It’s good that many Americans — even unlikely allies Charles Koch and Michael Bloomberg — are rallying to the defense of free speech on college campuses. The freedom to discuss ideas and reasoning is how people discover truth and, hopefully, find a degree of certainty in it.
But it’s important to ensure that our appeals to free speech do not undermine the search for truth. This point is especially important concerning religious colleges, which are founded upon the conviction that certain truths are revealed by God and require assent if we are to better understand our world.
Plenty has been written over the past year about the chaos on college campuses, violent protests against guest speakers, and college students who retreat to “safe spaces” to avoid having their feelings hurt by someone else’s opinion. Campus protests of guest speakers and “offensive” speech this year were so distressing they caused Koch and Bloomberg to join together in a Wall Street Journal column in May.
“Across America, college campuses are increasingly sanctioning so-called ‘safe spaces,’ ‘speech codes,’ ‘trigger warnings,’ ‘microaggressions’ and the withdrawal of invitations to controversial speakers,” the two billionaires lament. “By doing so, colleges are creating a climate of intellectual conformity that discourages open inquiry, debate and true learning.”
The typical reaction from conservatives, often the targets of campus protests, is to jump at the defense of free speech in every instance. Understandably so: most of the campus speech that is curtailed today concerns conservative-leaning ideas that are deemed uncomfortable or offensive by students who have been fed a regular diet of progressive thought.
Some Colleges Have Distinct Missions
It’s unclear if Koch and Bloomberg believe their arguments apply to private religious institutions as well as public universities. Many believe that distinction shouldn’t matter. But the question of who should be invited to speak on campus or receive honors at commencement is different when we’re talking about religious colleges, specifically Catholic colleges and universities.
Catholic institutions have a mission and purpose distinct from secular institutions, outlined by Saint John Paul II in the Catholic Church’s constitution on higher education, “Ex corde Ecclesiae.” A Catholic college is consecrated “without reserve to the cause of truth,” and it commits to act “in accord with its Catholic identity” in every official action or commitment. Both are commitments to truth: to reasoning and open dialogue about human observation and experience, and to God’s revelation. The two are not contradictory; in fact, the Catholic college is more open to truth than modern secular academia, which simply denies religion’s insights.
There is no place at a faithfully Catholic college for the head of Planned Parenthood or a public abortion advocate such as Wendy Davis to proclaim that killing the innocent unborn is a legitimate position. These one-sided advocacy events that blatantly defy the moral teachings of the church have no academic value, do not invite true dialogue on divisive issues, and — from the perspective of a Catholic college that embraces the Catholic faith — could spiritually harm students.
Discussion Is Different from Denial
Such lectures are unwelcome at Catholic colleges not because they’re offensive or “hate speech,” but because they deliberately lead students away from truth. Controversial issues should be addressed at Catholic colleges, which are as committed to reasoning as any secular institution, but it does not serve the cause of truth to promote intrinsic moral evils and outright denials of our faith.
Commenting on Davis’ endorsement of abortion while speaking at the University of Notre Dame last April, Ed Morrissey wrote at the conservative blog Hot Air:
Perhaps Notre Dame is due a half-hearted cheer, but a cheer nonetheless, for its decision to allow abortion advocate Wendy Davis an opportunity to speak on campus. …Notre Dame should have followed Davis’ appearance with someone who could challenge Davis on those arguments and represent church teachings. However, given what has happened at universities and colleges over the last several years, I’ll take a civil forum of heterodox views over the demand for indoctrination of a narrow ideological agenda any day.
Morrissey confuses students’ freedom to follow their consciences and wrestle with even thorny moral issues with a Catholic college’s commitment to seeking and teaching truth. The question is not whether students should be free to weigh various opinions, but whether Catholic colleges should deliberately invite abortion supporters to spew propaganda at Catholic students as long as there is “balance.”
While this type of forum or debate might be entirely appropriate at a secular college — where moral claims can never be held to the light of any certain moral truth — it’s completely irresponsible for a Catholic college to knowingly persuade students of heterodox views.
“Ex corde Ecclessiae” extols dialogue, including between faith and reason and “the Gospel and culture.” But it’s the responsibility of a Catholic college — really of any college — to aim this dialogue toward the pursuit of truth. The “privileged task” of a Catholic university, Saint John Paul II pointed out, is “to unite… the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” Accepting that God is the fount of truth necessarily informs everything that we know and believe.
No More Scandalous Commencement Honors
We’re in the midst of college commencement season, and there’s no shortage of outrage going around from students and advocacy groups across the political spectrum. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) calls this time of the year “disinvitation season” due to the numerous protests of commencement speakers and honorees.
FIRE contends we should oppose protests aimed at disinviting controversial speakers to protect the free exchange of ideas: “[U]sing free speech to criticize selected speakers is superior to attempting to get the university to revoke the speakers’ platform,” FIRE’s Chris Marchese wrote in April. Marchese even cited the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor Vice President Joe Biden with its most prestigious award for American Catholics, given “in recognition of outstanding service to Church and society.”
In promoting a good principle, Marchese makes the mistake of disregarding the very mission of a Catholic college and its commitment to truth. Notre Dame’s choice to honor Biden as an exemplary Catholic is perhaps the most scandalous commencement honor of the year, due to his lifetime of support for abortion and his more recent defense of same-sex marriage and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Notre Dame’s surrounding South Bend said the university’s honor of Biden could “provoke scandal” by 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.” Rhoades noted the importance of Catholic identity and mission to colleges’ decisions about granting honors.
We Already Know the Truth, So This Isn’t a Search for It
In 2004, the U.S. bishops specifically directed Catholic institutions, including colleges, to not bestow honors on those who defy the church’s fundamental moral teachings. Honors for abortion advocates like Biden, doled out freely by Catholic college administrators, were already inappropriate per “Ex corde Ecclessiae.” But beyond issues of mission and responsibility, it just doesn’t make sense for a Catholic college to hold up someone who is an active and unrepentant champion of immoral activity as a role model for students.
As Rhoades indicated, these scandalous honors send a dangerous message to students and the greater community. Those who advocate for abortion are not just dismissing some church teaching, they’re denying truth: the truth that human life begins at conception, is created in the image and likeness of God, and has an inviolable right to life. Unfortunately, many Catholic colleges still honor those who deny the sacred dignity of human life.
The recent string of platforms and honors being given to abortion advocates by Catholic colleges sparked 31 Catholic and pro-life leaders to join in a statement reminding college leaders: “There is no sensible appeal to ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘academic freedom’ to justify university-sponsored events or activities that hold up opponents of known moral truths for special honor, as if falsehood and immorality are to be celebrated and not firmly rejected.”
The problem isn’t offensive opinions. The problem is promoting the legitimacy of positions that defy known truths God has revealed, which should guide the formation of students at Catholic colleges. The protests against speakers and honorees at Catholic colleges who are openly opposed to church teaching are not opposed to rational, free speech in the pursuit of truth. Instead, they seek to uphold the mission of Catholic colleges and their dedication to the cause of truth.
Truth is a cause we can all support, respecting disagreement among not only individuals but also institutions that are genuinely committed to increasing and not diminishing wisdom — as so many campus radicals have tried to do.