U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Free Speech And Academic Freedom On Catholic Campuses

A subtitle for this post might be: “The Travails Of U.S. Catholic Intellectual Life At The Turn Of The 21st Century.” Historians, you know, like to invoke the weight of time in their arguments.

I offer two addendums to my post here a few weeks ago on the controversy about President Barack Obama giving the commencement at the University of Notre Dame.

First, this piece authored by Cary Nelson, current president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Here’s a relevant excerpt:

The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. …Nor was it necessary for Columbia’s president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.

But then efforts to get an invited speaker disinvited are not necessarily really based on anger at giving the person a platform, especially since real monsters often acquit themselves poorly on stage. They are as much as anything else efforts to housebreak American higher education, to establish external forces and constituencies as campus powers. They are about establishing who is really in charge — students and faculty, or politicians, talk show radio hosts, and donors. Get a university to cancel Churchill or Ayers and anyone on the political or cultural spectrum whose views you oppose can be your next target.

Second, this April 3 post by John Thavis at the Catholic News Service blog. It contains three important points from recent history—two from unnamed Vatican officials and one from Mr. Thavis (so 1a, 1b, 2):

1. Non-Americans at the Vatican …seem more comfortable with the idea of accommodating dignitaries and civil authorities in a church setting, even when their political positions aren’t in line with the church’s teaching. …Two episodes in particular have been mentioned to me by Vatican officials over the last week.

(a) French President Nicholas Sarkozy received the title of honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran during his visit to Rome in 2007, a tradition that goes back centuries. Sarkozy, who also met Pope Benedict, supports legal abortion. The Vatican and the Diocese of Rome seemed to have no problem with honoring the twice-divorced Sarkozy, who says he is a Catholic. In fact, the Lateran vespers service to bestow the title was “all pomp and circumstance,” as one Vatican official put it.

(b) When Pope Benedict was invited to give a major talk at the Rome’s Sapienza University in 2008, the criticism and protest by some professors and students who didn’t want to give him a platform caused the pope to cancel the appearance. The episode was viewed at the Vatican as a prime example of intolerance.

2. Last year, a minor controversy erupted at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, when Cherie Blair was invited to speak on “Women and Human Rights.” Some U.S. and British groups called her “pro-abortion” and tried to get the invitation rescinded; the university refused to cancel, despite receiving hundreds of complaints. During her talk, Blair said she had difficulties with the church’s teaching on responsible parenthood, but implied that her problems were with church teaching on contraception, not abortion.

We clearly see here the three main issues laid on the table in relation to Rome: honors, academic freedom, and abortion. With Mr. Thavis’ examples in mind, I forward the following: Even for U.S. Catholics who less stridently argue that President Obama should not be honored (as opposed to being dis-invited or not allowed to speak), how does the recent history of the Catholic Church’s intellectual life in Rome, on these three issues, square with your position? – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. This post makes excellent points Tim. Universities invite potentially controversial speakers to campus all the time. In my research, I’ve been looking into Sheldon Hackney’s tenure as president at Penn (because his nomination to chair the NEH by Clinton in 1993 caused such a firestorm of controversy). The Penn Black Student Union brought Minister Louis Farrakhan to campus on April 13, 1988. This, of course, turned out to be very controversial, especially since Penn has so many Jewish students and alumni. Hackney received many angry letters from people saying that, although they believed in free speech, they thought Farrakhan’s barnd of hate didn’t merit protection, especially from Penn. But he rightly allowed the Farrakhan speech, realizing that such allowance did not entail endorsement.

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