Open debate: Can Catholic schools handle it?

One organization’s efforts to push Catholic universities to adhere more strictly to the Church’s teachings have forced schools around the country to take sides in a debate on free expression.

And student newspaper editors have had different experiences reporting on their schools depending on how closely their universities enforce alignment with the Church’s teachings.

Students should be allowed to debate and have diverse opinions on different issues, said Patrick Reilly, executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society, the organization behind the push. But a problem arises when Catholic institutions provide resources for speakers, events and organizations — including student newspapers — that go against Catholic teachings, Reilly said.

“We believe that the college or university does have publisher’s rights to set certain policies” governing student newspapers at Catholic schools, he said.

Because Catholic universities are private institutions, administrators do not have the same constitutional limitations in censoring student media that are found at public institutions.

Identity crisis?

Some would argue that when a Catholic university fosters open debate, it compromises its Catholic identity. Others say open debate goes hand in hand with Catholic ideals.

Reilly said schools like Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., are eroding their Catholic identities when they sponsor events for students that entertain viewpoints not supported by the Church.

Specifically, Reilly’s organization actively campaigns for Catholic universities to ban “The Vagina Monologues,” a play with sexually explicit language often performed on Valentine’s Day designed to celebrate the female body.

Twelve of 24 Catholic universities that had planned to allow the play on campus this year have banned it, reported the Cardinal Newman Society’s Web site.

According to an article in The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, Reilly visited campus in February and accused faculty, administrators and student organizations of not upholding the Church’s principles and teachings.

“This is a university with sort of an identity crisis,” said Moises Mendoza, editor in chief of The Hoya. “They don’t know whether they want to be secular or Catholic.”

But a spokesman for Georgetown said the university does not endorse “The Vagina Monologues” simply because it allows it to be performed on campus.

“As an academic community committed to the free exchange of ideas, it is important that students, faculty and staff at Georgetown are able to engage in dialogue on important issues of the day,” said Erik Smulson, university spokesman. “Georgetown University does not endorse the views in ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ but respects the rights of students to do so.”

Georgetown broke all legal ties with the Catholic Church in 1969, according to an article in The Hoya. But the university still retains a Catholic identity by referring to itself as the “nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university.”

Reilly said Catholic schools like Georgetown have secularized beyond where they ought to be as Catholic institutions, which in turn detracts their religious missions.

Mendoza, The Hoya editor, called Reilly’s viewpoint and his organization “extreme.”

“I think a fundamental tenet of Catholicism is to be open to other people’s ideas,” he said. “The Jesuit philosophy believes that free and open debate is important.”

But Mendoza said the administration at Georgetown is “secretive” and university officials are not as accessible as he would like them to be.

“It’s not transparent enough,” he said. “If you want to get an appointment to meet with the university president it takes a couple months.”

Although Mendoza said Georgetown administrators have for the most part allowed the newspaper to report freely, the paper is attempting to become independent from the university to close the door completely on administrative control.

“We really believe that it doesn’t make much sense to have an organization that we’re reporting on own us,” Mendoza said.

But Smulson, the university spokesman, said if the paper severs ties with the university, it cannot keep its name “The Hoya” because it is trademarked by the university.

“It would be disappointing to us if we couldn’t go independent with the name,” Mendoza said. “I think some people view it as a sacred cow.”

Different school, different take

At Catholic University of America, also in Washington, D.C., a student newspaper editor expressed frustration with what she perceived as her school’s selectivity in adhering to Catholic principles.

“There are professors here who are divorced and that’s against [the teachings of] the Catholic Church,” said Kate McGovern, editor in chief of The Tower, Catholic University’s student newspaper. “We actually have a huge number of gay students on campus.”

The Tower’s ability to produce a quality newspaper has been limited in recent years due to clashes between administrators and Tower staff, McGovern said.

In 2004, the newspaper wrote editorials that were critical of the university’s decision to ban actor Stanley Tucci from speaking on campus because of his pro-choice stance, which is in opposition to the Catholic Church’s official stance on abortion.

Shortly after publishing the critical editorials, Tower editors have said administrators cut all lines of communication with the paper.

Editors have said the tension between administrators and paper staffers may have caused the university to cut thousands of dollars in scholarships for student journalists.

University officials did not return calls seeking comment.

“We took a hit in staff and along with our scholarships we lost the ability to hire work-study students,” McGovern said.

The paper employed work-study students to maintain the paper’s Web site and mail out subscriptions, she said.

But staff members have found ways of adapting without the scholarship money.

“Even the editor in chief is stuffing envelopes at this point,” McGovern said. “We all have other jobs. I’m a waitress downtown.”

McGovern did say administrators are slowly talking to student journalists again. For example, the university’s president provided comments for a story the paper did on administrators’ decision to ban “The Vagina Monologues,” she said.

Last year Vice President Dick Cheney spoke on campus. Cheney’s views on the war contradict the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Iraq War, McGovern said.

“That’s a real gray area, the war,” she said. “People protested, you even had Republican students protesting because the school wasn’t being consistent” with who they allowed to speak on campus.

But Reilly, from the Cardinal Newman Society, said the Catholic Church does not condemn war and capital punishment in all circumstances.

“With regard to moral issues like abortion, artificial contraception, homosexual activity etc., the Church teaches these are gravely immoral in all circumstances,” he said. “The Church does not oppose the death penalty or war in every circumstance, and Catholics are not bound to oppose the Iraq War or the death penalty in the United States.”

For McGovern, however, bringing Cheney to campus is just another example of how her university selectively aligns with the Church. She would like to see the university foster an atmosphere where it is OK to talk about controversial issues.

“I think part of being a Catholic is understanding other points of view,” she said. “I went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school and I was taught to understand other people’s points of view. I feel like there’s sort of a lack of respect [at Catholic University] for people with opposing points of view.”