Was it “appalling and disgraceful” that Sacred Heart University, a Catholic institution, recently allowed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to hold a campaign rally on campus?
It can be difficult to cut through the blatant opportunism of both anti-Trump critics and Sacred Heart’s president, whose defense of the event (but not Trump) only thinly disguises his university’s play for media attention and the prestige of hosting a presidential candidate. Both sides claim concern for Sacred Heart’s Catholic identity.
The Fairfield, Connecticut university has come under fire from a number of angry commenters, especially on the university’s Facebook page, expressing outrage that Sacred Heart has betrayed its Catholic identity and mission by hosting Trump. The wealthy developer has been accused of nastiness, bigotry, inciting violence and “the promotion of evil.” Trump would obviously deny any of this and claim he was misunderstood. But he does hold some positions that are clearly contrary to Catholic teaching, such as his support for abortion in certain cases.
Sacred Heart President Dr. John Petillo claims the political rally on campus was an appropriate means of educating students, and denies any implication that the university compromised its Catholic identity. He also denies what seems to be the worse crime for both Petillo and his critics: that by hosting the rally, Sacred Heart implied support for Trump’s candidacy.
I happen to agree that Sacred Heart should not have allowed the Trump rally on campus, precisely because it is a Catholic university. But to understand why, we have to look beyond political opportunism and a university’s reach for secular prestige. It’s worthwhile to first examine some of what Sacred Heart does actively and unapologetically sponsor on campus — which apparently those protesting Trump’s visit aren’t that upset about.
Catholic Identity Concerns
This is the same university that last year invited former U.S. Senator and Majority Leader George Mitchell to speak at commencement and awarded him an honorary degree. Mitchell was the champion of the Freedom of Choice Act during his time in the Senate, which would have made abortion protection mandatory in state and federal laws.
Sacred Heart also continues to have former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO Linda McMahon serve as vice chairman of its board despite her public support for legalized abortion during her failed U.S. Senate campaigns. The university even named a new building after McMahon.
Trump has said mean things, and he’s certainly no model for Catholic values. But Trump has never cast a vote supporting the murder of millions of innocent babies. He has also never officially represented a Catholic institution while publicly promoting anti-Catholic positions.
In addition to honoring those who support the grave moral evil of abortion, Sacred Heart exhibits a complete lack of concern for the souls of its students, church teaching, and its Catholic identity in the manner in which it publicly addresses sexuality.
In the “LGBTQ Resources” section of its website, the university tells students: “Here at the Sacred Heart University Counseling Center, we embrace a positive view of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) identities and relationships.” The statement goes on to insist that Sacred Heart isn’t concerned about right and wrong when it comes to gender and sexuality. Such statements directly contradict Catholic teaching, and can only lead students to embrace mortal sin and separation from God. The university also sponsors a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club on campus that is “trying to combat” opposition to same-sex relationships.
A separate LGBTQ Resources section endorses the organizations Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, PFLAG, and Campus Pride — all of which support same-sex marriage in opposition to church teaching. Campus Pride is also the organizer of the “Shame List,” which attacks Catholic colleges for defending their religious freedom by requesting exemptions to Title IX’s “gender identity” provisions.
In its resources for women, the university suggests female students visit the websites of the pro-abortion National Organization for Women (NOW) and the NOW Foundation. Under “General Health,” Sacred Heart points female students to websites such as Go Ask Alice, which provides non-medical and morally objectionable advice.
Additionally, a “Healthy Habits” newsletter series intended for Sacred Heart employees that bears the university’s logo encouraged using birth control to prevent pregnancy — a mortal sin according to Catholic teaching. No mention of Catholic teaching was included.
This information was found doing a cursory search of the university’s website. It’s likely the Catholic identity abuses are even deeper and more widespread. With this in mind, it does seem that the sudden outrage and selective concern about Sacred Heart’s Catholicity from those who oppose Trump is more politically motivated than religiously motivated.
University Defends Trump Event
In a blog post published the day before Trump’s campaign stop, Petillo admitted “there have been negative responses” to Trump’s visit “based on opposition to his philosophies, opinions and pronouncements.” He added: “Some also have questioned whether—as a Catholic university—we should allow him access to our facilities, as some of his stances and proclamations appear contrary to our religious beliefs and values.”
This is a serious issue for any Catholic college to consider when allowing guest speakers on campus. By their very nature, private Catholic colleges have a mission that is distinct and unique in comparison to public secular colleges. A Catholic college isn’t meant to serve as a forum where all ideas are equally valid and carry equal weight — as public colleges pretend is the case on their campuses. Abortion is always wrong, sex outside of marriage — that is, marriage as the church understands it — is always wrong, etc. Truth exists in the Catholic tradition, and Catholic educational institutions have a responsibility to try and lead students to truth.
But Petillo just throws his hands up and says that if they used the criteria of evaluating and approving guest speakers based on their public positions being contrary to the Catholic faith, “[W]e would eliminate candidates from both [political] parties.” What would be so bad about that? It might actually be better for Sacred Heart, and its students, in the long run.
The straw-man argument Petillo then lays down is that by not allowing politicians to speak on campus, the university “would be absent from the [political] discussion and the democratic process.” Nonsense. Do they not have televisions or the Internet at Sacred Heart? There are a myriad of other — and more appropriate — ways to involve students and staff in discussions of political issues.
Worse, Petillo claims it would be “an injustice to our students” to not allow politicians an open, unopposed platform to spout their campaign rhetoric:
It has long been our policy to open our doors to a wide variety of speakers on an equally diverse range of topics, regardless of party affiliation, religious beliefs, nationality, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Our goal then, as now, was to promote open dialogue. To do less would be an injustice to our students and to our commitment to providing our educational community the broadest possible exposure and learning.
Just as there is no “open dialogue” with controversial figures giving commencement addresses, there is not open dialogue with politicians giving campaign speeches. The dialogue only goes one way: from the speaker to the crowd. Where is the voice of the university — and the Catholic church — in this situation? Administrators and professors may never appropriately address the impressions and ideas left on campus in the speaker’s wake.
The question that really should be asked is: “How is a Catholic college serving its mission and adhering to its responsibilities by giving open platforms to those opposed to the truths of the faith?” In seeking to be more like secular colleges, most Catholic colleges have ignored seriously considering this question for far too long. What’s at stake is nothing less than the eternal souls of those in their care.