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Observer Editorial: Embracing the dual role of Catholic education

| Friday, November 13, 2015

Before fall break, Saint Mary’s Belles for Life club hosted the Planned Parenthood Project, a national initiative by Students for Life of America, on campus. In response, Feminists United club constructed a display of 1,852 flags, each of which represented 10 Planned Parenthood services not related to abortion or contraception. Several students responded by creating a petition on Change.org calling on College President Carol Ann Mooney to fulfill three requests: to prohibit any display supporting Planned Parenthood or any institution providing abortions, to prohibit faculty from distributing or encouraging distribution of pro-abortion paraphernalia and to release a formal, public statement reaffirming the College’s support for the pro-life mission of the Catholic Church.

This garnered a response from Vice President for Student Affairs Karen Johnson, who sent an email to students in which she said Saint Mary’s role as a Catholic college comes with a responsibility to maintain consistency with Catholic teachings. She clarified the College’s guidelines as applied to club events, which emphasize the difference between education versus advocacy and support. “Sponsorship of a speaker, in and of itself, does not constitute advocacy or support of ideas expressed by the speaker,” Johnson said.

A few days later, Mooney released a statement to students that said the College plays dual roles in education — which, at the undergraduate level, traditionally involves free access to information — and in the formation of young people in the Catholic tradition, which prohibits Saint Mary’s student groups from taking advocacy positions inconsistent with Church teaching.

Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and Catholic universities around the country face this same issue often: How can we maintain our Catholic identity and continue to support intellectual freedom and an open exchange of ideas?

Too often, this question is posed in terms of finding a balance — a way to reconcile two otherwise incompatible ideas so neither side sacrifices too much. We contend, however, that intellectual freedom and open dialogue are essential aspects of the Catholic identity of an educational institution. Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame were built on the blended nature of these foundational concepts, that a true Catholic education encompasses access to and discussion of all ideas.

Notre Dame University President emeritus Fr. Ted Hesburgh, in his autobiography “God, Country, Notre Dame,” wrote about the role a Catholic university or college should play in not just the education, but also the formation of its students.

“The Catholic University should be a place where all the great questions are asked, where an exciting conversation is continually in progress, where the mind constantly grows as the values and powers of intelligence and wisdom are cherished and exercised in full freedom,” he wrote.

Great questions should explore difficult topics. Exciting conversations thrive with multiple viewpoints. A mind cannot grow without the exercise presented by a challenge, and Hesburgh envisioned a Catholic campus as one that actively promotes freedom and invites discussion of a wide range of ideas, no matter how controversial.

The University’s mission statement undoubtedly supports this harmony of Catholic education and intellectual freedom.

“As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions and every other area of human scholarship and creativity,” the statement reads. “ … What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character. Therefore, the University insists upon academic freedom that makes open discussion and inquiry possible.”

This, then, is how Notre Dame answers that question of Catholic identity and unfettered discussion: by affirming open and accessible debate as a primary goal of a Catholic educational institution. The University encourages the exploration of a diverse range of views framed within an environment supportive of faith-based decision-making. It is precisely the contention of opinion available within such an open framework that strengthens us as students and as members of this Catholic community.

Saint Mary’s mission statement and statement of philosophy and purpose also include the same dedication to intersectional identity and free thought.

“The College creates an open forum in which students freely and critically study the rich heritage of the Catholic tradition, raising the questions necessary to develop a mature religious life. … Engaging in all aspects of the college experience, students acquire the hallmarks of a liberally educated woman: keen self-knowledge, lively imagination, lifelong intellectual and cultural interests and the ability to make socially responsible choices about the future.”

Saint Mary’s invites students to critically study the Catholic tradition, a practice which involves examining both its merits and faults; this cannot be done without an understanding of opposing perspectives. Similarly, it promotes “the ability to make socially responsible choices,” a trait impossible without a holistic understanding of all available choices and beliefs — not just those endorsed by the Catholic Church.

While the foundation for the union of Catholic identity and intellectual freedom has been laid out in both schools’ mission statements, it has proven difficult to achieve in reality.

