Class Clowns: Catholic Colleges and the Political Left

Much has been made of pro-abortion politicians flaunting their Catholic identity and receiving the Eucharist. The U.S. bishops, in their June statement “Catholics in Political Life” and at their November meeting in Washington, D.C., backed away from confronting wayward Catholics like Senator John Kerry and Senator Ted Kennedy who clearly ought to remain seated at Mass. Meanwhile, the politicians have thumbed their noses at the Church.

Too little attention has been given to the subversive activities of many Catholic colleges and universities during the 2004 political campaigns. The general media were more concerned with the prospects of Kerry as the presidential candidate than the decline of fidelity among Catholics and their institutions, and perhaps the same can be said of many Catholic publications and the Catholic News Service.

Nevertheless, the scandal of Catholic institutions coddling pro-abortion politicians can be as great as that of individual dissenters, even one seeking the presidency. After all, a Catholic university that bears false witness to Catholic teaching affects thousands of students and a broad public audience. Hundreds of faculty members and other employees each have ways of undermining the Church that their institution represents. The very poor behavior of Catholic politicians cannot be addressed without confronting the lack of a principled response from ostensibly Catholic institutions and leaders.

As Christians we can expect that even our most admired Catholic leaders are sinful creatures, and the pressures that lead Catholics astray are at least as powerful in politics as they are in Hollywood. Catholic institutions, on the other hand, have mission statements that ought to enforce fidelity even while their employees strive toward it. Faithful teaching in a Catholic college or university is much less difficult than faithful living.

The U.S. bishops have made a clear demand of Catholic colleges and universities. Despite finding no consensus on refusing the Eucharist to dissenting politicians, “Catholics in Political Life” draws a line in the sand for Catholic institutions, motivated primarily by the scandal of Catholic colleges inviting pro-abortion individuals to give commencement speeches and receive honorary degrees. The bishops write: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Alas, with some notable exceptions, the directive seems to have had little impact on the practices of Catholic colleges and universities—and we can anticipate additional problems as commencement season approaches. Those colleges that have a history of association with dissident politicians displayed little concern for obeying the bishops during the 2004 campaign season, welcoming prominent pro-abortion candidates and advocates of homosexual unions to campus to make their pitch for the Catholic vote.

In November, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C., revealed that a bishops’ committee plans to meet with Catholic college leaders to work out ways of complying with the bishops’ expectations. The solution, of course, is simple. But it will require both the bishops and the college leaders to display significant courage and willpower.

Campaigns on Campus

Politicking by active candidates and their most prominent supporters on Catholic campuses has taken three forms:

• Participation in college-sponsored lectures, dedication ceremonies, commencement ceremonies, social events, etc., that have no direct relationship to a campaign—but everyone knows why the candidate is there. Less apparent, yet equally suspect, are the reasons why the candidate was invited.

• Participation in college-sponsored debates and lectures with the obvious intent of bringing a political campaign to campus. The stated purpose is to expose students to politics—one might suppose these students have no access to television, radio, newspapers, or the Internet—and the unstated purpose is to expose the college to the world via campaign media coverage.

• Deliberate placement of campaign events on Catholic college campuses, often by renting facilities and then attempting to rally support from students and faculty, with or without the college’s explicit cooperation. During the 2000 presidential campaign, a rally for Al Gore at Gonzaga University—which admitted only to a business arrangement with the campaign—featured the university’s popular basketball coach and cheerleaders.

During the final weeks of the most recent presidential campaign, several events on Catholic campuses featured pro-abortion politicians. Howard Dean spoke at Loyola University of Chicago in September and at Boston College in October. Boston College also hosted Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the first openly gay members of Congress and a proponent of abortion rights, who endorsed Kerry and criticized the Bush administration for allegedly forcing religious values on America. Gore gave a pro-Kerry speech to Georgetown University faculty and students, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell campaigned for Kerry at Cabrini College near Philadelphia.

