The Catholic identity crisis of Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Will Saint Mary's College resolve its Catholic identity crisis?
November 10, 2015
Open letter to:
Saint Mary's College Administration
Saint Mary's College Board of Trustees
Bishop Kevin Rhoades
Saint Mary's College community
-Notre Dame, Indiana
Controversy continues to roil over the recent celebration of Planned Parenthood on St. Mary's College campus. This is a sure sign that the SMC community is not satisfied that SMC administration has responded adequately to affirm, protect, and promote the mission and vision of Saint Mary's. It's time for some frank, open discussion about this scandal and how to resolve it. I do not question the good intentions of the SMC leadership, but it is necessary to consider whether the school's mission is being served effectively in light of recent events.
10/29/2015: Approximately 1852 red flags representing Planned Parenthood "non-abortion services" are displayed outdoors on the SMC campus. No sign is visible to explain their meaning, but word travels fast, and their meaning is quickly understood around campus. Also, it is reported that several SMC faculty members stationed outdoors on campus distributed Planned Parenthood literature describing some of PP's "non-abortion services".
10/30/2015: A Change.org petition is initiated by an SMC student, with the title "No more celebration of Planned Parenthood at Saint Mary's College", and calling upon the school leadership to: "1. Prohibit any display supporting Planned Parenthood and any institution directly providing abortions. 2. Prohibit teaching faculty from taking part in distributing or encouraging the distribution of pro-abortion paraphernalia on campus grounds. 3. Make a formal and public statement showing support for the pro-life mission in the wake of not only this campus-wide display..." As of 11/10 this petition has received nearly 800 signatures from multiple states and three continents. Subsequently the PP display and the petition have the received attention of various organizations, including NDSM Observer, Cardinal Newman Society, LifeSite, Catholic Citizens, LifeNews, ChurchMilitant, and Fox News. Coverage bears headlines such as, "St. Mary's Hosts Planned Parenthood Display", "Damage control: Indiana Catholic college president addresses Planned Parenthood display", "Bishop, Students Fight for Pro-Life Messge Following Planned Parenthood Display", etc.
11/4/2015: Vice President of Student Affairs, Karen Johnson, distributes an email statement to the SMC "community", (but not apparently to SMC families) which articulated three "guidelines", the third stating, "It is inappropriate for Saint Mary’s College student clubs and organizations to advocate for or support organizations, agencies or groups that act contrary to Church teachings or to sponsor events that advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church." She further suggested that the legitimate need to promote critical thought calls for free access to information in various forms, including "distribution of facts and information through pamphlets, posters, and handouts." She then cryptically affirmed that "We applied these guidelines to the events of late". Last week I wrote to her office asking her to make her statement public, but have not yet received a response. As far as I know the full text of her statement has not been made public.
11/4/2015: Bishop Kevin Rhoades, bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, writes to an SMC pro-life student, calling for a public statement from Saint Mary's College: "I heard about the display... as well as the support of some faculty members and students for Planned Parenthood. This is certainly sad and more than disappointing. I am so grateful to you and other pro-life members of the St. Mary’s community for standing up for the sacredness of life and the true dignity of women. I had a phone conversation last Friday with Dr. Mooney about this whole affair. Dr. Mooney assured me that the administration does not support or endorse Planned Parenthood. ...I am hoping for a more robust affirmation by St. Mary’s of a commitment to Catholic teaching in the areas of sexuality and procreation, and of being both pro-life and pro-woman (in the authentic sense). I also wished to highlight Planned Parenthood’s callousness toward women and their unborn children..."
11/5/2015: SMC President Carol Mooney distributes an email statement to SMC students in which she provided background explaining how the Planned Parenthood display came about. She explained that: the student group Feminists United wished to erect a display representing the "non-abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood"; the school would permit the display only on the condition it not "advocate for positions contrary to Catholic Church teaching. Further, a "small group of faculty members decided to distribute a fact sheet" describing "services provided by Planned Parenthood last year"; the school would permit them to distribute "only... a fact sheet, and not an advocacy piece". "In conclusion", she wrote, "Saint Mary’s College remains faithful to our mission as a Catholic College." President Mooney's statement, to my knowledge, also has not been made public by the school. In fact, both of the above statements include directives against unauthorized distribution of their contents, and recipients are left to wonder whether distributing the emails will bring retribution.
