John Paul II himself, we know, has intervened and attempted to stop executions in the United States.

But the distinctions in the teaching on the death penalty aren’t the point here. What’s significant is the lesson learned by Catholic students: The way to deal with disagreement is to declare the other view anathema, banish it from the public square and invite in only those with whom you agree.

As historian Scott Appleby of Notre Dame told the same show, “That’s the frustration of being a Catholic in this political climate. Neither of the parties seem to have consistent policies that respect life” in all its phases. Nor will they ever, one supposes, unless the republic becomes a theocracy. We are not yet, one hopes, that far down the line.

In the meantime, it seems we’re going to be teaching students that discourse on the great issues of the day springs not from a well-reasoned and articulated faith but rather from a posture that seeks to avoid disagreeable and unsettling arguments.

I have no great affection for Mr. Gingrich, for his dreamily romanticized notion of God’s role in American history, nor for elements of his Contract With America. But he is a significant public figure and I am certain that students at The Catholic University of America have the critical acumen to deal with a Gingrich or a Sen. Kennedy or a Vice President Cheney. The latter spoke at Catholic University recently. With his open support of the rights of homosexuals to live and love as they please, he must have presented a problem for those concerned about a speaker’s adherence to Catholic “orthodoxy.”

I would think the question for the academy is whether it’s a dangerous lesson to teach students to deal with opposing views or dissent by pretending they can create islands of purity cut off from the clamor of the marketplace. That seems a response more out of fear than out of conviction.

~ ~ ~

It is with a measure of pride (I hope you find justified) that I announce that the Latin America booklet, which reprints the 10-part series that ran in the paper between May and November 2004, is now available (see the ad). Not a few people involved in Latin America studies or activities have written or phoned to say the work of writers Barbara Fraser and Paul Jeffrey represents a significant contribution to understanding the complexities of that region. It is our hope that the booklet continues to contribute to that understanding.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005

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