SPOKANE, Wash. — Are the words “Catholic” and “university” mutually exclusive?
Some students and faculty at Gonzaga University here have said so after a decision by the school's president to disinvite a Planned Parenthood speaker just hours before she was to appear on campus.
Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer's decision comes in the wake of a November vote by U.S. bishops on guidelines to implement Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution on higher education. The 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) spells out what Catholic universities must do to keep their Catholic identity strong. The Vatican is now reviewing the bishops’ plan.
According to senior and Women's Studies Club member Mike Quieto, the decision to invite a Planned Parenthood speaker was made during the club's weekly meeting on March 28. The event was planned for April 12.
Quieto told the Register the topic was to be “reproductive freedom, the 2000 presidential election and clinic bombings.” He said Gonzaga policy states that fliers must be cleared by the university before being posted on bulletin boards.
“This process,” Quieto contended, “takes too much time for a weekly club meeting, and so members began ‘chalking the boards’” to announce the upcoming presentation. He added: “Writing announcements on classroom blackboards has been going on long before Father Spitzer became president.”
But Gonzaga freshman Nathan Macklin said that the campus announcements were underhanded in that they included no sponsoring organization or contact phone number. Macklin is acting secretary for the student pro-life group Gonzagans Organized to Affirm Life.
“As a member of numerous student clubs, I know that it is a rule for student activities to include this information on all advertisements,” Macklin said. “The Women's Studies Club did not.”
He added that he was not surprised by Father Spitzer's actions. “Father Spitzer is the founder of the Life Principles Institute in Seattle,” he noted. Father Spitzer also sits on the board of directors for Human Life of Washington and is the founder of University Faculty for Life.
Associate Dean of Students Peter Williams notified club members that the administration had canceled the invitation to the speaker. He also notified Laurel Kelly, education director for Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest, that she was not welcome to speak on campus.
In the ensuing campus debate, Father Spitzer released a statement to students and faculty clarifying his position.
“I denied Planned Parenthood access to this campus not because of what they say, but because of what they do,” Father Spitzer wrote. “They are one of the largest abortion providers in the United States and have an aggressive political agenda. … The Catholic Church interprets abortion as ‘the killing of an innocent.’”
He went on to quote Gonzaga's Guest Speakers Policy which states: “The President reserves the right to deny usage of Gonzaga's facilities to any person or groups of persons whose values are blatantly contrary to those of the University or whose presence would, for some reason, seriously embarrass or compromise the University.”
Father Spitzer told the university community, “Inasmuch as Gonzaga is a Catholic and Jesuit university, and Planned Parenthood's actions are blatantly contrary to this Catholic and Jesuit identity, I exercised my right as president to deny usage of Gonzaga's facilities to them.”
Kelly of Planned Parenthood said she was surprised to be invited to Gonzaga because of controversies encountered there in the past. She told the Register she was “discouraged to not be able to come speak at all. I think students should have the right to discuss those topics that they want to discuss.”
Kelly extended an invitation, through Williams, to the 50 students who had gathered to hear her. They could meet with her at Planned Parenthood's office just off-campus, she said. None did so.
“Reproductive rights was only part of what I was going to discuss,” said Kelly. “There is a misconception that Planned Parenthood only provides abortions. Planned Parenthood encompasses much more. We provide contraception, teen-age access to services, education about infection, and we provide access to cervical and breast cancer screening.”
Quieto, who said he finds “abortion a morally problematic practice,” said that he shared Kelly's concern that an educational speaker was refused space at a university.
“The only way that the university could violate their responsibility is if they were providing abortions in the university health care center,” said Quieto. “There can be no harm in talking about reproductive health. That isn't killing anyone.”
But student body president Laura Boysen strongly disagreed.
“I can understand why Planned Parenthood would not be welcome on Gonzaga's campus,” she said. “If a Nazi soldier, involved in the Holocaust, were invited on campus to express their beliefs I do not think they would be welcomed. In the Catholic view, this can be seen as parallel. Gonzaga cannot be seen as supporting the actions of Planned Parenthood. Father Spitzer was well-founded in his decision.”
Alumna Cindy Omlin said that Catholic schools had a duty to stand up for life.
“As a Catholic educational institution, Gonzaga supports intellectual inquiry grounded in the truth and dignity of the human person,” said Omlin. “Planned Parenthood is an enemy of that truth. It is the leading provider of abortion in America. It supports partial birth abortion.”
The Concerns of All
Quieto said he worried that similar action could be taken against speakers which they bring on campus to speak to their clubs.
“This event has served to rally discontent that has existed among students and faculty under the current administration, and has encouraged activism,” he said. “There has been a long-standing feeling that student and faculty concerns are not as important as the concerns of trustees.”
Law faculty professor, David DeWolf, who supports Father Spitzer's decision, said there is a great deal of “pain and anger among faculty. If a poll were taken, perhaps only 40% of the faculty would support Father Spitzer's decision.”
“What is jarring to many people is that the vision of the university in Ex Corde Ecclesiae requires us sometimes to be different — quite different.”
A Policy Change?
Gonzaga faculty members voted April 17 to seek a change in the university's policy that gives the president sole authority to cancel guest speakers. The faculty is also sponsoring a panel discussion on issues of academic freedom for May 2.
Father Spitzer, for his part, has held firm. He told about 60 students who had gathered for a forum April 20 that his actions were not an act of “censorship,” but rather an act of “non-sponsorship.”
“When you bring a person to not just your campus, but to your organization and to your home, what is going on is a form of acceptance, toleration and sponsorship,” Father Spitzer told the students.
According to DeWolf, students at the forum weighed in on both sides of the issue. Some challenged his decision while others said that the reason they came to Gonzaga was because of its commitment to certain values.
Father Spitzer argues that, in the long run, the decision will help Gonzaga more than hurt it.
“We are history in the making. Gonzaga might have a real influence on what Catholic schools are doing,” said Spitzer.
DeWolf agreed. “Father Spitzer has been wildly successful, the school is bursting at the seams, and the trustees love him. He's on a roll.”
Tim Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.