Stand for Catholic Identity Pits University of San Diego President Against Faculty

After President Mary Lyons disinvites a dissenting British theologian, some faculty collectively rebuke her for ‘compromising campus academic freedom.’

SAN DIEGO — A textbook case of division over campus Catholic identity is continuing at the University of San Diego, where a significant step undertaken to promote Catholic fidelity has generated fierce controversy.

Earlier this fall, USD’s president, Mary Lyons, denied a British theologian — who is openly at odds with some of the Catholic Church’s most fundamental moral teachings — her upcoming status as a “visiting fellow” at the university. The firestorm of debate over academic freedom that has ensued pits Lyons against many of her own faculty and has now involved the university’s board of trustees, too.

British Catholic theologian Tina Beattie, the director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies at Roehampton University in the United Kingdom, was invited by USD’s Frances Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture (CCTC) to give lectures during the month of November at the university as a “visiting fellow.”

Beattie disagrees with the Church’s teachings on contraception, early-term abortion, same-sex “marriage” and women’s ordination, according to a report posted at the website of the Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog group dedicated to promoting Catholic identity in higher education.

Beattie’s lectures had been scheduled a year in advance, but days before her scheduled arrival in San Diego, Lyons revoked Beattie’s visiting fellowship in an Oct. 27 letter. Lyons took this action because Beattie signed onto an Aug. 13 public letter, published by The Times of London, opposing the Catholic bishops of the United Kingdom on same-sex “marriage.”

In the letter, Beattie identified herself as a Catholic theologian.


President Lyons’ Position

“The issue, for me, is a Catholic theologian using her office as a theologian to advocate that lay Catholics essentially take a position in opposition to the legitimate teaching authority of the Church, namely the bishops,” Lyons told the Register.

The letter signed by Beattie and 26 others stated: “Not all Catholics share their hierarchy’s stated views against proposals to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples. We suggest that it is perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully formed consciences, to support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of the offspring” (1601).

The Catechism goes on to state, “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution, despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures and spiritual attitudes” (1603).

In a June 6, 2005, address at St. John Lateran, Pope Benedict said, “The different present forms of the dissolution of marriage, as well as free unions and ‘trial marriage,’ including the pseudo-marriage between persons of the same sex, are … contrary expressions of an anarchic freedom that appears erroneously as man’s authentic liberation.”

The Pope said this pseudo-freedom is based on “a trivialization of the body, which inevitably includes the trivialization of man. Its assumption is that man can make of himself what he likes. Thus his body becomes something secondary, which can be manipulated from the human point of view, which can be used as one pleases.

“Libertinism, which appears as discovery of the body and its value, is in reality a dualism that makes the body contemptible, leaving it, so to speak, outside the authentic being and dignity of the person.”

Beattie’s public dissent from the Church to support what the faith calls “intrinsic evil” prompted Bishop Declan Lang of the Diocese of Clifton, England, to cancel a planned lecture by her on the Virgin Mary at the local cathedral.

“I can in good conscience differ from what the current magisterium officially teaches and what some other Catholics might believe to be true,” Beattie wrote in an entry posted on her personal blog, arguing that her disagreements with Church teachings on moral and social issues do not fall under “revealed doctrine.”

Lyons told Beattie in her Oct. 27 letter that the mission of the CCTC and the intention of its donors are to “provide opportunities to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition in its diverse embodiments.”

“This would include clear and consistent presentations concerning the Church’s moral teachings, teachings with which you, as a Catholic theologian, dissent publicly,” Lyons stated.

“At a Catholic university, there has to be congruity between this institution and our values and those people whom we hold up for endorsement or support,” Lyons said.


Faculty Opposition

But CCTC’s director, Gerard Mannion, disputed Lyons’ claim that Beattie was receiving an honor from the university or the CCTC.

“The term ‘visiting fellow’ is intended for administrative purposes. It’s to indicate to students that we have a scholar on campus for an extended stay,” he said. “There’s not an honorary element attached to it.”

Mannion said Lyons had violated CCTC’s academic freedom and independence by revoking Beattie’s invitation, a charge taken up by many of the USD faculty. Student supporters of Beattie have held meetings and demonstrations on campus and organized a Facebook page, “Toreros Stand With Beattie,” which has more than 470 “likes.”