On October 21, Artists for Kerry hosted a fundraising event at the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota. Event organizers said it was meant to “inspire and mobilize Minnesotans to get out the vote on November 2 and elect John Kerry president.”

Pro-abortion third-party candidate Ralph Nader held a campaign event on September 14 at Loyola University of Chicago. Elizabeth Coughlin, chairwoman of the Department of Communications, helped facilitate the event, which was sponsored by the Nader campaign.

Not all the problems were related to the presidential campaign. Benedictine University in Illinois hosted Barack Obama, the successful Illinois candidate for U.S. Senate, to speak to students and guests on October 5. During his speech, Obama argued for keeping abortion legal. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Representative Ron Kind (D-Wis.) held a rally at Viterbo University on October 27. The rally was featured on the cover of Connections, a newsletter published by Viterbo’s Office of Communications.

There were similar problems during the Democratic presidential primaries. In January, St. Anse1m College hosted seven pro-abortion candidates for their final debate before New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, and Marquette University followed with a similar debate. Other primary events included Kerry at Georgetown in January 2003 and in April 2004, Dennis Kucinich at Sacred Heart University in June 2003, Howard Dean at St. Anselm in September 2003 and at Georgetown in October 2003, Dick Gephardt’s daughter at Boston College in November 2003, Gephardt and Kerry at Clarke College in January 2004, and Wesley Clark at Rivier College in January 2004.

Faculty for Kerry

The events supporting pro-abortion Democrats are no surprise given the apparent bias of Catholic college faculty and officials. The Cardinal Newman Society’s Erin Butcher reviewed Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports listing donors to the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns as of October 21, identifying employees at ten leading Catholic universities who gave $196,025 to support the Kerry campaign. That is more than nine times the amount reported to support President Bush—a total of just $21,200. (The breakdown for each of the ten universities studied and names and details for each employee donor are posted at

The overwhelming support for Kerry among Catholic university employees stands in stark contrast to exit polls that show a majority of Catholics, including those who do not attend Mass weekly, voted for Bush over Kerry. It also contradicts the colleges’ claimed commitment to diversity and free thinking that is often cited as an excuse for undermining their Catholic identity.

More than half of the gifts to the Kerry campaign—a total of $116,915—came from Georgetown University, where employees gave just $7,000 to the Bush campaign, according to FEC reports. The Kerry campaign identified 90 donors at Georgetown, including James Welsh, assistant vice president for student health; former law center dean Judith Areen (who became a full-time professor on July 1); law center associate deans James Feinerman and Vicki Jackson; Public Policy Institute dean Judith Feder; Scott Fleming, assistant to the president for federal relations; and Catholic chaplain John Sauer, S.J. The Bush campaign reports just five donors at Georgetown, including one university official, medical center assistant dean Irma Frank.

Results among the other nine largest Catholic universities based on undergraduate enrollment include: Boston College (employees reportedly gave $17,000 to Kerry and nothing to Bush), DePaul University (Kerry $7,950, Bush $250), Duquesne University (Kerry $1,350, Bush $200), Fordham University (Kerry $19,460, Bush $4,000), Loyola University of Chicago (Kerry $6,300, Bush $700), Marquette University (Kerry $1,200, Bush $1,200), St. John’s University of New York (Kerry $2,750, Bush $750), St. Louis University (Kerry $7,750, Bush $3,500), and the University of Notre Dame (Kerry $15,350, Bush $3,600).

Because the FEC requires campaigns to report only gifts of $250 or larger, smaller employee gifts are not reflected and could affect the ratio of Kerry and Bush supporters. One might guess, however, that the smaller gifts mirror the larger. At Fordham University, for instance, nearly three dozen faculty members acted in solidarity with their colleagues whose names were revealed in FEC reports by demanding that they be added to the list of Kerry supporters on the Cardinal Newman Society’s Web site.

Is Political Also Educational?

