Campus Speakers: Why They Matter
What do they have in common?
For us, it’s this: Catholic colleges this spring have invited these public figures to enjoy prominent campus platforms and public honors, despite their public opposition to Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage.
Why does this matter? Because it’s a betrayal of the mission of Catholic education and a scandal. It concerns not only The Cardinal Newman Society but also, apparently, bishops and pro-life leaders who have spoken out against the colleges’ choices.
Any college, if it is to fulfill its mission, must seek and teach truth. But an authentic Catholic college has far more to offer, because it teaches the truth revealed by God — truth that is excluded by the modern academy, because its only accepted means to truth are human experience and reasoning. A Catholic college, by definition, embraces divine revelation through Christ and His Church as truth that is foundational and consistent with discovered truth.
It is right for a Catholic college to embrace academic freedom and dialogue as means of discovering truth, and the college should also respect the rights of conscience, helping students form their behaviors and understanding by the free encounter with truth. But the members of a college community, as well as invited guests, still have the responsibility to communicate in a reasonable manner with the genuine intention of seeking truth, not to deceive or to press for special interests. They also have the responsibility to respect human dignity and to uphold the common good. Appeals to academic freedom, free speech and conscience should never be allowed to undermine a Catholic college’s commitment to truth and the moral good. That means ensuring that all teaching and formation — indeed all formal activities of the college and its employees — uphold the Catholic faith.
This is why it is a violation of a Catholic college’s mission when it presents certain individuals to its students for honor with full knowledge of their opposition to the truths of the Catholic faith. There is no justification for holding up opponents of fundamental truths for special honor. It is not a question of what is permitted — no contemporary Catholic college in the United States is under any external control, so there can be no reasonable claim of “censorship” — but it is a question of the free choice of a college to honor a particular individual above all others who might otherwise have been selected. There is no topic and no circumstance that necessitates awarding a prominent platform or other honor to someone who is publicly opposed to the moral truths that help form the foundation of Catholic education.
Recently, two of the most prominent Catholic institutions in the country, the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University, have allowed speakers on campus to publicly advocate for the murder of unborn children through abortion.
This month Notre Dame plans to bestow its most prestigious award for American Catholics, given “in recognition of outstanding service to Church and society,” to Vice President Joe Biden — an individual who has spent his long political career opposing the moral teachings of the Church. And Loyola Marymount University will honor former President Bill Clinton at its commencement this Saturday, despite his public record of scandal, immorality and support for the destruction of innocent human life.
Catholic colleges compromise their Catholic identity and potentially harm the spiritual well-being of their students when they give honors and platforms to those whose public statements and actions may cause scandal. College administrators send a message to the public that worldly success and popular opinion are more important to their institutions than fidelity to Christ and His Church. And they send a message to students that it’s acceptable and even praiseworthy to unrepentantly oppose the Church’s moral teachings.
Because the Church identifies certain actions as gravely sinful and intrinsically evil, it’s appropriate that emphasis be given to scrutinizing speakers’ and honorees’ support for such activity, including legal protections and public funding. It’s also appropriate to deny the honor of inviting these individuals to have prominent platforms and lecture students, given the serious consequences of scandal or sowing confusion about moral behavior.
As Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Bishop Kevin Rhoades stated in response to Notre Dame’s intention to honor Biden, Catholic colleges risk giving the impression “that one can be ‘a good Catholic’ while also supporting or advocating for positions that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings.”
And there must be a clear understanding of the differences between serious moral concerns and what constitutes dissent from Catholic teaching. For instance, abortion is intrinsically evil in every circumstance. With regard to the death penalty, immigration policy, war and social justice, it does not diminish the Church’s serious concern about these issues to acknowledge legitimate disagreement about the application of Catholic moral principles.
As the U.S. bishops stated in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility, “[I]t is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.”
Catholic colleges have a distinct mission apart from secular institutions to seek and teach truth “animated by the spirit of Christ.” This includes the truth that all human life has dignity and must be respected and defended from the moment of conception.
Dissent from this truth of the faith — taught by Christ and His Church — should never be actively fostered by Catholic college administrators, faculty and staff. To do so is a complete betrayal of the institution’s purpose and mission. Yet, regrettably, such betrayal is all too frequent at Catholic colleges across the country.
The prominent abortion advocates cited above are not the only ones that have been honored by Catholic colleges. These honors go back decades now, including in the 12 years since the U.S. bishops specifically forbade Catholic institutions from honoring those who “act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” in their document Catholics in Political Life.
The bishops stated in the document: “It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified. … Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice.” And they emphasized that those who formulate law “have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.”
One-sided presentations from those who actively lead students, and our culture, away from the truth of the faith by spreading a false morality are not educational or conducive to teaching truth on Catholic college campuses. To prop up and honor those who actively publicly reject the truth of the faith sows confusion and dissent, not a strengthening of critical thinking and spiritual growth.
Views opposing Church teaching can and should be heard and debated on Catholic college campuses. But this should be done in way that does not potentially harm students spiritually or lead them to embrace objectively disordered positions that are contrary to fundamental moral truths. And these topics should be debated with the goal of transmitting truth.