Controversial Student Organizations: Why They Should Not Be Recognized by a Catholic University

The recent decision by several Catholic colleges and universities to recognize student pro-choice and “gay rights” groups has sparked considerable controversy among educators. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) responded by distributing a sampling of policies on recognizing student organizations, as well as a “working paper” developed under the auspices of the Jesuit Association of Student Personnel Administrators (JASPA). The working paper, previously sent to the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, argues for recognizing such groups — at least in the case of “gay/lesbian student organizations” wishing to promote “a more enlightened understanding of homosexuality” on the campus. When one of us objected to Sister Alice Gallin, then executive director of ACCU, that the organization should also distribute a paper arguing the case against recognizing such student groups, she replied that the ACCU would do so if I or a member of my faculty would write it. Thus we were enticed into a region of academic discourse where nowadays even angels fear to tread.

We hope, then, to clarify what is at stake in the question of recognizing controversial student groups. First, we define the special meaning of the term “controversial” when it is applied to such organizations as student gay- rights or pro-choice groups, and then we discuss the nature and significance of recognition. We review and critique the argument of the JASPA authors for recognizing such groups. And finally, we develop the argument against recognizing such student groups in light of our understanding of their nature and of the mission of a Catholic university.

What Is ‘Controversial’?

A student group may be controversial for a number of reasons or in a variety of ways. A group is “controversial” in a generic sense of the term if it encounters opposition to its character, purpose, or activities. The controversial group also may be divisive and arouse strong polarizing passions. Its presence and activities on campus may provoke public debate and determined opposition, or perhaps lead to turmoil. Indeed, a student group might be controversial in one set of circumstances but not in another. One remembers such controversial groups of the 1960s as those opposing the Vietnam War or promoting “free speech” at Berkeley. In different circumstances, controversial groups might include the Young Democrats or Republicans, ROTC, campus chapters of Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, or the National Rifle Association. In our day and on certain Catholic campuses, controversial groups might include Operation Rescue, Opus Dei, the Legionnaires of Christ, or even students for the Latin Mass and Gregorian Chant.

But there is another, particular meaning of the term “controversial” in the case of gay-rights or pro-choice groups. Such groups arouse controversy in Catholic circles because they stand in opposition to the teaching of the Church. In this particular meaning of the term, a student group is controversial if it stands for, is guided by, or aims to promote principles or practices which are antithetical to the universal teachings of the Church on matters of faith or morals. Besides gay-rights and pro-choice organizations, such controversial student groups might include those devoted to pornography, witches’ rites and rights, racial superiority, or terrorist political movements. They also might include campus affiliates of such organizations as the Masons, the Ku Klux Klan, or the neo-Nazi or Communist parties. The question is whether a Catholic college or university should recognize student groups which are controversial in the sense of standing in conflict with the Church and her teaching on matters of faith and morals.

What Is ‘Recognize’?

Few would argue that a student group has a right to be recognized by a college or university. There is broad agreement that recognition is a privilege granted to a student group whose purpose and activities fall within the university’s larger purpose and in some manner further the university’s mission. Recognition grants special status to a student group. It gives the group official standing within the university. It entails, in some combination, the group’s use of the university’s name, access to funding from or under the auspices of the university, use of offices or rooms for meetings, and access to the university’s communication and administrative system for recruiting members or promoting activities.

Recognition thus legitimizes the student group within the university community. Though recognition is not necessarily an endorsement of the group’s purpose or beliefs, it constitutes a public acknowledgement that the group’s purpose at least is consistent with the university’s purpose — that the group’s activities will in some legitimate way carry out some aspect of the university’s mission. One wonders, then, how it can ever be right for a Catholic university to recognize a controversial student group whose character or purpose stands in opposition to the Catholic Church and its universal teaching on faith or morals.

We note in passing that the question of recognition is not a question of academic freedom. A Catholic university’s recognition of a controversial student group cannot be justified in the name of academic freedom, because such freedom involves either institutional autonomy or professorial liberty in teaching and scholarship. It does not apply to student groups or student organizations petitioning for recognition. Properly understood, academic freedom in the latter sense is a privilege or right granted to members of a university faculty in support of their search for truth. As stated in the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), academic freedom is “the guarantee given to those involved in teaching and research that, within their specialized branch of knowledge and according to the methods proper to that specific area, they may search for the truth wherever analysis and evidence lead them and may teach and publish the results of this search,” while “safeguarding the rights of the individual and of society within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

What Is the Argument for Recognizing ‘Controversial’ Groups?

The JASPA paper argues for the recognition of homosexual student groups as a useful means to the larger ends of justice and charity. Charity demands a sensitive and compassionate response to “gay” suffering and anguish. The “most pervasive and devastating problem” for homosexuals is “the social, emotional and cognitive isolation which results from living in [the] closet.” This devastating isolation is understood to be a “coping strategy” for surviving in a hostile, heterosexual environment, not as a consequence of the shame and guilt naturally arising from a sinful life. It is supposedly the result of the prejudice, discrimination, and harassment arising from “homophobia,” the “irrational fear of homosexual people and the negative myths and stereotypes which express that fear.” Since “gay” suffering is the result of injustice, justice demands a concerted effort to “eradicate homophobia” and the sinful social structures it has constructed against homosexuals.