The arguments for allowing political events on campus range from academic freedom to giving students an opportunity to see a campaign up close to exposing candidates to Catholic voters and thus perhaps swaying the candidates in a positive direction—all of which raise the question of whether these events contribute substantially to a college’s primary mission of higher education.

After several years of monitoring events and lectures that conflict with Catholic colleges’ religious mission, I have also become concerned about a broader trend across the spectrum of higher education institutions in the United States. Increasingly, campus lectures primarily serve political or social-change objectives rather than academic goals, such as supplementing coursework and promoting calm, rational discussion of important issues. Too often campus lecturers have the primary goal of converting students to their point of view, and they attempt this without attention to the methods proper to academic study and discourse. Individuals are often selected for lectures because they are activists for a particular cause and not for their academic expertise.

Campaign events tend to fall in this category—with the added quality of attracting public attention to the college or university—and are generally disruptive to an academic environment. Do these events foster reasoned academic discourse, or are they more often an exercise in polemics and partisanship? Not that these are unhealthy to a democracy, but do they serve the purposes of an academic institution? Campaign-related events are better left to the public square and not the campus center.

What if college leaders disagree and decide that political campaigns have a legitimate purpose on campus? Then Catholic colleges and universities must at least stick to their principles and maintain clear speaker/event policies that ban those who publicly dissent from fundamental Catholic teaching.

A faint-hearted approach to keeping it Catholic is a major mistake. Take the Catholic University of America, for instance. While I agree with the university’s decision this year to ban candidates and other political figures from campus in the months preceding an election, CUA offers a flawed argument: Pro-abortion candidates are not welcome at a Catholic institution, but we don’t want to appear biased or partisan, so even morally acceptable candidates are unwelcome. CUA shouldn’t be ashamed of consistently applying a university policy to political candidates as well as other speakers and events, even if the indirect result keeps most candidates from a particular party off campus.

Neutrality in the political process does not require neutrality on fundamental moral issues. Moreover, this approach rarely succeeds: CUAs critics barked loudly when it was revealed that university president Very Rev. David O’Connell, C.M., had given the opening benediction for an election-day Republican Party celebration, hardly a display of political neutrality. The public now has a clear idea of where Father O’Connell stands—much to his credit, his fidelity to the Church has been even more apparent than his political leanings—but CUAs policy on politicking shies away from a public defense of its moral standards.

Catholic colleges must either end all association with active political campaigns—not from fear of making moral distinctions, but to maintain high standards of academic discourse and to refuse to be used by candidates for the primary purpose of recruiting voters—or they must enforce clear speaker and event policies that are not specific to politically oriented activities.

Honor Among Dissidents

Aside from events tied to active political campaigns, many Catholic colleges and universities have the perennial problem of hosting dissident politicians for campus lectures or receiving special honors. Often the underlying purpose of these events is to attract media attention and boost the institution’s secular reputation.

Cardinal McCarrick has explained that the bishops’ ban on dissenting speakers and honorees at Catholic institutions places heavy emphasis on the question of whether an individual is being honored. A standard campus lecture, for instance, would not necessarily run afoul of the bishops’ policy. But an invitation to give a commencement speech, which in itself is an honor regardless of whether the individual receives an honorary degree, does present a conflict.

One could argue that an invitation to give a standard campus lecture also honors speakers—there is a reason why individuals eagerly take to the lecture circuit. Regardless, since June there have already been several instances of Catholic colleges and universities explicitly honoring pro-abortion politicians without consequence from the bishops.

On November 19, Boston College presented a lecture by Cheryl Jacques, an alumna and president of the Human Rights Campaign, that advocated gay “marriage” and other special rights for homosexuals. In 2002, Jacques led the effort to defeat the Defense of Marriage Act in Massachusetts. For her accomplishments, Jacques was presented a special “certificate of recognition” from Boston College following a lecture in which she described her experience as a lesbian student at the school and argued for homosexual “marriage” and adoptions.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary on October 4, Boston College Law School presented its first Distinguished Service Medal to Rev. Robert Drinan, S.J., who is notorious for his service as a U.S. congressman of Massachusetts from 1971-1981, despite Vatican opposition.

