Quodlibets: Drawing the Line

Eleanor Smeal was invited, then disinvited, then re-invited, to speak at the Catholic University of America. Ms. Smeal is an advocate of abortion on demand and generally in favor of things inimical to Catholic belief and practice. The Smeal matter became something of a media event when some students objected to the invitation; they were promptly labeled enemies of free speech in the let­ters column of the Washington Post.

More recently, at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, it was announced that as part of a series on sexuality the girls would be told all about various methods of con­traception. It is, of course, unequivocally Catholic doctrine that the use of artificial contraceptives is a serious sin.

Father Byron, President of the Catholic University, has been vocal in his comments on Cardinal Baum’s recent schema on Catholic education, announcing solemnly that there must be no external control of Catholic universities. But of course the question is whether there is any internal control, direction, guidance — call it what you will. Someone who sees that the Catholic character of such places is acknowledged and preserved.

There are doubtless members of the faculty at Father Byron’s university who openly teach the opposite of Catholic moral doctrine. At least one Catholic theologian at Marquette thinks abortion is sometimes okay. As for con­traception, it would almost be a question of finding any moral theologian, at any Catholic university or college anywhere in the United States, who teaches and defends the Catholic position.

Universities are places where anything can be dis­cussed. This justification is often given for the sort of inci­dent with which I began. No doubt anti-semitism and the holocaust are discussed at Yeshiva and Brandeis. But discus­sion is one thing, advocacy is another. Ms. Smeal recently spoke at Notre Dame Law School, under the auspices of the Thomas White Center, and there was a good discussion afterward. It is easy to make a case for that sort of thing. This is not to say that an advocate of anything whatever has a right to speak on any university campus, or that universities have obligations to provide forums for just anyone. Secular universities may have a hard time deciding where the line is to be drawn, but Catholic universities and colleges should both know where to draw the line and draw it.

What one worries about in Father Byron’s reaction to Cardinal Baum is the seeming suggestion that Catholic universities must conform to the secular model. It is sometimes asked, by Catholics, whether a university can be at once great and Catholic. Given the history of universities, the question is an odd one. Unless, that is, what is really meant by “great” is secular. And then the answer to the question is surely no.

The time of the great presidents of Catholic universities is almost over now. It will end next year when Father Hesburgh retires at Notre Dame. I find it difficult to share the fear of those who speak of external control of Catholic universities, if by this is meant that the local bishop will become a factor. How many bishops do you know who are likely to do that? Given the presidents and bishops we have, the prospect is for no control — internal or external.

Unless we say our prayers and God is merciful there will be no colleges or universities worthy of the name Catholic before many years have passed.

Except for the new ones, like Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Christendom. God is merciful after all.

  • 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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