By allowing the Feminist United club’s controversial demonstration to take place on campus, Saint Mary’s was a step closer to living out its mission statement, supporting the critical development of its students’ responsible decision-making skills. In the backlash from the student petition, we only hope the College does not compromise on two concepts that should be a single goal.

The strength, knowledge and conviction of self resulting from free access to and discussion of all ideas at these Catholic institutions benefits all of us, whether we identify as Catholic or not. We encourage Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame to realize the full potential of their Catholic campuses and welcome oppositional discourse as a means of becoming the institutions of true formation and growth they were intended to be.

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  • David Kashangaki

    I guess my response would be that neither university should strive for balance in presenting views but should allow the Catholic identity to stand out. If an activity tarnishes that Catholic identity then leaders of the university/college should speak out strongly reaffirming the Catholic position. Bishop Rhoades op-ed piece in yesterday’s Observer did that very clearly so that those who need to make decisions on these issues know clearly what the ramifications of being Catholic and believing otherwise are………

    • Erin Ricketts

      After reading this comment, I can only conclude that the church is afraid to teach both sides of the story, for fear of losing more students to the anti-religious masses that are currently more common than religious youth. This is a way to indoctrinate, not to educate. If the church is to continue, it needs to educate and let youth discover that these values and beliefs do match up with facts of the world, not hide these facts and hope their students never get a chance to see both sides, for fear they make the “wrong” choice. If you refuse to teach and acknowledge both sides, you are no longer an educational institute, but merely a religious indoctrination center.

  • John Robin

    There appears to be a fallacy present in the editorial: that the legitimate goals of “intellectual freedom”, “dialog”, and “free access to information” mean that Catholic colleges must tolerate and even host open exhibits promoting organizations that actively promote evil causes. For this is what the SMC Planned Parenthood display did.

    Further, the PP display did NOT promote “free access to information”. According to the SMC administration the flag exhibit and distributed literature were censored to omit references to the most objectionable activities of Planned Parenthood: the facilitating and active provision of elective abortions on a massive scale. Therefore an incomplete and skewed image of Planned Parenthood was promoted: this is what is called “propaganda”. It has no place on a Catholic campus or anywhere authentic education is valued.

    “Dialog” and “free access to information” would require students and faculty to be able to study and discuss Planned Parenthood and abortion openly in an academic setting with full consideration of facts and context: and this certainly should take place.

    But permitting faculty of a Catholic college to distribute, on campus, propaganda for an organization which endorses and perpetrates the murder of millions of unborn children is a serious scandal. And it’s an abuse of the faculty’s role as educators. The arguments that it is justified by “academic freedom” and “dialog” are false and absurd.

    I expect the critically thinking members of the SMC community are not fooled. We should not let this scandal, and the sophistry used to justify it, go unchallenged.

    • Tom Z.

      “I expect the critically thinking members of the SMC community are not fooled. ”

      I don’t think the critically thinking members of the community would support you as they tend to think for themselves rather than having others dictate their beliefs for them. You should give it a shot sometime.

      • John Robin

        “Tom Z”, you implied that I don’t think for myself: that my beliefs have been dictated to me. Yet when a person publishes a personal attack like that but won’t identify himself with his full name, it raises questions about the strength of his own argument and even his sincerity.

        Perhaps you should read more carefully, Tom. My note explicitly supports “free access to information”, “dialog”, and “full consideration of facts and context”. I’m all for critical, independent thought and respectful discussion. I’m also for the school remaining faithful to its Catholic identity. It is possible to have both, although currently both are being ill served at Saint Mary’s College.

        Neither academic freedom nor truth are served by a Catholic campus hosting open, on campus displays celebrating Planned Parenthood, with faculty distributing propaganda sanitized of the reality about PP’s murderous abortion campaign.

        I’m hardly alone in recognizing the Catholic identity crisis at Saint Mary’s. Similar but stronger and more eloquent objections to this particular display have been raised publicly by Bishop Kevin Rhoades (Today’s Catholic News, 11/10/2015), Cardinal Newman Society, 11/12/2015), EWTN (Morning Glory, 11/13/2015), and others.

        http://prolifecollege.blogspot.com/

        • Tom Z.

