Saturday, April 18, 2009

University speakers

Discerning the Truth: Catholic university speakers

In recent years, under the pursuit of academic freedom, American Catholic universities have conducted or allowed activities that by their nature, their content, or the value system portrayed are contrary to the Catholic faith. As the Catholic university mission is pursuit of God’s Truth as enlightened by the Church He established, these actions would seem contrary to their own Catholic mission statement. Yet the interpretation held by these university officials solidly supports their decision to allow such actions. One such official explained “…we respect the broadly held norms of academic freedom and so do not automatically screen out as unacceptable every speaker or event that might appear to some to be in opposition to Church teaching” even if considered “distasteful” such as annual drag queen shows. In the academic pursuit of Truth, all of life’s issues will be evaluated.

That in itself is certainly necessary; one must be open to examining controversial issues to attain order and reinforce one’s value system. But the approach to examining these issues is a symptom of the greater problem. To better understand the evils of pornography, must a college student then be encouraged to engage in its use? Of course not! Why then to examine the issues faced in society by homosexuals must a Catholic college hold a drag queen show for its students? This is not an examination of the issue but, rather, a glorification of the chosen lifestyle.

Intuitively, then, the pursuit of God’s Truth via academic freedom must be conducted within that Truth as already revealed to us, or we risk succumbing to the guiles of falsehoods.

Of late, then is the issue of appropriate speakers for Catholic university events. Whether a talk on public policy or a graduation commencement address, such events take place year-round. Like any other organization, every university has a mission statement and all activities would ultimately support pursuit of learning through the approach or direction it puts forth. As an example, we would not expect to see Noam Chomsky giving a commence address at Yeshiva university due to potentially conflicting points of views. These conflicting views would contradict the pursuit of learning as directed by that university’s mission.

Yet we see, at a growing pace, Catholic universities pursuing popular speakers whose views, actions, affiliations and activities are in direct conflict with the Catholic faith (which then is in conflict which its mission statement). The most recent events in question are the address given April 14, 2009 by President Obama at Georgetown University and the proposed commencement address by Obama at Notre Dame University. When speaking at Georgetown, Obama’s team requested (and was granted) permission to cover up the symbol IHS and the cross, both of which stand for Jesus Christ. According to the Washington Times newspaper, this was done to provide a specific background key to their communication strategy used at “policy speeches”. Yet other public officials including presidents have never had a need to remove the identity of the facility at which the speech was taking place, and replace it with a sterile backdrop of no identity, as part of their communication strategy. In fact, as can be seen here, Obama’s speech at Wesleyan University (a Methodist university) in 2008 did not require covering up of symbols reflecting the nature of their university even though he was a public official at that time. .

What is a communication strategy? Every organization puts together strategic plans that guide how it enacts its mission. Part of those plans should be communication strategies to ensure that important information is disseminated, misinformation is curtailed, guidance and formation take place. Communication strategies are important as they support the culture of the organization, its agenda and should reflect its values.

Our current president appears to have on his agenda the secularization of government; hence the control of backgrounds whenever he speaks publicly. Whether this agenda is “right” or “wrong” is not a discussion for this forum. The issue is not whether we agree with the secularization of American government; the issue is whether this agenda disrupts the Catholic university from carrying forth its mission of evangelization. It clearly did so at Georgetown.

St. Ignatius teaches us to discern God’s will by active indifference. Not to be confused with a lack of caring, indifference is meant for us to put aside our own judgements and preferences so as to succumb to God’s preference. To reach a conclusion as to whether a controversial speaker should be presenting at a Catholic university, we need to first look at the instruction already provided by our Papacy.

Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities, stated (with my emphasis added):

(Para. 4) "It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth...The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished. "

In the identity of the Catholic university, John Paul II instructs that the work/actions of the Catholic universities still must ensure the "rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good". The Catholic university MUST have "fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;" In the Catholic university, "Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities " [para. 14]. In its relationship to the Church, "One consequence of its essential relationship to the Church is that the institutional fidelity of the University to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals. Catholic members of the university community are also called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that this implies. Non-Catholic members are required to respect the Catholic character of the University, " [para. 27] He gives the mission of the Catholic university as "a continuous quest for truth through its research, and the preservation and communication of knowledge for the good of society." [para. 30] Thus having speakers present to students who are outwardly anti-Catholic (hence anti-Truth) in their views, actions and behaviours is contrary to the specific instructions given to us by our Pope. "If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society." [para. 32] ... "A specific priority is the need to examine and evaluate the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective, and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life." [para. 33] Thus the promotion of social justice is to be conducted in a manner that embraces the value and dignity of human life, with human life already being defined as existing from conception through death.

(Para. 45) "A Catholic University must become more attentive to the cultures of the world of today, and to the various cultural traditions existing within the Church in a way that will promote a continuous and profitable dialogue between the Gospel and modern society. Among the criteria that characterize the values of a culture are above all, the meaning of the human person, his or her liberty, dignity, sense of responsibility, and openness to the transcendent. To a respect for persons is joined the preeminent value of the family, the primary unit of every human culture."

The emphasis is that of John Paul II, not mine. Note then his desire to emphasize the meaning of the human person, of the family, and our responsibility to both.

Finally, in Part II, Article 2, paragraph 4 he clarifies that "Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity."

Pope John Paul II made it clear, then, that the mission of the Catholic university is one of evangelizing God’s objective Truth, not a pursuit of relativism, and that every single activity or action must be conducted in compliance with that Truth, hence fidelity with the Church. It is very clear that pursuit of academic freedom must always portray and ultimately will support Catholic dogma and doctrine.

Our Pope Benedict XVI stated, in his address at the Catholic University of America April 17, 2008 (my emphasis added):

"First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. " [para. 2]

This is important as it then clarifies that everything the university does must reveal God’s Truth.

"This task is never easy; it involves the entire Christian community and motivates each generation of Christian educators to ensure that the power of God’s truth permeates every dimension of the institutions they serve. " [para. 3]

"All the Church’s activities stem from her awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself: in his goodness and wisdom, "... "God’s desire to make himself known, and the innate desire of all human beings to know the truth, provide the context for human inquiry into the meaning of life" (author note: seeking God through inquiry is the foundational basis for education, the arts and sciences). [para. 7]

Thus we see reinforced the instruction that the Catholic university, as an instrument of the Church, must bear the message of God’s Truth in every activity. We begin to wonder, then, why it seems ok for Catholic universities to do otherwise, particularly when inviting speakers who do not share the full Truth and are in fact contrary to it? Have these institutions lost their Catholic identity? Pope Benedict XVI goes on to say:

"This same dynamic of communal identity – to whom do I belong? – vivifies the ethos of our Catholic institutions. A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction – do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? " [para. 8]

"Again, we see why fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning. Yet we all know, and observe with concern, the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God" [para. 9]

But what about academic freedom?

"Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves. A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. " [para. 9]

"Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith" [para. 10]

Well, it is clear that a true pursuit of academic freedom can only be conducted within eyes of the faith, not outside of it, because we cannot expect to find God’s Truth without Him. Attempts to use academic freedom as an excuse for activities that contradict our faith beliefs, that expose students to behaviours that are not Christian (remember to love the sinner but not the sin!), or promote speakers whose values contradict our faith...these are in error.

“It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another ...Drawing upon divine wisdom, she [the Church] sheds light on the foundation of human morality and ethics, and reminds all groups in society that it is not praxis that creates truth but truth that should serve as the basis of praxis. Far from undermining the tolerance of legitimate diversity, such a contribution illuminates the very truth which makes consensus attainable, and helps to keep public debate rational, honest and accountable. Similarly the Church never tires of upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong, without which hope could only wither, giving way to cold pragmatic calculations of utility which render the person little more than a pawn on some ideological chess-board.” [para. 11]

This is precisely what we have seen in the Catholic university today. Praxis, the practical application of learning, does not give us Truth. It is Truth that gives us learning. Thus to put on a Drag Queen show event under the guise of academic freedom is not the pursuit of knowledge and Truth at all. It is in error.

