VILLANOVA, Pa. — Villanova University Law School Dean Mark Sargent noticed something troubling when he started reviewing student applications for the school's Public Interest Fellowship Program this year. Several had listed the Philadelphia Women's Law Project as their choice.
While it does do some good things regarding social justice, Sargent said, “it's also the leading pro-abortion group in the state.”
Early in the spring semester Sargent issued a new policy governing the program that prohibits the Public Interest Fellows — who receive about $4,000 to work without pay for public-interest organizations during the summer — from working on abortion advocacy issues. The policy does not, however, prevent students from working at organizations that support abortion rights as long as the students do not actually work on abortion issues.
It also does not affect any internships or volunteer work besides the Public Interest Fellowship Program, which is funded by an auction on the Villanova campus, is organized by Villanova staff members and bears the school's name. As Sargent would later write in response to alumni criticism, “It is indisputably a Villanova Law School program.”
Immediately there were objections. Most opposed to the measure did not dispute the Catholic's school's right to take such a pro-life stance. Instead, complaints centered on two areas: the lack of student and faculty input on the new policy and the seeming hypocrisy of the school to prohibit students from working for abortion rights but not for capital punishment.
Some alumni “voiced complaints quite vociferously,” said Sargent, although he noted that negative responses from alumni overall were minimal. One graduate published an op-ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer urging other concerned alums to contact her and the school.
But Clark Hodgson said he's heard nothing negative from fellow alumni.
“I thought it was the perfect response,” the 1964 law school graduate and Philadelphia lawyer said. “It upholds the school's Catholic tradition.”
Augustinian Father Jack Denny, the law school chaplain, said three or four students approached him to share their objections, but most students did not seem to hold strong opinions either way.
“It would be my impression that a lot of students who were opposed to the policy were opposed on other grounds,” he said. “I don't think anyone disputed his right to make such a policy. He's a Catholic dean at a Catholic school.”
Patrick Reilly, president of the Manassas, Va.-based Cardinal Newman Society, which works to restore Catholic identity in Catholic colleges and universities, said Sargent's decision is a positive move for Catholic colleges and would be the norm if colleges adhered to Ex Corde Ecclesiae , Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on the identity and mission of Catholic schools.
“Anything done in an official way by any Catholic college or university must reflect the Catholic identity of the institution,” he said.
But that doesn't always happen, he pointed out. “Certainly the problem of students interning with inappropriate employers is very common at Catholic universities,” he said.
Second-year Villanova law school student Steve Finley first heard about the controversy through the school's online discussion forum. “I was surprised that such a policy didn't exist before,” he said.
Finley attended the town-hall meeting organized to address student and faculty concerns. At the meeting, Sargent gave an introduction outlining his reasoning and then fielded questions, mostly from those opposed to the policy.
“The vast majority of students weren't engaged by the topic at all, but it is honest to say that of all the school-sponsored non-required events I attended this year, this was the best attended,” Father Denny said.
At the meeting, Sargent explained why the abortion issue differs from the capital punishment issue, a question he addressed again in The Philadelphia Inquirer in response to an alumnus’ critical letter.
“[The Pope's] statements on the issue were not made with the authority that requires the faithful obedience of all Catholics and Catholic institutions, unlike the Church's position on abortion,” he wrote. “The law school is thus not compelled to disassociate itself from advocacy for capital punishment as it is from advocacy for abortion rights.”
He continued: “To take time to think hard about what we should do regarding capital punishment is not hypocrisy but prudence. The need to make a prudential decision about the ambiguous question of capital punishment does not make a principled decision about the unambiguous question of ... abortion hypocritical.”
Sargent, who describes himself as “a Catholic who takes very seriously the seamless garment of life,” said that while no organized pro-abortion group has contacted the school to complain, many pro-life individuals and groups have been very supportive and vocal.
The Family Research Council publicly commended Sargent for his actions.
“People who support abortion are trying to mainstream the issue, so anything that flips that over is a big plus,” said Bill Saunders, who directs all Family Research Council pro-life activities. “We're happy to see this at a mainstream school.”
Father Denny pointed out that Villanova remains extremely supportive of public-interest organizations and low-paying advocacy work and offers clinics in juvenile justice, emigrant services, civil justice and farmworkers’ legal aid.
The university's support of these programs is done in the spirit of Catholic social teaching, Father Denny said, adding that Sargent's new policy is entirely consistent with the teaching.
“I'm most proud of the dean because there was a clear and unapologetic declaration that we're a Catholic institution and that we cannot and will not associate our name with abortion advocacy,” he said. “You just can't attach the word Villanova to abortion advocacy.”
Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.