          Nice inference, spot on.

          • John Robin

            I’ll seriously consider your thoughtful rebuttal, if you make one.

          • Tom Z.

            I doubt you have seriously considered a thoughtful rebuttal in your entire life, hence your support for limiting which “side” of the argument is allowed to have a group and voice their opinion and which side isn’t allowed to because of [insert religious babble]

            Free access to information, dialogue*, and full consideration of facts and contexts is good in theory, but when you restrict what people can and cannot support based on your religious beliefs than you are using your religious beliefs to dictate public policy. That is unacceptable. The fact that St. Mary’s is a Catholic University means nothing. It rightfully does not require its students or faculties to follow, believe, or act according to the rulebook that is the CCC. Restricting a group event because it doesn’t “fall” under the teachings of Catholicism is restricting the so-called dialogue you so adamantly support. Saying you support dialogue, but also saying that you don’t support the group that is raising awareness and promoting dialogue on a very important issue is nonsensical and really makes me not want to discuss this with you as you don’t seem to have a grasp on what constitutes dialogue amongst a group of students in a college setting discussing a very important topic. It seems to me like you want to restrict groups on campus that ONLY support Church teachings in a way of convincing students they should fall on the “right” side of the issue. This is a fundamental flaw in what Bishop Rhoades was arguing for, and as it turns out, his argument is also what you are trying to regurgitate above.

          • John Robin

            Tom Z, your continued ad hominem attack and hostility to the Catholic faith say more about you than me.

            Should Planned Parenthood be required to allow pro-life demonstrations on their property? Of course not. On the same basis, private colleges have a right to regulate the activities and demonstrations of student groups. SMC is very encouraging toward open discussion and debate, but that does not imply it must offer unlimited access to its land and resources to endorse causes contrary to its mission. SMC has recently affirmed its policy that “It is inappropriate for Saint Mary’s College student clubs and organizations to advocate for or support organizations, agencies or groups that act contrary to Church teachings or to sponsor events that advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.” What part of that policy is unclear?

            Students and donors who support the school have a reasonable expectation that the school to abide by its own mission and policies.

          • Tom Z.

            You simply don’t get it.

            No one is arguing what private colleges have a right to do and not do. We are arguing what they SHOULD do. They should allow everyone’s voices be heard, not just the ones they religiously support. If they want to only allow strict Catholic viewpoints, than that is fine, but they are going to have a very hard time attracting students who desire learning, engaging in intellectual dialogue, and growing as people. Instead, they will have a bunch of John Robin’s repeating exactly what their parents told them growing up trying to use scriptures to argue important social issues. If St. Mary’s wants to go that direction, that’s fine. But as a Notre Dame student, I would hate to see my sister school regress in a time when so many schools and students are moving forward rather than backward.

          • John Robin

            Tom, it’s a red herring to argue that what is at stake is freedom to learn, discuss, dialogue, and debate. SMC already permits and promotes all of that, and I fully support it. But you seem unwilling to appreciate the legitimate rights of private institutions to set reasonable limits on the sort of on-campus demonstrations or political activity that may be incompatible with their mission. You seem to think that institutions should not have that freedom.

            Did SMC attempt to interfere with Feminists United demonstrating on public property? Of course not. Feminists United has the same rights as you and me to publicly demonstrate. But we do not have an absolute right to do whatever we please on someone else’s private property.

            In your zeal to allegedly promote freedom of expression, you would deny private and religious institutions the same constitutional rights which you insist upon for yourself and your political allies. And that is not “moving forward” toward something good; rather, it’s an undemocratic and illiberal attitude.

          • Tom Z.

            You’re either not actually reading or you are having a very difficult time comprehending what it is you are reading.

            People are arguing what St. Mary’s should do, not what it is allowed to do. It is 100% allowed to bar any and all groups that do not follow Catholicism in the way that they interpret it. I get that information to the masses scares you, but that doesn’t mean institutions should look to restrict access to information to students by disallowing groups they don’t agree with. If they do that, they are failing their students. It will slowly turn into a school whose graduates are citing scripture all the time when trying to discuss real-world issues with the adults. Trust me, nobody wants that.

