Consider the irony: Hillary Clinton this year has succeeded where Pope Benedict XVI has not — receiving a warm welcome to speak at a Catholic university.

In January, protests and the fear of demonstrator violence led the Holy Father to cancel an address at Catholic La Sapienza University. One month later, Clinton held a presidential campaign rally at St. Norbert College, a Catholic liberal arts school in De Pere, Wis.

Clinton’s Feb. 18 stop at St. Norbert — and several other recent Catholic campus visits by pro-abortion politicians — isn’t sitting well with leaders of nearly a score of national Catholic organizations. Led by the Cardinal Newman Society, a coalition on Feb. 25 issued a statement urging all Catholic institutions to refuse to host politicians who oppose Catholic teaching on serious moral issues.

Signatories include leaders of the Catholic Education Association, led by Father Peter Stravinskas; the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) and others.

“The problem of Catholic institutions coddling culture-of-death politicians is not new,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a group working to renew and strengthen the Catholic identity of colleges and universities. “The bishops have been outspoken on the primacy of life issues and the integrity of Catholic institutions, but some Catholic colleges in particular have not been listening.”

The statement lists several recent examples, including a Clinton rally Feb. 13 at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and a rally by Barack Obama at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey Jan. 9. Obama also campaigned in March 2007 at Loras College in Iowa. Both Clinton and Obama are pro-abortion.

“As Catholic leaders of national organizations, we now feel an obligation to call on our peers to make fidelity the priority over public attention and prestige,” Reilly said. “We are urging Catholic institutions to avoid scandal.”

St. Norbert President William Hynes said there was no scandal in letting Clinton speak on his campus. Scandalizing means leading someone into sin, he said. “Most people are talking about shocked, not about leading people into sin,” said Hynes.

Neither did her appearance compromise and undermine St. Norbert’s Catholic mission, as the Cardinal Newman Society statement implies, he maintained. “What’s your evidence of that?” Hynes asked. “Where has this happened?”

Podium Policies

St. Norbert has a tradition of luminous speakers dating to John F. Kennedy. Under Hynes, speakers have included Kristin Gore, Gen. Wesley Clark stumping for John Kerry, Jenna and Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama. Hynes conceded that all but the Bush daughters represented pro-abortion candidates.

He said the college also has given platform to other controversial speakers, including author Gary Wills, who is outspoken in his criticism of the Church. St. Norbert also has allowed a presentation of the controversial “Vagina Monologues” play.

That’s in keeping with the school’s speaker policy within the “Artistic and Academic Freedom” statement written by Hynes. Stressing that “we are committed to teach the authentic teachings of the Church,” Hynes writes that, “The ‘testing’ of ideas — even those that we may find repugnant — has a long, rich history in American higher education and the Catholic Church.”

His statement includes quotes from Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education Ex Corde Ecclesiae and from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Hynes statement’s key component states, in part, that “One of the key principles of a solid liberal arts education, particularly a Catholic one, is to define our terms, examine matters firsthand, hear controversial speakers speak for themselves, view provocative artistic performances, read directly challenging texts, and weigh this direct experience against secondary interpretations — just to name a few examples — so that we know what we and others are talking about. Because an undergraduate student needs to understand firsthand good philosophy from poor philosophy, true reasoning from false reasoning, real affirmation of the dignity of all people from mere nominal affirmation, this same young adult needs to examine carefully and critically texts and artistic forms that embody these philosophies, reasonings, and affirmations.”

It also states that “In an age of increased polarization — when some encourage us to shun those with whom we disagree or to replace dialogue with monologue — it is vital to provide a setting in which ideas can be heard, freely explored and debated.”

Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, takes a different approach. The university “encourages groups within the university to extend invitations to guest speakers … whose views are consistent with its stated mission as a Catholic, Franciscan institution of higher education. The president of Franciscan University reserves the right to deny approval for any guest speaker whose appearance or remarks, in the judgment of the president or his designee, would compromise the University’s mission or ‘promote propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching.’”

Fair Forums?

Much of the debate on campus speakers centers on the forum provided. The Catholic campus, said Reilly, is not the public square.

“It is not neutral. It is an important participant in public discourse with a particular and uncompromising position on moral concerns,” he said. “Bringing pro-abortion politicians to campus suggests that their plans to defend or increase the deaths of innocent children deserve respect equal to Catholic teaching. Leaders in the culture of death must be opposed, not given platforms at Catholic institutions to secure votes.”

He cited the U.S. bishops’ 2004 document Catholics in Political Life and its teaching that “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.”

Focus President Curtis Martin, one of the Cardinal Newman Society statement signers, agreed with Reilly.

“We’re not saying there shouldn’t be any debate at all,” he said. “We’re saying that we need to make sure we’re articulating the Catholic position at all times.”

The Clinton town hall meeting at St. Norbert was no debate. The Los Angeles Times reported that she spoke “from a podium festooned with a sign reading ‘Solutions for the American Economy.’” The candidate gave her “stump speech,” said Hynes, then answered questions.

“There was no agreement about what she could speak about or not,” Hynes said. “It was a completely open forum. Nor were any questions ruled out by us. To the best of my knowledge, she did not raise anything with regard to abortion, nor did anyone ask her that question.”

“Hillary Clinton should never have been campaigning at St. Norbert College in the first place,” Reilly said. “But since she was, she should have been faced with tough questions and outrage about her pro-abortion position. Were there no Catholics in the audience?”

Said Reilly: “Genuine love and concern for pro-abortion politicians is not expressed by holding them up for public honor while advancing their political careers to promote abortion. A proper pastoral approach begins with confidence in the truth of Catholic teaching — a confidence that is lacking when Catholic institutions seek public prestige at the expense of morality.”

Anthony Flott is based in Papillion, Nebraska.