Keeping the Faith - Out

Glenn Ricketts

Evangelical Christians often encounter some stiff hostility on secular college campuses, and find themselves pressured to conform to “diversity” or “tolerance” policies at odds with their beliefs. FIRE and ADF have documented many cases, and a 2007 survey by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research provided striking empirical evidence confirming a high level of faculty animosity towards evangelicals. Detailed case studies also appear in the NAS report, The Scandal of Social Work Education

Recent developments, however, suggest a more ecumenical style of bigotry on campus against traditional religious sensibilities. The debate sparked by the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and to deliver its commencement address on May 17 has prompted an outpouring of anti-Catholic fervor in some quarters. 

The invitation first sparked controversy among Catholics, some of whom cite the fundamental incompatibility of the church’s teachings on marriage, stem cell research and abortion with the president’s own policy positions. Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican had been slated to receive Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare medal at the same ceremony.  She decided to decline the award, on the grounds that guidelines issued by American bishops stipulated that Catholic colleges and universities “not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”  Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, responded to the controversy by asserting that the invitation to Obama did not constitute endorsement of the President’s policies, but was simply an appropriate honor extended to any sitting president of the United States.   Notre Dame has similarly honored five previous presidents. Others have defended Jenkins’ decision by pointing out that the Vatican and the Pope regularly receive statesmen whose own positions are fundamentally at odds with those of the church. Shouldn’t a university provide an open forum for diverse ideas?

Controversies of this sort arise with some frequency at sectarian colleges and universities and we’re happy to leave it to Catholics to sort out exactly where to draw the line between beliefs and institutional policies. But the reaction in the broader, secular world of higher education to this intra-Catholic debate is something else. It illustrates an ugly attitude that is often hidden but in this case has found its voice. 

The stories in the academic trade press were fairly neutral, although Inside Higher Ed couldn’t resist a title (“The Battle to Control Catholic Commencements”) suggesting an epic struggle. Indiana’s AAUP affiliate also jumped in, declaring that should the University withdraw its invitation, it would be violating academic freedom and obstructing the free exchange of ideas. We’re not clear that a Catholic university’s decision about this matter, one way or the other, is either epic or entwined with the fundamental purposes of higher education. This is mainly a matter of how a church wishes to balance its doctrinal teachings with its efforts to win public recognition.

Inside Higher Ed and the AAUP may have exaggerated a little, but some of the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) and Inside Higher Ed threw caution to the wind. The comments sections of these publications attracted some strikingly vitriolic remarks:   

Religion is dead. The Catholic Church just hasn’t unscrewed the electrodes yet. Get over it Ms. Glendon. (Chronicle, #12)

Considering the 1700 year history of genocidal activities against non-Catholics, it’s curious that the Catholic cult views itself as considerate of human life. (Chronicle, #115)

The saddest thing about this entire issue is how completely out of touch the Catholic church is with their own parishioners.   How many Catholics would immediately take their teenage daughters to Planned Parenthood for an unwanted pregnancy (Out of state, of course) How many Catholics are whole-heartedly in favor of stem cell research? And for heaven’s sake, how many Catholic women take oral contraceptives……… the Catholic Church’s constituency is really quite small, probably half or less the number they believe it is, which makes them seem like one of the most amazing Ponzi schemes of all time. (Dakota Doc, IHE)

What a hypocrite. Ms. Glendon wants to be at Harvard no doubt because it is first rate, but she wants Notre Dame to be a Sunday School and not a first-rate university. (Chronicle, #15)

I am very pleased that this happened. It exposes Ms. Glendon for the complete phony that she is. I would…..submit that Ms. Glendon shows disrespect and contempt to the Head of State of the United States of America. I would further remind Ms Glendon that abortion is sanctioned law in America. As an attorney, she is bound to respect the laws of the land. What other laws would she choose to break in the court room? While one would think that the bishops would uphold the laws of the land, I am not surprised that they do not. The Catholic church has always believed that it is above the law. President Obama has more moral fiber in his pinkie finger than Ms. Glendon does in her entire being. She was a poor choice for this award [That is, the Laetare medal that Glendon was to receive] and I am delighted that she publicly revealed her unworthiness as its recipient. (Chronicle, #101)

How many people have [sic] the church killed when they invaded the Western hemisphere sanctioned Doctrine of Discovery [not sure what that is – it’s the writer’s term. Can anyone help?] and enslavement of Africans and Native Americans. Give me a break. Obama should speak. It’s about time someone with guts takes a stand against the Christian hypocrites. (Chronicle, #24)

Glendon is not fit to teach a law course as she has no respect for anyone, including the President who disagrees with her religious beliefs. Harvard ought to do a better job vetting its faculty to keep these nut jobs out of positions where they can do harm. Glendon ought to be teaching at Ave Maria University instead. (Chronicle, #108)

If the Church really valued life, it would encourage people to create it carefully and responsibly. But it doesn’t, because it wants to fill the pews and the expensive private schools. People who love life and respect it use birth control. (Chronicle, #105)

Whew. Some pretty raw stuff there, proffered with no evident inhibitions in those who posted it. And while I know that blogs can occasionally attract some cranky eccentrics, you have to bear in mind that we’re looking at the Chronicle of Higher Education and IHE, where the regular readership consists mainly of higher education professionals. As one bewildered respondent aptly put it:

I’m a little freaked out by the level of ignorance and irrationality expressed here. Are you really educators? There are few arguments articulated here……I hope you are not all professors! (Chronicle, #49)

Alas, I think that most of them probably are professors, and I’d be willing to bet that they also support “tolerance” and “respect for diversity” at their own institutions. 

Some of the other comments chimed in with the AAUP, holding that the university should be an open forum for the free exchange of ideas:

Let’s hear it for the fundamental moral value of democratic pluralism! Universities are supposed to teach people how to think, not what to think. Can you do that without entertaining opposing points of view? (Chronicle, #19)

I am disappointed in the closed-minded thinking of the leaders at this esteemed college. Initiations [sic] of higher learning used to be an environment of open discussion, exchange of culture and ideas. The exchange of ideas at college campuses of the sixties is why we have a black president and the black, brown and yellow cultures have enriched our melting pot society. I expected more than a “do as I demand, speak what I permit and listen only to those who agree with me” approach from the faculty and staff of Notre Dame. It sounds a little Talibanish to me. Why are you afraid of differing opinions and open discussion about those thoughts? If I want Catholic dogma, I’ll go to church: you call yourself a university, act like one! (IHE, An Old College Cop)

The National Association of Scholars is certainly in favor of the open exchange of ideas, but we recognize a complication that seems to elude Chronicler #19 and Old College Cop.   Sectarian colleges have a right to exist, and their existence depends on their ability to articulate and, in some contexts, maintain fidelity to their creeds. That means, in the context of these institutions, the open exchange of ideas bumps into real limits. No surprise here. In the founding document of the AAUP, the 1915 Statement of Principles, the exceptional nature of sectarian colleges is spelled out with the recognition that academic freedom in the pure sense doesn’t apply in these situations. The 1940 AAUP statement elaborated the idea. Sectarian colleges could enjoy academic freedom within the limits of their credal positions, but should make these limits clear. 

Thus it seems—let’s say uncharitable, to chastise Catholics who have doubts about Notre Dame’s decision to award President Obama an honorary degree.   Academic freedom is not at stake. But some element of civility may be. The presiding values of contemporary American academe—“openness,” “tolerance” and “diversity”—don’t mean much if they can be set aside the moment religion enters the room.

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