11/9/2015: NDSM Observer publishes an article on the controversy, concluding, "Mooney assured students the College remains faithful to its mission and Catholic identity."
11/10/2015: Bishop Kevin Rhoades publishes a powerful critique of Saint Mary's Planned Parenthood display. ("Catholic Identity, Planned Parenthood and the Gospel of Life", Today's Catholic News.) In it he observes, “Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities” in all aspects of campus life at a Catholic college or university. Catholic identity is not only about what we stand for; it is also about what we will not stand for. Just as we would be rightly scandalized to see a public display portraying a racist organization like the Klu Klux Klan in a positive light, so too, we expect Catholic colleges to refuse to lend any kind of respectability to organizations like Planned Parenthood that play such a significant role in the culture of death. Authentic freedom, academic or otherwise, is always linked to the service of truth and love."
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Why have the administration's statements failed to end the scandal? Because the statements do not address the concerns raised by this incident; they do not persuade, much less inspire. Instead, they make the implausible claims that:
1) the values of "dialog", "critical thinking", and "free access to information" necessitate not only studying and discussing organizations with missions incompatible with the Catholic faith, but also demands tolerating and hosting public celebrations promoting such organizations, even ones openly promoting the killing of defenseless human beings.
2) thousands of waving flags representing Planned Parenthood services, and faculty soliciting PP "fact sheets" on campus, do not constitute an endorsement and promotion of Planned Parenthood. (If public school teachers distributed Catholic Church "fact sheets" on campus with the goal of promoting "dialog", is there any doubt the school would be immediately threatened with legal action to cease its improper promotion of religion?)
3) in permitting the above to take place, SMC has "consistently followed" guidelines protecting the Catholic mission and identity of the school. In particular, the administration takes the position that permitting the PP demonstration was consistent with the rule that "It is inappropriate for Saint Mary’s College student clubs and organizations to advocate for or support organizations, agencies or groups that act contrary to Church teachings or to sponsor events that advocate positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church".
Can any thinking person swallow such claims? The administration seems to be engaged in badly misdirected damage control. In pretending the PP demonstration was in harmony with its Catholic identity, it has truly called into question the integrity of its identity, and undermined its supporters' confidence in the school's mission. Further, its statements so far have not been public. These errors are sure to prolong and worsen the scandal and its aftermath.
Is it any wonder the controversy hasn't subsided? Is it any surprise that reports circulate of donors withholding financial support, or redirecting support to the Belles for Life pro-Life organization? Is it any wonder the local bishop found it necessary to publicly intervene? Students, families, and supporters of St. Mary's College have serious concerns regarding the Catholic identity of the school. Is it Catholic in name only? Has it lost its compass? Is the administration really committed to the stated mission of the school? Does the leadership have the guts and vision to assert a bold, unambiguous, intellectually vigorous vision that truly promotes what is good, true, and beautiful, and openly reject what is evil, false, and ugly? Is it able and willing to "go all in" for the Gospel of Life, inspiring its students and the wider culture by its example? How long must we wait for that "robust affirmation by St. Mary’s of a commitment to Catholic teaching in the areas of sexuality and procreation" called for by Bishop Rhoades?
I join with many others in calling upon the Saint Mary's College Board of Trustees and administration: Please! Take decisive action to end this scandal, for it certainly is scandalous that the mission of a Catholic College be undermined or rendered impotent. You need to make a bold, public re-commitment to an unambiguously pro-life, Catholic vision. And this will require leadership and procedures to ensure that this vision is clearly expressed and applied in practice, not only in theory.
A clear, pro-life vision, articulated in a strong public statement that addresses the issues raised here, will go a long way to restoring the confidence and support of the pro-life students, alumni, and friends of SMC.