SPOKANE, Wash. — A professor at Gonzaga University has countered claims by the school that it supports the campus’ Knights of Columbus Council, after the group’s application to be a student organization was denied.
“Honestly, I don’t see that they’re supported in any way,” Eric Cunningham, assistant director of Catholic studies and faculty adviser to the university’s Knights council, told Catholic News Agency April 15.
On March 7, the university’s student-life division denied the council’s application for recognition as a “student organization,” according to an April 5 report by the Cardinal Newman Society. The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic charitable fraternal organization with 1.8 million members globally.
“If they’ve been denied club status, the only way they exist here is that the members of the Knights of Columbus council are enrolled here,” Cunningham stated.
On April 10, Gonzaga’s community-relations director, Mary Joan Hahn, told CNA that “the Knights of Columbus College Council is on campus and is supported by the university currently.”
This year, the council has met at a seminary attached to the university, but it has not been affiliated with the university, according to the university paper, The Gonzaga Bulletin.
Cunningham has noticed that the council is “listed in our advertising materials,” specifically in a brochure “that goes out to parents,” showing the group listed as a student organization.
“So, in other words, we’re kind of using them as a recruiting tool, telling parents that we have a Knights of Columbus council that their sons can certainly join if they come here.”
The Cardinal Newman Society posted excerpts from a letter from the vice president for student life at Gonzaga, Sue Weitz, saying that the Knights of Columbus could not be recognized as a “student organization” because the group is closed to women and to non-Catholics.
“These criteria are inconsistent with the policy and practice of student-organization recognition at Gonzaga University, as well as the university’s commitment to non-discrimination based on certain characteristics, one of which is religion.”
Weitz wrote that the decision is not “some kind of litmus test of Gonzaga’s Catholicity,” according to The Gonzaga Bulletin.
“It is a decision about social justice, equity and the desire of the university to create and maintain an environment in which none are excluded,” she wrote.
Cunningham understands that roughly $1,000 of the council’s funds have been frozen by the Gonzaga student-body association, and he said that “what I hear from the membership is that (it) hasn’t been returned yet.”
Added Cunningham, “Not only are they not being supported — they haven’t had their money returned to them. There’s no official support.”
Cunningham has been associated with the council since 2006, and he noted that he has made available to them the Catholic studies house, after “they were asked by the director of university ministry to stop meeting there.”
“They don’t have a chapter house; they were actually asked to stop meeting in the house they had been using. So I’d really love to know what Gonzaga is defining as support for the campus council.”
Catholic identity, Cunningham added, is neither well understood nor promoted at Gonzaga University. The school was founded in 1887 and describes itself as a “Catholic, Jesuit and humanistic university.”
Although during his pontificate Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of Catholic identity in Catholic higher education, “there was no ground for anything Benedict said to gain any traction” at the school, according to Cunningham.
The decision to deny the Knights’ application to be a student group on the basis of the non-discrimination policy “epitomizes the condition” at Gonzaga University and that those who made the decision are “very much representative of the current governing climate of Gonzaga.”
Cunningham lamented that this is typical of numerous Catholic universities, saying that “there’s nothing new about this” and that it “goes on I’m sure at every Catholic college campus in America that hasn’t made its decision to reform itself as a more ‘magisterial’ school.
“They just embrace a view of Catholicism that deviates wildly from any objective understanding of Catholicism that we might want to call ‘magisterial’ or ‘orthodox,’ for lack of a better word.”
According to Cunningham, “Catholic universities are leading the way in turning Catholicism into a purely secular discourse and are restricting a serious intellectual engagement with what it means to be Catholic.”
Gonzaga University's president, Thayne McCulloh, will be reviewing the school’s decision and is expected to come to his decision shortly after the academic year ends.
As faculty advisor to the Knights’ council, Cunningham hopes to preserve the council as an “independent agent” rather than placing it under student ministry or the student-life office at Gonzaga: “We understand that Gonzaga considers the Knights of Columbus a discriminatory agency, and ... they’re going to be better off as an independent, freestanding club.”