Believing that both charity and justice demand our support for “gay rights,” the JASPA authors demand that we “begin the work of promoting awareness and sensitivity” and “a more enlightened understanding of homosexuality.” In their view, these virtues require that we extend our respect and friendship even to practicing homosexuals and offer them “an active role in the Christian community.” They demand that we provide gays with “adult gay role models,” encourage them “to socialize with their peers,” and help them “come out” to family and friends. In short, JASPA authors believe that justice and charity demand that we accept practicing homosexuals and make them welcome in our schools and community.

No wonder, then, that the JASPA paper finds “no real reason for denying registration” or recognition to homosexual student groups.

What Are the Objections to Recognition?

In our view, the JASPA paper fails in a number of decisive respects. In the first place, the paper is simply wrong in concluding that there is “nothing [emphasis added] in the current official teaching of the Church” to preclude “the acceptance of a gay/lesbian student organization on a Catholic campus.” To the contrary, the Church has instructed bishops not to accept them. In a letter to the bishops on “the pastoral care of homosexual persons” (which was approved by the Pope and formally adopted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Cardinal Ratzinger declared that “all support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teaching of the Church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely.” Permission for such homosexual groups to use “the facilities of Catholic schools and colleges … may seem only just and charitable, but in reality it is contradictory to the purpose for which these organizations were founded, it is misleading and often scandalous.”

In the second place, the JASPA paper argues that a Catholic university’s recognition of a group of student homosexuals can be compatible with its mission. But the argument for this assertion turns on transforming the nature of the student group on transforming it from a homosexual support and advocacy group into a discussion society. At best, the argument is unrealistic, if not naïve or disingenuous. Yet the fundamental flaw in the JASPA argument is its equivocal treatment of the Church’s unequivocal teaching on homosexuality. The Church clearly teaches that homosexual acts are a mortal perversion of human sexuality and that, therefore, the “orientation” to them is a radical disorder in the soul. The disorder itself is not sinful—but neither is it morally neutral. The homosexual act is both objectively sinful and morally evil.

The public status of homosexuality is the real issue at stake in the “gay rights” movement and its condemnation of “homophobia.” Sodomy once was punishable by the criminal law to protect the family and to secure the common good. Today, we mock these old-fashioned, “repressive” ordinances and look for other ways to maintain public morality. But such ordinances were not altogether without reason. It matters greatly what behavior the law proscribes,’ what conduct the public finds acceptable, and what principles it holds to be true.

What Is the Mission of a Catholic University?

We are left with the question: Should a Catholic university recognize a student group which in its character, opinions, and goals opposes the Church and her magisterial teaching? We are forced to answer No. Recognition constitutes a public acknowledgement that the recognized group is compatible with the mission of the university. The mission of a Catholic university includes fidelity to the Church and her teaching in the life of the university. But a controversial student group, in the relevant sense of the term here, stands in opposition to the Church and her teaching. Thus, recognition of such a group entails an essential contradiction: It is a declaration that the controversial group is both compatible and not compatible with the mission of a Catholic university. We note in passing that the JASPA authors implicitly recognize the logic of this argument but seek to evade its force through an equivocal presentation of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and through a pretense that university-imposed restrictions can change the nature and character of the controversial group seeking recognition.

The mission of the university and the nature of the student group are the decisive factors in the question of recognition. There are other factors as well which need to be taken into account, but these two constitute the threshold for recognition. By reason of these factors alone, a school is fully justified in denying recognition to any student group that by its nature and character stands in opposition to the mission of the university. Recognition is not a right but a privilege granted to a student group. It requires a judgment not only that the group is consistent with the purpose of the university, but that its activities will in some legitimate way help to accomplish the university’s mission.

A Catholic university is distinguished from its secular counterpart by its institutional commitment and fidelity to the Church and her authoritative teaching in matters of faith and morals. Its essential purpose is to bring the light of the Faith to the work of reason and imagination in the search for truth. Its essential educational mission is to help students form their minds and hearts in truth — in the truth discovered through reason and human experience, and the truth revealed through Jesus Christ which is available to us through Scripture and the Church. Part of the reality of the Catholic Church is its possession of a special competence with respect to the truth in matters of faith and morals, and its exercise of a teaching authority commensurate to that competence. Thus, the mission of a Catholic university requires, among other things, that it freely appropriate and intelligently integrate the universal teaching of the Church in its life as a university and in the conduct of its affairs. It requires that a Catholic university take on the mind of the Church, and form itself and its activities through faithful adherence to the Christian message as authoritatively taught by the Church.

In our judgment, recognition of a controversial student group cannot be justified in a Catholic university as a legitimate means to promote inquiry into controversial moral, social, or political issues. Such groups do not come into being for the sake of inquiry. They stand in opposition to the Church and her teaching with respect to the matter in controversy. They exist to provide solidarity for their members and to persuade others to stand with them regarding the principles, positions, policy, or “lifestyle” they cherish. Thus, they stand in contradiction to the educational mission of a Catholic university, and their recognition constitutes a betrayal of that mission. Recognition legitimizes the controversial student group within the university, and thereby invites other students to join and to stand with its members in their place of opposition to Church teaching.


At the time this article was published, Robert F. Sasseen was president of the University of Dallas. WIlliam A. Frank was chairman of the University's department of philosophy.

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