End Notes: Clarity and Courage

Fr. Robert Spitzer, president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, recently vetoed an invitation to a representative of Planned Parenthood to speak on the campus of his Jesuit institution. The invitation had been issued by the Women’s Studies Club. Fr. Spitzer reasonably thought that welcoming to his campus a spokesman for the nation’s largest abortion provider was incompatible with the university’s Catholic and Jesuit commitment. Immediately, Fr. Spitzer came under attack from coast to coast.

From far-off New York, Spitzer’s fellow Jesuit, Fr. Thomas Reese, editor of America, was put in mind of the progress we have made. Reese thought the relevant principle had been established way back in the 1960s. Inviting someone to speak does not amount to endorsing their views. Banning Planned Parenthood, Reese opined, opened an impossible agenda. Like many complaining students and faculty, Reese saw the matter as one of academic freedom.

Spitzer’s response to this was crisp. He acted on what Planned Parenthood does, not on the basis of what a representative of it might say. Abortion is the taking of innocent life. Planned Parenthood has the blood of millions of aborted infants on its hands. An invitation to speak would make it appear that those actions could be waived. Fr. Spitzer thought otherwise.

It is refreshing to have the chief officer of a Catholic university act as if he were the chief officer of a Catholic university. Most of them seem to feel with Fr. Reese that doing what Fr. Spitzer did is a throwback to the bad old days. Academic freedom has been invoked to justify one capitulation after another. Spitzer’s distinction between actions and words is fundamental. But Fr. Reese made a most interesting remark: “To ban people from coming on campus is an admission that you have not been able to convince your students of the truth and, therefore, you don’t want people who could lead them astray.” The faculty and student response to Spitzer’s veto makes it clear that Gonzaga is full of people who haven’t a clue about Catholicism. Fr. Reese makes a stronger point than he perhaps intended.

One of the responses of Women’s Studies was to sponsor a forum to answer the question, “Can we talk about reproductive health at Gonzaga University?” The very wording of the question indicates how immersed in the culture of death Catholics have become. Such a question is fatally tilted in the direction of a secular view, according to which reproductive health means avoiding venereal diseases, using contraceptives, and getting abortion referrals. That is, sex without consequences, sex as an end in itself, sex with anyone or anything so long as you’re “careful.” Have people in Women’s Studies been taught the truth about the human person, sexuality, and the dignity of women? The near illiteracy of young Catholics with respect to the faith makes the notion of an exchange of ideas on such matters tragically unreal. What resources do Catholic students have when speakers advocate views antithetical to the faith? They do not even seem to recognize the conflict.

The reaction of the Gonzaga University faculty and students to Fr. Spitzer’s veto tells us all we need to know about the degree of secularization of our Catholic institutions. The dispute does not rise to the level of a possible discussion of the nature of academic freedom, its difference from freedom of speech, and the distinction between discussion and advocacy. Who would doubt that the Church’s view of the human person and sexuality makes the assumptions of pro-abortionists look false and sinister? Those fortunate enough to have heard the late Ruth Pakaluk debate representatives of Massachusetts’s Planned Parenthood know the power of truth over falsehood. But a debate requires two sides, and the side missing from our Catholic campuses is the Catholic side.

Vetoing an invitation to Planned Parenthood is a small first step. A negative step. Catholic universities must start hiring faculty who will support, out of personal conviction, the assumptions on which Catholic higher education rests. They must evangelize their students. Philosophy and theology courses should not be what students might get in any secular higher education factory. We have a tradition, but we have all but lost it. If we do not pass it on in our universities, our students will end up not understanding why those involved in the massacre of the innocents are not welcome on campus. Fr. Spitzer’s task has just begun.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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