          • John Robin

            No, Tom, I think I understand what you wrote. And I appreciate your trying to clarify for me. Let me try to summarize:

            You acknowledge SMC has a right to regulate political and religious discourse on campus, but you think doing so is a bad practice that stifles freedom of expression and academic freedom. You think that schools would be better off not interfering with any form of expression on campus. I hope I’m not misrepresenting you.

            But you do misrepresent what I’ve said when you claim that “information to the masses scares” me. That’s not how I feel, and nothing I’ve said supports that claim. I’ve supported free access to information, open dialogue, and mutual respect among people with different views.

            I think the crux of our disagreement is over the question of whether it can be a good thing for a private college to let its founding philosophy and mission inform its policies regarding student activities on campus. You clearly seem to think not, and I disagree with that.

            Best wishes.

          • John Robin

            Here’s a test case for the idea that schools should permit completely unrestricted free expression on campus…

            According to today’s New York Times, Mr. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, recently a resident of Brussels, is a member of the Islamic State, and has been linked to numerous terrorist attacks including the Paris massacre last Friday.

            NYT also reports that he previously attended an “exclusive Catholic school, Collège Saint-Pierre d’Uccle, in an upscale residential district of Brussels”. Suppose, hypothetically, during his time at this school he wanted to conduct an on-campus demonstration promoting the charitable works supposedly being carried out in Syria by the Islamic State.

            Do you maintain that the school should permit such a demonstration?

            Both ISIL and Planned Parenthood systematically kill innocent human beings every day. Both claim to do good works. Both claim that their killing is permissible, justified, and good. And neither deserves to be promoted on any school campus.

  • John Robin

    It’s a strawman argument. Nobody to my knowledge has suggested that Planned Parenthood and abortion should not be studied, discussed, and debated on campus with full intellectual freedom and mutual respect for those of differing opinion.

    That’s not the issue! The issue is whether the display of thousands of flags and promotional literature advocating and celebrating Planned Parenthood -as did the Feminists United event- constitutes an unacceptable endorsement of an organization that actively promotes and defends the grave evil of elective abortion. On a Catholic campus, the answer should be an emphatic Yes!

    On November 4, 2015, Karen Johnson, SMC Vice-President of Student Affairs, affirmed: “It is inappropriate for Saint Mary’s College student clubs and organizations to advocate for or support organizations, agencies or groups that act contrary to Church teachings or to sponsor events that advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

    What part of this policy is unclear? And why is the SMC administration unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the Feminists United event clearly violated that policy?

    The dissonance between between the school’s mission, action, and statements is jarring. It needs to be rectified.

    • João Pedro Santos

      “It is inappropriate for Saint Mary’s College student clubs and organizations to advocate for or support organizations, agencies or groups that act contrary to Church teachings or to sponsor events that advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
      Thank you for telling us that the US is a Catholic theocracy and so students need to be censored for not supporting Catholic dogmas, I completely forgot that!

      • John Robin

        João Pedro Santos, you are misrepresenting the issue. The issue is whether a private, Catholic college should permit demonstrations celebrating and promoting an organization that openly promotes the killing of human beings on a massive scale. The Catholic Church, which has authority over Catholic schools, answers that with an clear “No.” SMC answers that with a vague, “It’s complicated”.

        The issue is NOT about censoring students and faculty, closing off classroom discussion, or prohibiting hot topics from being studied, researched, and debated in class. It is NOT about insisting that all students and faculty be Catholic or express only Catholic viewpoints.

        But a Catholic school has a right to pursue a Catholic mission dedicated to the truth: including the truth that nothing can excuse deliberately killing the innocent. A private school has a right to set rules about what kind of causes it will permit to be actively promoted on its own property.

        Would you allow the KKK to set up a display at your home, in your own front yard, and distribute literature promoting its “charitable works”? I hope and trust that you would say, “No! Not on my property”.

