Defending Catholic Teaching Lands Marquette Professor in Limbo

NEWS ANALYSIS: The controversial censuring and suspension of political-science professor John McAdams reveals the inner workings at a major Jesuit university.

What does one have to do to get fired from a Catholic university these days? The answer, or so it must seem to tenured political science professor John McAdams, an evangelical Protestant, is to insist that it hold fast to the teaching on which it was founded.

The precise incident that lead to McAdams being suspended — and on the verge of being fired — by Marquette University, the Jesuit institution where he had taught since 1977, is far from simple and ties together secretly recorded phone conversations, hate mail, departmental complaints, accusations of “homophobia,” perennial public dissent from the magisterium and a student refusing on principle to continue a certain course. None of this actually directly involved McAdams, however.

On Oct. 28 last year, graduate-student instructor Cheryl Abbate was teaching a class on John Rawls’ equal-liberty principle, which states, “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.”

Hence, in a society based on this principle, members of minority groups would not see their rights restricted — even where doing so would yield greater benefits to the majority.

Abbate had asked her students to bring in contemporary examples contravening Rawls’ principle. Students duly listed favorite libertarian bugbears for consideration: mandatory seatbelts, gun control and legalization of marijuana. And then someone suggested “gay marriage”: Why should same-sex “marriage” be legally prohibited when it doesn’t restrict the liberty of others?

One student objected to this example, but Abbate passed over the objection, leading the student to raise it with her afterwards, clandestinely recording the conversation. The full transcript — which makes fascinating reading — is part of John McAdams’ 15-page letter of dismissal from Richard Holz, the dean of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.

As the transcript makes clear, Abbate stated that she suppressed the discussion in class because of the possibility that there were potentially persons with same-sex attraction in the class who might be offended.

The student explained to Abbate that he believed “gay marriage” considerations are directly related to the question of adoption and that children raised in same-sex partnerships often fail to compete against their peers raised in more conventional families — implying Rawls’ doctrine does not apply in this instance. The exchange deteriorated. Abbate accused the student of “homophobia,” and the student, after making a complaint to Abbate’s superiors, went to McAdams.

The student — we’ll call him “Maximilian” (not his real name) — told the Register: “Professor McAdams was an adviser of mine as well as a former teacher, but, above all, he was a conservative teacher I could confide in. I think that he was extremely upset that I was shut down and called names by a fellow teacher.”

McAdams, with the consent of Maximilian, wrote up the account on his blog, The Marquette Warrior. In December, McAdams found himself suspended on full pay and then, on Jan. 30, informed of the university’s decision to begin the process to fire him.

The Register spoke to McAdams about his suspension and asked him whether students at a Catholic university have a right to object to the teachings of the Catholic Church if they found such teachings to be personally offensive. McAdams spoke as a man who knew he was going to lose his tenured job.

“If students disagree with Church teaching, they should be pressed to provide a logical argument that goes beyond their personal feelings of ‘offense,’” he said. “Likewise, students who support Church teaching should be pressed to defend it with logical arguments.”

Of course, McAdams doesn’t believe that the magisterium hates persons with same-sex attraction, but is quick to point out that, for him, this isn’t really the issue.

“The actual issue here is not whether the Church is right or wrong, but whether it can be discussed in a classroom at a supposedly Catholic university,” said McAdams.

This attitude is corroborated by McAdams’ student ratings, which show he was popular with students, and repeated comments testify that students were expected to be able to back up their arguments.

Austin Ruse, president of C-Fam (The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute) at the United Nations, who himself has written on the McAdams case, told the Register: “I think McAdams has got things exactly right. There are some voices that are protected in whatever they want to say. Those same voices are protected from hearing things that may offend them. These voices are inevitably the politically correct voices, minorities, women, gays. Believing Christians must just shut up … and go away.” 

Regarding Abbate’s dismissal of Maximilian’s objections, Ruse added: “If same-sex couples are allowed to marry, then it is dead certain that adoption must be allowed. And there is abundant social-science research that shows children do substantially better when raised by their own mother and father. This is the gold standard for the flourishing of children, and the science bears this out. The student was perfectly right that the young instructor should not have shut down the conversation in class.”

In fact, less than one week before Holz sent his letter of dismissal, Father Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America, published a paper in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioral Science stating: “Emotional problems [are] over twice as prevalent for children with same-sex parents than for children with opposite-sex parents. … It is no longer accurate to claim that no study has found children in same-sex families to be disadvantaged relative to those in opposite-sex families.”

And Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, rejected the implication that the Catholic Church lacks compassion to same-sex attracted persons: “No one is more forthright and compassionate toward people with same-sex attraction than the Catholic Church.”

He told the Register that the suspension of McAdams “demonstrates the hypocrisy of academic freedom today. For several years, McAdams has defended the faith and exposed abuses of Catholic identity at Marquette. But [moral theology professor] Daniel Maguire, who publicly opposed Church teaching on life issues, taught at the university for many years without any consequence.”

“Academic freedom is used to protect falsehood but not truth,” Reilly continued. “McAdams has indicated in his writing that Marquette has its own unwritten rules about which opinions are acceptable on campus, and that seems to be proven by his situation.” 