The Academic Assembly of USD’s College of Arts and Sciences, which represents more than 200 members of USD’s 845-member faculty, took up an unprecedented symbolic vote of no confidence against Lyons. The motion, calling her “ethically bankrupt,” passed 99-16, with 19 abstaining.

Mannion and other faculty members want Lyons to apologize to Beattie and the university community and invite external mediators to resolve the dispute.

“Every invitation is an honor, but I don’t see this as an honor endorsing her views — it’s not as if it is an award for being Catholic,” said Carlton Floyd, an English professor and chair of the Academic Assembly’s executive committee. “Decisions have consequences, and we are forming our own ad hoc committee to decide what action to take next.”


Bishop Brom

Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego said that he could not comment on the specifics of the case, but defended Lyons’ commitment to academic freedom.

“Academic freedom is an essential component of a Catholic university, but it means observing and submitting to the teaching authority of the Church,” Bishop Brom said. “That principle has to be respected as much as institutional autonomy.”

Bishop Brom said that, in addition to Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae — which states, “In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition” — Canon 218 of the Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law also speaks to how Catholic theologians should pursue academic freedom.

“Those engaged in the sacred disciplines have a just freedom of inquiry … while observing the submission due to the magisterium of the Church,” Canon 218 states.


The Board of Trustees

The University of San Diego’s board of trustees conducted its own investigation into the faculty’s claims that Lyons had poorly handled the case and violated USD’s principles of academic freedom. However, in mid-November, the board found decisively in favor of Lyons’ actions and praised her for her “strong vision and leadership” of USD.

“The president has authority to make decisions of this nature, and we believe that she made this decision in good faith and with the best interest of the university in mind,” stated a letter from the trustees, dated Nov. 16 and signed by the board’s chairman, Ron Fowler.

Lyons said the next step will be setting up a task force of faculty, students and administrators in order to clearly define what qualifies as an institutional honor from USD or an honorary affiliation.

Like USD’s trustees, Cardinal Newman Society’s president, Patrick Reilly, praised Lyons’ decision to revoke Beattie’s invitation as a sign that Catholics can “expect some very positive changes at even the most intransigent universities over the next decade.”

“I think this is a very hopeful situation precisely because the president of a university, where its Catholic identity has not been valued, made a very good decision in support of the university’s Catholic identity,” Reilly said.

This is the second time Lyons has entered a media firestorm after blocking USD honors from going to dissenting theologians. In 2008, Lyons denied theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether’s appointment to the Msgr. John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology because of Reuther’s longstanding membership on the board of the abortion lobby group “Catholics for a Free Choice,” which has been denounced by the U.S. bishops’ conference for misrepresenting itself as an authentic Catholic organization.

“I applaud [Lyons] for standing firm and doing the right thing,” said Charles LiMandri, a past president of USD’s alumni association and a San Diego-based attorney who heads the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.

But LiMandri said he and fellow alumni concerned about USD’s Catholic identity believe the single best action by Lyons would be to require USD’s theology professors to obtain the mandatum specified under Canon 812, which is an oath of fidelity to the magisterium of the pope and bishops united collegially with him.

“The students there don’t know the Catholic viewpoint; they’re not getting it, and they find it hateful,” LiMandri said. “Our position has always been that if you’re going to bring people with dissenting views to the university, then at least counterbalance those views with people who can tell what the Catholic Church teaches.”


Vatican Concerns

The Vatican has expressed concern recently that Catholic theologians dissenting from Church teaching, as defined authoritatively by the pope and the Church’s bishops, are undermining the Church’s stance in the public square.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, stated in an address delivered in early November at the University of Notre Dame that dissenting Catholic professors at colleges and universities posed a “grave and major problem,” both to the Church’s effort to defend its religious liberty and to “the higher purpose of the human person.”

Said Archbishop Viganò, “We have witnessed that some instructors who claim the moniker ‘Catholic’ are often the sources of teachings that conflict with, rather than explain and defend, Catholic teachings in the important public-policy issues of the day.”

Register correspondent Peter J. Smith writes from Rochester, New York.