"It comes as no surprise, then, that not just our own ecclesial communities but society in general has high expectations of Catholic educators. This places upon you a responsibility and offers an opportunity...When nothing beyond the individual is recognized as definitive, the ultimate criterion of judgment becomes the self and the satisfaction of the individual’s immediate wishes. The objectivity and perspective, which can only come through a recognition of the essential transcendent dimension of the human person, can be lost. Within such a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. [para. 13]

"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.” [para. 16]

Catholic universities, like all organizations, are accountable to various stakeholders. Parents and students expect that what they are being taught is the full Faith of the Church. Once graduated, as Alumni they expect the institution to maintain that fullness of Truth which in itself generates academic rigour and deep learning. Both the Catholic community and the community at large expect any institution designated as Catholic to do the same. Finally, the financial stakeholders donate time, money and other resources for the purpose of propagating that precise education in Truth. When a university acts outside of its Catholic mission and fidelity to the Church, it breaks the trust of all these stakeholders.

Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual. " [para. 17]

Now we are prepared to continue our discernment of the current issue: Obama speaking at Notre Dame University. We’ve objectively reviewed the mission of the Catholic institution and found that it is unquestionably required to always, at all times, act in accordance with Faith beliefs. This includes not allowing activities that, while not directly a sin in themselves, still support sinful activity or confuse the participant as to good vs. evil, Truth vs. falsehood, rights vs. wrong. We then wonder why it is wrong to have a speaker with opposing viewpoints present at a Catholic university if the speech he delivers does not contain any contradictory material.

When any speaker is known to a community, he or she carries into their speeches their views and actions of the past and present. Thus, while the words of a speech may be benign, its meaning must be derived from within the full context of that speaker's value system. It drives their word choices, sentence structures and logical structuring of the speech itself; it positions the content of their speech to purposely invoke a certain meaning to its listener.

The purpose of any speaker is to convey a message of import to the students, family, employees and greater community of the University; thus the purpose of a speaker at a Catholic institution has a responsibility to do so evangelizing God's Truth as this is inherent in the activity itself. Having speakers who outwardly contradict God's Truth in their views and actions is clearly contrary to the instructions given to us by our past and present Popes. While as a country we are excited to have a president who represents a minority race, in hopes that it will continue to solidify the bridge over the racial divide, we cannot let our well-founded emotions fool us into thinking it is ok to allow such speakers to evangelize to our students and the fuller society through our universities.

Regardless of the topic of the speech to be given, having such speakers is not an evangelization of the Faith and so is contrary to the mission of the Catholic university.

Thus, our discernment of indifference has left us with the answer. Many of us will now be uncomfortable with that answer because of our well-intended passion and desire for leaders who will champion the environment or an end to war. The next step then is to do as the Holy ones before us: let go and let God. Leave it to God to form in you a further understanding of how He wants social justice enacted without compromising our Faith to do so. This letting go will open you up to receiving His grace of continued understanding and wisdom. Be patient; it will make sense in God’s timing.

As for Notre Dame, the list of potential speakers worldwide is enormous. Many other choices exist. Every wrong choice is a missed opportunity. When Catholic universities choose, and then later insist upon, speakers who contradict the Faith, this not only undermines the university’s evangelization efforts. They are also missing the opportunity for God to provide a speaker who would enhance their evangelization efforts. One whose speech might provide just the right words to inspire the next Mother Theresa.