As Reilly indicates, Marquette is no stranger to controversy in the Catholic world. In May 2012, the same Daniel Maguire told the Daily Beast:

“Archbishop [Timothy] Dolan and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are misrepresenting ‘Catholic teaching’ and are trying to present their idiosyncratic minority view as the ‘Catholic position,’ and it is not.

“The bishops … are in moral schism, since most in the Church have moved on [to] a more humane view on the rights of those whom God has made gay. Most Catholic theologians approve of same-sex marriage, and Catholics generally do not differ much from the overall population on this issue.”

In 2007, the Register wrote about how Maguire was disciplined by the USCCB for his views on contraception, abortion and same-sex unions — and Marquette found itself defending the academic freedom of the militantly heterodox laicized priest:

“The views outlined by Daniel Maguire in pamphlets he circulated to the hierarchy earlier this year do not represent the teachings of the Catholic Church. Dr. Maguire circulated the pamphlets as an individual theologian, not in any way representing the views of the university. As a citizen, Dr. Maguire has a right to express his views on the issues of the day. As a tenured professor, he also has rights related to his academic discipline.”


A right to express views is something McAdams defends fiercely. Speaking of his application of this principle to his own situation, he said, “I think, in the classroom, if you discuss a subject at all, you have to allow both sides (or all sides) to be presented. Otherwise, it's not really a discussion.”

Surprisingly, Maguire appears to be the only other person at Marquette to emerge from this story with any credit, insisting that freedom of thought must cut both ways. As McAdams candidly put it, “The most vocal voice supporting me is Dan Maguire.”

Marquette displayed tolerance on its own terms when it engaged pro-abortion, pro-embryonic stem-cell research and pro-same-sex “marriage” former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold as visiting professor of law — a move that the Cardinal Newman Society immediately called “grossly inappropriate at … a Catholic university”.

Additionally, Marquette announced last November a new monthly initiative for the homosexual-rights community: “Campus Ministry will host a LGBTQ and allied community Mass on Wednesday … in the St. Joan of Arc Chapel.”

Activities such as these, tolerated at Marquette, are what McAdams sought to highlight on his blog.

Holz’s letter justifies the disciplinary action as a response to McAdams’ lack of “competence and integrity, including accuracy ‘at all times,’ a respect for others’ opinions and the exercise of appropriate restraint.” But his allies see the university as simply finding McAdams’ blog posts too inconvenient for too long.

Graduate teaching instructor Cheryl Abbate (who technically was still a student) did receive vicious hate mail in response to the publicizing of her handling of the situation, though McAdams takes issue with Holz’s characterization, saying, “The story was quite accurate.”

McAdams has no regrets. Still, he admits if he had “foreseen that the post would go viral, and Abbate would get nasty emails, I would not have named her. But I’ve been blogging for 10 years, and nothing like this has happened before.”

The Register sought comment on the case from Marquette. Brian Dorrington, senior director of communications, responded. Said Dorrington, “The decisions here have everything to do with our guiding values and expectations of conduct toward each other and nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech or same-sex marriage. Debate and intense discussion are at the heart of who we are as a university, but they must be balanced with respect.”

Not everyone, however, agrees that Marquette’s disciplinary action against John McAdams is so clear-cut.

Hank Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University-East Bay and first vice president and chairman of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors [AAUP], told the Register: “The only official comment from AAUP on this matter is a letter sent to the Marquette administration (and later posted on [AAUP’s The Academe] blog) by Gregory Scholtz … who wrote in an official capacity objecting to McAdams’ suspension. [That letter] focused solely on the violations of AAUP-recommended principles and procedures involving suspensions and due process.”

Reichman added, “We do believe that it is highly important — indeed, a requirement — that a tenured professor be given a procedural opportunity to challenge the accuracy of a charge like this before being dismissed. … Whether and to what extent professor McAdams will receive such due process, so far as I can tell, remains to be seen. But we will closely monitor this situation.”

The Faculty Hearing Committee at Marquette will meet to discuss McAdams’ case. The date is not yet known. So far, more than 750 people have signed a petition in favor of McAdams’ reinstatement. People can also write to Marquette President Michael Lovell to make their views known.

The fault lines between this Protestant professor who cares for the Catholic formation of his students and an indifferent university administration were in place for years. McAdams puts it this way: “I don’t think Catholic universities should impose an orthodoxy, but the ‘center of gravity’ should be in favor of Church teaching. It would be normal for faculty to sometimes, on some issues, disagree with Church teaching. That’s fine, but if Catholic teaching is marginalized, a university has no right to call itself ‘Catholic.’”

The most important question in the McAdams affair, however, remains unanswered: Why would any authentically Catholic university want to have on its teaching staff someone who believes that the magisterium of the Catholic Church hates people with same-sex attraction? There will be many more John McAdamses thrown on the pyre of secular ideology until someone gets around to answering it.

And as for Maximilian, the student who refused to accept "No — because I said so" as an adequate response in academic enquiry, he maintains, “After seeing how this entire situation has played out, I can say that John McAdams has more integrity than the other professors who are attacking him — all because he stuck up for a student’s rights. Professor McAdams has done as much as any one man can possibly be expected to do. Now it is for others to examine their own consciences — and perhaps around Marquette University we’ll start to see certain signs appearing stating: Je suis John McAdams.”

Benjamin Harnwell is the director of the Rome-based

Dignitatis Humanae Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @ben_harnwell.

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