The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis recently published new guidelines that address the question of who can speak at Catholic institutions in the archdiocese.
According to the guidelines, which debuted in November, a prospective speaker’s previous writings and presentations must “be in harmony with the teaching and discipline of the church.” In addition, “those living a lifestyle at variance with church teaching would also not be eligible [to speak].”
These guidelines make some sense for parishes as well as for Catholic elementary and high schools. But if the archdiocese tries to replace St. Thomas’ current speaker policy with these more restrictive rules, the university’s claim to be a school that is “inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition” would be weakened.
If a university is inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, it is open to the discussion of different opinions. It encourages informed debate among students and doesn’t restrict students’ access to speakers, as long as those speakers are respectful and don’t insult the Catholic faith.
St. Thomas’ current speaker policy strikes a healthy balance. The Rev. John Malone, vice president for mission, said St. Thomas’ policy allows for the expression of a diverse range of opinions while simultaneously advancing Catholic teachings.
“We would insist regardless of who’s speaking that we state our Catholic position,” he said. “People who come here who have a different position than that, they should talk about what they’re here to talk about, not to take a tack on various positions of the Catholic Church.”
This is a rational way of deciding which speakers should be allowed at Catholic universities. Prohibiting speakers based on their lifestyle choices, on the other hand, could have harmful repercussions. Students would benefit from listening to a speaker discussing poverty in Third World countries, even if the speaker’s personal lifestyle isn’t perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. As long as the speaker is there to talk about the issue and not to sell the benefits of his or her lifestyle, I don’t see a problem.
Malone said no one has decided yet exactly how or if the new guidelines will apply to St. Thomas, but he doesn’t think they will replace the university’s current policy. However, he also said he thinks the archdiocese would like some form of the new policy to be put into place at St. Thomas.
This can’t happen if St. Thomas wants to keep its reputation as a university that promotes intellectual freedom and informed discussion. The policy we have now provides us with a good mix of new ideas and respect for Catholic teachings. It’s always a precarious balancing act, of course, and I’m sure there will be numerous discussions in the future about which speakers should or shouldn’t come to campus.
But as we debate what being a Catholic university means, we should remember that listening to opposing viewpoints can actually strengthen our own beliefs. St. Thomas should continue to offer students access to different opinions so we can be informed citizens who are aware of many viewpoints, not just our own.