Catholic campuses give culture wars a different twist

As a national debate over religious liberty enflames passions, many Catholic colleges are challenging students to respect those who have different views on issues from abortion to same-sex marriage. 

Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune/AP
Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner (r.) take the stage for the University of Notre Dame commencement ceremony on Sunday in South Bend, Ind. Each received the Laetare Medal, considered to be the oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics.

Freshman Sean P. acknowledges the objections to having Bill Clinton speak at his school’s commencement ceremony this year – the former president's record on abortion and same-sex marriage hardly make him a role model for graduates of a Roman Catholic institution, critics have said.

But to Sean, Mr. Clinton’s politics and policies have little to do with his presence at Loyola Marymount University on graduation day.

“The president [came] here to speak,” not promote an agenda, says Sean, an international relations major who asked that his last name not be used. And, if anything, Sean adds, the Jesuit-run institution welcomes a variety of people and opinions in a way that encourages debate about tough issues.

“When it comes to this school, you have an open environment where people can discuss issues.” 

LMU is one of a number of Catholic institutions facing criticism this commencement season for inviting and honoring guests whose positions on issues such as abortion and contraception could be perceived as opposing Catholic teaching. At a time when the broader national discussion around religious freedom has become more pointed, the moves offer a different picture. 

Recent Supreme Court cases on same-sex marriage and contraception have brought out the culture wars in sharp relief. On Monday, the divided court – split 4 to 4 – declined to rule in a case involving a group of Catholic nuns. The nuns argued that the Obama administration hadn't done enough to insulate them from the Affordable Care Act's mandate that businesses offer contraception to employees.

But by continuing to invite politicians, activists, and others whose views may be considered at odds with church teaching, Catholic colleges and universities are reminding both their students and the public that open discussion of controversial issues can be consistent with Catholic morals and values – especially in an academic setting.

“Universities should be a safe place for everybody, but not a comfortable place for anybody,” says the Rev. Stephen Privett, chancellor of the University of San Francisco.

“The church began in diversity and was able to find some kind of unity in all that diversity,” he adds. “We need to be churched in a way that’s inclusive, respectful of differences in society. We have no obligation to impose our teachings or convictions on the [broader] population.”

'A cure for incivility'

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner shared the stage at University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony in South Bend, Ind. The school awarded the men – both of whom are Catholic – this year’s Laetare Medal, the university’s highest honor, for their “genuine public service in politics,” said Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins in a statement.

Opposition to the decision in March to present Vice President Biden with the medal came swiftly.

A group of 89 students signed a protest letter saying that Biden’s support for abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research “are directly contrary to Church teaching. His public service has not been ‘to the Church,’ but largely against the Church.”

Others argued that whatever Biden’s achievements in the realm of politics, the university could – and should – have chosen someone more aligned with Catholic beliefs.

“I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal, even if he/she has other positive accomplishments in public service, since direct abortion is gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching: the inalienable right to life of every innocent human being from the moment of conception,” said Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in a statement.

“I also question the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage.”

Yet Notre Dame, through Father Jenkins, went ahead. The move, writes Jonathan Capehart for The Washington Post, “is in keeping with Jenkins’s long-standing pursuit of finding a cure for incivility.” The reverend has for years advocated honest, rational dialogue as a way toward compromise that also upholds Catholic morals and values.

“If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them,” Jenkins wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2013. “I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can't insult them.”

Choosing to honor individuals whose work generates conversation, especially around difficult and deeply partisan subject matters, may help students better develop that sense of empathy and compassion, says David Campbell, chairman of Notre Dame’s political science department.

“They [the administration at Notre Dame] knew [Biden] was going to be a controversial pick,” Professor Campbell says. “They went ahead and did it anyway because they … were happy to welcome the debate and discussion around it.”

Striking a balance

Notre Dame and LMU were both part of a list, released in April by the Cardinal Newman Society, of 11 Catholic colleges and universities that invited guests “who have publicly opposed Church teaching in their statements and actions.” Others included DePaul University in Chicago, Georgetown University in Washington, and Gonzaga University Law School in Spokane, Wash.

“Families who choose a Catholic education deserve much better than this,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the society, which aims to monitor moral standards in Catholic education. “By passing over the opportunity to present … people who embrace not only a call to leadership but God’s call to virtue and faith – a Catholic college falsely honors those who oppose moral truths and dishonors its graduating students.”

The universities have defended their choices in much the same way Jenkins has at Notre Dame. Indeed, Campbell and others see even this small discussion as a way to underscore the importance of robust debate among people – and perhaps even provide a model for the rest of the country.

These universities each provide “one further example of people coming together to talk to one another who might otherwise disagree. I think that’s a good thing,” Campbell says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a signaling a turning point in discourse in the country. But every little bit helps.”

“If you live in a democratic society, you need to be able to navigate differences,” adds Father Privett, the University of San Francisco chancellor. “You get [that experience] through engaging in different perspectives. You end up a better-rounded person more able to contribute to society.”

And that, he says, is in line with the dictates of a Catholic education. 

At LMU, students say they value the university’s attempt to balance Catholic moral teaching and respect for personal opinions and healthy debate.

“It’s tricky when people are bashing each other on all sides,” says Anna Shoen, a sophomore and graphic design major. But “I think it brings up even more productive discussion when people are willing to discuss different opinions and be honest.”

“Education here is about speaking for the common good,” adds Sean, the international relations freshman. “We’re taught that it’s better to inform people rather than to shelter them. It’s better to just face and discuss issues rather than not having any understanding of any of it.”

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