About the author: After many years in business, Debra Black transitioned those strengths into University administration. A 22-year veteran of American higher education in public and private (not Catholic) institutions, she has worked with universities around the world and has held expertise in both graduate and undergraduate international and domestic programs. She currently works for the University of Liverpool (England), the University of Maryland, Southern New Hampshire University, and Jonkoping International Business School (Sweden). She is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and of MENSA, and an associate to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her past associations include Commissioner for the City of Glendale, Arizona, Board member of the Whatcom County Pregnancy Clinic, varied industry associations, and Church ministries to the homeless, the unborn, and the parish. This article solely reflects Ms. Black’s views and does not reflect the views of any of Ms. Black’s current or past affiliations.

Works cited:

John Paul II. (15 August 1990) Apostolic Constitution of The Supreme Pontiff: John Paul II
On Catholic Universities. Libreria Editrice Vaticana (retrieved from )

Benedict XVI (17 April 2008) Apostolic Journey to the United States of America and Visit to the United Nations Organization Headquarters: Meeting With Catholic Educators, Address Of His Holiness Benedict XVI. Conference Hall of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Libreria Editrice Vaticana (retrieved from )

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Conscience Clause Rescission: act now to stop!


Rescission Proposal: 0991-AB49

On April 9, the 30 day comment period will end in which citizens can voice their concern of President Obama's rescission of the conscience clause. This clause allows medical professionals and organizations (such as hospitals) to choose not to provide services which are contrary to their religious beliefs or missions. This specifically pertains to the performance of abortions and sterilizations. Information on the clause and to make a public comment can be found at

The conscience clause has been in effect since the 1970's, for over 30 years. During that time, abortions and sterilizations have grown in both demand and availability, being readily available throughout the country even in rural areas. Therefore, the existence of this regulation has in no way limited the ability of all Americans to receive these services if they choose.

This clause has, however, protected the freedom of both medical professionals and medical organizations (a corporation is legally a "person"). It allows those individuals to conduct their medical work without being forced into any conduct that would contradict their faith views. It allows hospitals with faith-based missions to continue to practice as well. Note that Catholic hospitals are the largest provider of hospital services in the United states. Then consider other hospitals with faith based missions, and you can see the import of this clause to allowing these organizations to exist, as well as see that this clause has in no way limited availability of abortion services.

There is an old saying "if it ain't broke, why fix it?". This is true here. After 30 years, this amendment is well tested and has not inhibited the quality of health care provided to Americans.

So why now is the Obama administration attempting to rescind this clause? We don't know, but clearly it is not for the purpose of improving health care.

What will be the results if this is rescinded? Catholic hospitals across the country, the largest provider of hospital services in this nation, will close down. Medical professionals of all faiths will risk losing their job due to religious discrimination or have to willingly give up their job. So the quality of healthcare IN EVERY SINGLE AREA OF HEALTH will be drastically and negatively affected, as well as religious discrimination and persecution institutionalized in our healthcare system. And all done to force mandatory abortion services that are not even needed because sufficient facilities and personnel exist to provide these.

So why now is I the Obama administration attempting to rescind this clause? It makes absolutely no sense.


Our country was founded upon religious freedom. To repeal this clause and force individuals as well as medical organizations to conduct acts against their religious beliefs or corporate mission statements is discrimination. There are sufficient providers of abortion and sterilization services across the country, even in rural areas; it is clearly not necessary to force medical professionals and organizations to conduct these services. This clause has been in effect for over 30 years without causing any undue hardship to the American people. Therefore, there is no sound, need-based reason for rescinding this clause. The reason can only be discrimination against people of faith. In rescinding this clause, our government is potentially ruining our entire health care system simply for the purpose of making abortion mandatory (note, it is already easily available). Even citizens with no particular faith belief can see how their overall health care will be adversely affected by this action. This defies all logic and so can only be hate based.
It is important that every American, whether or not of any faith belief, stand up and insist this clause remain in effect for the continued quality healthcare of all American citizens IN ALL FIELDS OF MEDICINE. Don't let a political agenda destroy our healthcare system.

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