Drinan voted against several measures to ban federal funding of abortions. In 1996, his articles in the National Catholic Reporter and the New York Times supported President Bill Clinton’s veto of a partial-birth abortion ban. Drinan is a former president and current member of the board of directors of Americans for Democratic Action, a leftist organization that favors pro-abortion politicians and laws.

A few days later, Villanova University bestowed its Adela Dwyer—St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award on Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Tutu has advocated abortion rights in limited circumstances including cases of rape and incest, and he has publicly criticized the Vatican for its opposition to artificial birth control.

Also in October, the alumni association of the Loyola University of Chicago School of Law presented its St. Robert Bellarmine Award to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a strong proponent of abortion and gay rights. As an Illinois senator, Madigan sponsored and voted for pro-abortion legislation and against the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. She also led an attack on crisis pregnancy centers, calling them “phony” for refusing to offer abortions or abortion referrals. Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki, an adjunct professor at Loyola’s law school, urged the alumni association to rescind the invitation and the university to oppose the award, to no avail.

Do the bishops consider selection as an “honorary chair” of a university event to be an honor? The University of Detroit Mercy celebrated the inauguration of its new president, Rev. Gerard Stockhausen, S.J., on October 1. Honorary chairs of the event included Governor Jennifer Granholm and Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow—all advocates of legal abortion—along with Adam Cardinal Maida. On October 29, Providence College dedicated a new arts center with a ceremony featuring pro-abortion Senator Lincoln Chafee, Senator Jack Reed, and Representative Patrick Kennedy.

Obvious Results

Fortunately not every Catholic college or university has these problems. At one, the good example and encouragement of faculty led nearly 500 students to march prayerfully from their campus to protest a nearby Kerry rally on September 4.

“We were not partisan or political,” said Emily Bissonnette, a junior at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in the National Catholic Register. “Our challenge to Senator Kerry was to stand up for what the Church teaches and fully embrace the Church’s teachings on life.”

A Catholic college’s approach to politics—as well as other social and cultural issues—can teach an important lesson to students. Unfortunately, the biases that are prevalent at many Catholic colleges and universities are inconsistent with their Catholic mission. That inevitably leads students astray.

Take a hot political issue such as homosexual “marriage.”

Numerous politicians and other campus speakers in the past year have been invited to Catholic colleges and universities to argue against Catholic teaching. The Cardinal Newman Society has identified very few who were invited to uphold that teaching.

The result? A spring 2004 survey of students at the College of the Holy Cross found that 72 percent of students support gay marriage and 86 percent support laws permitting civil unions of homosexual couples. A recent survey of students at the University of Notre Dame found that nearly 70 percent support legal recognition of civil unions for homosexual couples. A March 2003 study of college students at 38 Catholic colleges and universities, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Society, found that among Catholic students support for the statement, “Same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status,” increased from 52 percent to 70 percent over four years of a Catholic education.

Catholic colleges and universities are turning out new generations of Catholic politicians, professionals, and Church leaders—and they are looking a lot like Kerry-Kennedy Catholics.

What can a concerned observer do about it? We are called to be witnesses to the true Faith, which can be as simple as writing letters to Catholic college presidents or alumni offices. The Cardinal Newman Society is circulating a petition urging college presidents “to ban public advocates of abortion rights as speakers, honorary degree recipients, faculty members, directors and trustees,” with the goal of reaching more than one million Catholics throughout the United States. (The petition is posted online at

There is hope in the fact that some Catholic colleges are coming around. After several years of identifying inappropriate commencement speakers and honorees, the Cardinal Newman Society is now consulted by a handful of Catholic colleges before they make their annual selections. Others have evaluated their campus speaker policies based on guidelines that we recommended.

Imagining a day when every Catholic institution refuses to cooperate with pro-abortion politicians is difficult, but the future of Catholic life in America depends heavily on it.


  • Patrick J. Reilly

    Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...