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WASHINGTON LETTER Jul-9-2004 (970 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With photos posted April 8. xxxn

Dissenting Catholic politicians: Can they speak at Catholic colleges?

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Politicians, who never miss a chance to shake hands or kiss babies, also seem keen on speaking on college campuses and delivering commencement addresses.

But the current dispute over denying Communion to Catholic politicians who dissent from church teaching has also sparked discussion about these same politicians addressing Catholic college students.

Scrutiny of who should and should not speak on Catholic college campuses comes in part from the U.S. Catholic bishops' "Catholics in Political Life" statement released June 18.

The statement does not point a finger specifically at Catholic colleges but includes them in its overall wording, noting that "the Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

Catholic college leaders have been thoroughly considering these two sentences within the 1,000-word document and they are not all coming up with the same interpretation.

Monika Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, sees the bishops' statement as a helpful one, particularly within the context of Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick's comments to the bishops at their June 14-19 meeting in Englewood, Colo.

At the meeting, Cardinal McCarrick, head of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, formed by the bishops' conference last fall, reiterated that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles," but he also added, "We cannot cut off dialogue. ... We will rarely persuade if we have no dialogue or cannot make our case."

Hellwig told Catholic News Service that she found the cardinal's comments nuanced enough to allow for the distinction between honoring someone and simply inviting them to speak on campus. This, she said, leaves individual college presidents with the responsibility of making "prudential decisions about a particular person."

For such a decision, she added, school officials can determine whether a speaker is best known for his or her stance on abortion or for other policies they support that "line up with church teaching."

Hellwig noted that Cardinal McCarrick's report to the bishops, which he described as "interim advice" of the task force that outlined proposals far beyond the denial-of-Communion issue, reflected Catholics concern about "pro-life issues across the board."

"We are not in the reign of God and we are hoping to get there," said Hellwig. "We are in a very troubled world and we need to engage that world. If we nitpick everyone's record (before they speak), we will disengage entirely."

She felt the cardinal was proposing balance and not stressing a "total withdrawal of politicians" from the public square or the Catholic college campus.

But others are interpreting the bishops' initial report differently.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that promotes Catholic identity at Catholic colleges, said he was "thrilled" with the bishops' statement because he saw it as "a formal endorsement" of the long-held position of his organization, primarily that those who have publicly supported laws favoring abortion should neither be honored nor given platforms to speak at Catholic colleges.

He said he was aware that Cardinal McCarrick "made the distinction" between colleges honoring politicians and allowing them to speak on campus and noted that some college leaders were drawing the same conclusions, but in his own reading of the bishops' document he said, "I find nothing there that makes that distinction."

As he sees it, "once an individual has in a public way actively opposed fundamental moral teaching of the church, it doesn't matter what else they've done in the public sphere." He said there will always be "the potential of scandal because that individual is always identified with that."

Reilly sees the discussion of Catholic politicians who have voted for laws supporting abortion as one that's been long overdue and will help reshape Catholic identity, which he says has not been clear for the past 50 years. He takes some credit for the discussion, pointing out that Cardinal Newman Society members wrote to their bishops in December urging them to speak out against Catholic "pro-abortion politicians."

The impact of this discussion remains to be seen, he added, noting that he is looking to see how individual bishops will "bear this out with clear policies" for colleges within their dioceses.

Vincentian Father David O'Connell, president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, said the bishops' statement, which precedes the full report the bishops' task force will release this fall, will not change the way his college chooses speakers.

"We have a speakers' policy already in place," he told CNS, noting that the school does not honor "someone whose point of view is contrary to church teaching."

"If it serves educational purpose," he said, occasionally those with alternate viewpoints will be considered to speak at the school, but only when equal time is given to someone who represents the church's position on that topic.

Father O'Connell, who noted the subtle difference between speakers and honorees, said the bishops' statement is a "tremendous help to college presidents" because it "will help us to clarify our parameters."

Georgetown University in Washington, a frequent stop for presidents and political pundits -- Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry gave a major economic policy address at the school April 7 -- was not responding one way or the other to the bishops' recent statement.

University spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille told CNS the university needed to "reflect on the statement and look at the full report in the fall."

She said the university was committed to "free expression of ideas" and therefore would need to think about and discuss any proposed changes.

"We want to make sure we engage our own community and talk with other educators," she said.


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