WASHINGTON — Back in 1961, Catholic convert Peter Benenson founded Amnesty International to challenge the conscience of the world on human rights. But today, Amnesty International challenges the consciences of Catholics who have a passion for human rights but cannot sign on board with the organization’s newfound advocacy of abortion.

The dilemma becomes most apparent on the campus of Catholic colleges and universities. According to a recent special report from the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), a Virginia-based nonprofit that promotes Catholic identity at Catholic educational institutions, 20 Catholic colleges and universities, as well as six Catholic law schools, sponsor student chapters of Amnesty International (AI).

Out of these 26 AI chapters on Catholic campuses, CNS found three chapters that had a history of promoting abortion as part of their advocacy.

“We investigated what we could find about each of the clubs,” Patrick Reilly, president of CNS, told the Register, “but the actual abortion advocacy that we know of concerns just a few clubs and is in our report.”

The most recent involved DePaul University’s AI student chapter, which invited students on its Facebook page to attend a “Pro-Choice Counter Protest” to the Illinois March for Life in Chicago.

At Loyola University-Chicago, the AI chapter had invited students to join a rally outside the Irish Embassy in Chicago called the “Rally to Decriminalize Abortion in Ireland.” The event was part of the “My Body, My Rights” campaign — decriminalizing abortion is part of that Amnesty International campaign — which the AI student club was involved in.

CNS also noted that when Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in California decided to remove elective abortion from its health-plan coverage in 2013 — a bid to align its policies more closely with Catholic teaching on life and human dignity — the AI student chapter there protested its “apparent lack of consideration of women’s rights.”

The Register contacted representatives at these three Catholic universities to inquire as to whether any steps were taken to discuss Catholic human-rights teaching with the clubs on these issues. The Register received no responses by deadline.

However, the Register did determine that the AI chapter at LMU is no longer a listed club on campus. Another LMU representative confirmed to the Register that the chapter is not an active student organization, but had no information as to what happened.

According to the CNS report, 58 Catholic chapters were listed on AI USA’s website using the “Find a Group” search tool, although CNS found less than half appeared active.

Reilly said the most serious concern “is when a student club directly advocates abortion.”

“But the affiliation of an official university club with the vocally pro-abortion Amnesty International, and likely also the collection of dues to the organization, clearly violates Catholic identity and disregards the Vatican’s call to end support for AI,” he said.


Discerning Prudence With Amnesty

Amnesty International’s split with the Church (and the vision of AI’s Catholic founder) occurred in 2007, when the organization abandoned the neutral position it held on abortion in favor of a position advocating the decriminalization of abortion. The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) publicly protested the move, severed ties and called on Catholics to stop donating money to the organization.

At the time, Cardinal Renato Martino, then-president of the PCJP, told the Register in an exclusive interview that AI’s decision to add the decriminalization of abortion into its platform “disqualified itself as a defender of human rights.”

When asked whether Catholic individuals and organizations should “withdraw their financial support,” Cardinal Martino agreed, saying that he believed “if in fact Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support; because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, AI has betrayed its mission.”

Since then, the issue of Catholic involvement in AI remains unsettled, both for Catholic individuals and organizations, with moral theologians having to outline the guideposts for discernment and prudential judgment.

AI chapters on college campuses elect what issues they focus on — which means the AI chapters at Catholic colleges that promote abortion do so of their own free will.

“Our chapters have a good amount of autonomy over which of our campaigns and issues they choose to promote, so they do not have to work on all of our platforms,” Amnesty International USA spokeswoman Robyn Shepherd told the Register.

John DiCamillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, told the Register that Catholic institutions have to be aware of the problematic positions of AI.

“First and foremost, given an organization of this renown, with such clear public positions against the teachings of the Church, it’s very clear that at the very least administrations should be attentive to the presence of, or will to create, such an organization on campus,” he said.


Formal vs. Material Cooperation

DiCamillo said that administrators have to evaluate whether an AI club’s involvement with the larger organization constitutes “formal” or “material” cooperation with evil or would cause scandal (meaning that it causes sin, not simply offense). An AI club that intends to advocate for the entire AI platform, with its stance on abortion, would be involved in “formal cooperation with evil,” something that is in no way morally permissible.

“If it were required that the chapter had to accept and promote the larger organization’s values, then that would be a deal breaker,” he said.

However, DiCamillo said that administrators have the possibility for dialogue when the cooperation is material, namely when a student AI club is “not actively promoting or affiliating itself with the immoral objectives of the larger organization or espousing those immoral ends.”

“At the end of the day, in pursuing the aim we have in mind, we would want to do that in a way that involves the least cooperation with evil possible,” the ethicist added.

For instance, DiCamillo noted that if students had to choose between an organization such as Amnesty International and a similar organization without the problematic positions, then they should chose the latter.

“If we can do that, great,” he said. “But there may nonetheless be important goods that can only be achieved through the particular organization of Amnesty. It may be that, in terms of the impact we want to have, there is simply no other organization out there that would enable us to reach the same important human-rights goals — from that good moral standpoint that we are pursuing — other than Amnesty.”

At that point, there may be “sufficient reason” or “proportionate reason” to form an AI club. DiCamillo added that a further consideration is that the proliferation of chapters that conscientiously object to AI’s positions on abortion may in the long run lead to “modifying those immoral positions of the organization without at any point endorsing them or working toward those particular objectives or activities.”

At Marquette University, where a new AI chapter is starting, spokesman Brian Dorrington told the Register that the administration did have a dialogue with the students about making sure the club’s mission and the university were in sync.

“We meet with all new organizations on our campus, including Amnesty International, to ensure every organization is in alignment with our mission as a Catholic, Jesuit institution,” Dorrington said in an email.

The second draft of the AI club’s bylaws (available on its website) has a section that makes clear that it will abide by AI’s constitution and bylaws, except in cases where it conflicts with “the rules, regulations or policies of Marquette University.”

“In instances of conflict, this constitution and/or rules, regulations or policies of Marquette University shall take precedence over the constitution or bylaws of Amnesty International,” reads Article VIII.


Avoiding Scandal

DiCamillo, however, cautioned that the last piece of evaluating an AI club’s moral permissibly is whether there is a serious risk of scandal: namely, that reasonable people would draw the conclusion that the AI club’s presence on campus represents an endorsement of AI’s platform, even if the club itself does not espouse AI’s objectionable aims. In those cases, administrators’ prudential judgment may deem it best to “prevent or prohibit such a chapter.”

Overcoming the potential of scandal would require students and administrators to dialogue on how to make clear to reasonable people that the club does not share the morally problematic parts of Amnesty International’s platform.

“There should be some effort and some concrete manifestation of the fact that they have created this particular focus within the different work that the organization does,” he said.

“Something has to be done there. But, in any case, it should not be simply ‘left in the gray.’”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.