        • Johnny Whichard

          Thank you, John

        • João Pedro Santos

          “Would you allow the KKK to set up a display at your home, in your own front yard, and distribute literature promoting its “charitable works”? I hope and trust that you would say, “No! Not on my property”.”
          Argument from analogy fallacy used twice. First, a university and a house are completely different things. In your house you do whatever you want, in a public space that isn’t how things work. Second, KKK is a hate group that has been officially banned. On the other hand, Planned Parenthood is a healthcare organization that is recognized by all governments. All procedures in Planned Parenthood are legal, whether you like it or not. It’s completely retarded to compare a healthcare organization with a hate group.

          About the rest of what you said, I’m sorry to tell you but abortion isn’t murder. In fact, if abortion is murder, then male masturbation is genocide (though religious fanatics are also against masturbation, which is a victimless “sin”).

          “But a Catholic school has a right to pursue a Catholic mission dedicated to the truth”
          Dedicated to the truth? By telling lies about abortion and homosexuality?

          • John Robin

            João Pedro Santos, sorry, but the fallacies are yours:

            1) Saint Mary’s College is not a “public space”. It is a private institution with a Catholic identity. Private institutions are not legally bound to support causes contrary to their mission, even if they encourage their members to freely hold their own views.

            2) It is untrue that the “KKK …has been officially banned”. The U.S. Constitution protects freedom of association, and in the U.S. we may legally join or support abhorrent organizations like the KKK or Planned Parenthood if we wish. We may join, debate, and demonstrate for or against such organizations. But on a private campus, we are not by law entitled to use that institution’s property and resources to promote organizations that violate the core beliefs of that institution and the most basic of human rights. For this reason, SMC may refuse to permit on campus demonstrations supporting the KKK, ISIS, or any other group it finds problematic.

            3) Yes, abortion is legal, but that does not imply that all citizens and institutions must approve of it or support its continued legality. We have a constitutional right and moral duty to oppose unjust laws, and Catholic colleges are entirely within their rights to “speak truth to power”, criticize elective abortion as a serious sin and a crime against humanity, and to flatly prohibit its promotion on campus property.

            4) You claimed that “abortion isn’t murder”. Yet abortion is the premeditated killing of a defenseless human being by another human being. And this is what you defend when you support Planned Parenthood: the killing of children for profit; the elimination of the weak by the powerful. This is what you support.

            5) Regarding your confusion about masturbation, I suggest Googling for some basic facts about the process known as “conception”.

  • disqus_wHRcN9VDaG

    Amen to open discourse

  • Joseph

    The editorial board has revealed itself to be a mere politically correct
    product of a secular society that endorses a culture of death. They
    are sadly numb to the fact that they disregard the academic freedom of
    the countless human beings destroyed by Planned Parenthood. This blind
    eye to the evil that is done by Planned Parenthood is cowardly
    journalism hiding behind improperly applied quotes from Fr. Hesburgh who
    would be appalled by the lack of leadership and silence at the Observer
    regarding the truth about Planned Parenthood and the injustices
    committed therein. This editorial board has no regard for “access to” truth in
    service of freedom. Rather, they mistakenly promote freedom to deceive in service
    of death and faithless enslavement to the legally approved status quo.

  • John Robin

    Here’s a test case for the idea that schools should permit completely unrestricted free expression on campus…

    According to today’s New York Times, Mr. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, recently a resident of Brussels, is a member of the Islamic State, and has been linked to numerous terrorist attacks including the Paris massacre last Friday.

    NYT also reports that he previously attended an “exclusive Catholic school, Collège Saint-Pierre d’Uccle, in an upscale residential district of Brussels”. Suppose, hypothetically, during his time at this school he wanted to conduct an on-campus demonstration promoting the charitable works supposedly being carried out in Syria by the Islamic State.

    Do you maintain that the school should permit such a demonstration?

    Both ISIL and Planned Parenthood systematically kill innocent human beings every day. Both claim to do good works. Both claim that their killing is permissible, justified, and good. And neither deserves to be promoted on any school campus.