Priests and the Free Exchange of Ideas: A Closer Look at the Garvey Statement

Eamonn Clark

President Garvey of the Catholic University of America has made some excellent administrative decisions during his tenure, most famously regarding the implementation of single-sex dorms. The university itself is a wonderful place doing wonderful things, and I have had the privilege of visiting many times for various reasons.

It was with some surprise and disappointment then, that I read the most recent press release from CUA.

From the outset, and with the due charity everyone owes toward beleaguered Jesuit Fr. James Martin (which I hope readers will also sincerely extend to this deeply troubled man), I wish to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the decision of CUA’s diocesan seminary, Theological College, and its rector to cancel the invitation to this priest who has undoubtedly become the most famous American cleric without a miter. The “rap-sheet” of Fr. Martin is, at this point, enormous to the point of tragic hilarity. From the unrelenting LGBT advocacy, to his quasi-heretical Christology, to suggesting that apostasy could be demanded by Christ, there is perhaps no active cleric in the United States more inappropriate to host at a seminary speaking engagement.

Notice that last bit: a seminary speaking engagement.

President Garvey released a statement yesterday distancing both himself and CUA from TC’s decision to withdraw the invitation. In part, it reads:

The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin’s talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations. Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.

Before analyzing, let’s also recall an interview with Crux where President Garvey explained this attitude toward selecting university speakers:

That’s a long wind-up, to the following answer: When we invite someone to be a commencement speaker, the university is saying something. That’s why the American Catholic bishops say that Catholic universities shouldn’t give honors, platforms, and awards to people whose view is at odds with the views of the Catholic Church.

What they are saying literally is that universities like us shouldn’t endorse people like that. We should not say “Yay, Barack Obama, you support enshrining the ‘right’ to kill the unborn.” We shouldn’t give him honorary degrees or hold him up to our students as our example.

On the other hand, I would be perfectly happy to invite President Obama to Catholic University, even to talk about abortion if he wanted to. What better place than to have a conversation with the President about an issue that is important to Catholics and others? We’re just not going to give him a prize for taking a position that we condemn.

While there might be many things to say about President Garvey’s press release and this interview excerpt (as well as the rest of it), I will limit myself to two observations:

1. Invitations to speak at major university functions are honors or awards – the sort a person might put on his or her resumé – and people are right to zero in on major moral failures of people being thus honored or awarded, especially at Catholic universities which are held to a higher standard.

2. A seminary is not a university.

The first point is hopefully not too contentious. We can certainly draw a distinction between a commencement address and a presentation or panel that exists for the sake of education within the context of a university setting. To cite Ex Corde Ecclesiae against holding a forum that hosts someone antagonistic to the Faith would be questionable, provided there were certain checks and balances in place to ensure an appropriate context for discussion and exploration of ideas which are at odds with the Church’s teaching.

The second point is, unfortunately, a distinction which President Garvey did not seem to care to explore, despite himself lamenting a dearth of distinction-making. While TC does operate under CUA and therefore is technically part of the university (as a “related entity”), the seminary itself exists for a much narrower purpose than the university at large, and thus it is governed by certain people and certain principles which ensure the successful fulfillment of that unique purpose: the formation of Catholic priests.

It beggars belief that Fr. Martin would be in a position to help forward any Catholic seminary’s distinct mission. In fact, had the invitation not been rescinded, it would have spoken volumes on how TC sees its purpose: remember, a major speaking engagement is a kind of award, and people are right to question awarding people with major public flaws. What would it say about the seminary’s curriculum? Its formators? Its sending bishops? Etc.

Mr. Garvey’s criticism would have been more on-point had Fr. Martin’s invitation to speak had come from the university’s sociology department, for example, if they were hosting a panel on gender studies. However, given that clerics represent the Church in a unique way, this too, I suggest, would have been inappropriate. Even if a priest with an opposing view (which accurately represents the Church’s teaching) were invited, such a panel would give vulnerable young minds the impression that the Church does not know what to say about these topics and that one priest’s opinion is just as good as any other’s. On the other hand, to take Mr. Garvey’s example, everyone knows that Obama is pro-choice. A pro-choice speech from him, in the right arena at a Catholic university, would not be particularly harmful in itself. But if Fr. So-and-So, “priest in good standing and whose ambiguous writings on abortion are approved by his superiors,” is invited to present a mildly pro-choice position, then we have a major problem.

Just as a seminary is not a university, a priest is not a layman. He is called to a higher standard, as Canons 273, 276 §1, and 277 §2 point out. (Perhaps some of these laws might make for a fitting addition to any Catholic university’s speaker invitation policy.) A priest who misrepresents the Church’s teaching – or even inordinately under-represents it – would be much more damaging to students than an openly anti-Catholic government official.

Seminarians and priests returning as alumni do not need the same kind of “free, civil exchange of ideas” which a Catholic university in general might benefit from. What such men need is the true doctrine of the Church presented clearly. They need insights into good, solid pastoral praxis. They need accessible summaries of critical issues in those sciences connected with pastoral work. They need emphatic encouragement to keep going in the face of cultural and personal opposition, and even worse, indifference. Anything else is almost guaranteed to be a waste of their time. It is quite doubtful that Fr. Martin was prepared to offer any of these things to the good men returning to celebrate 100 years of Theological College’s existence, and thus Fr. McBrearity’s decision as rector to disinvite him was certainly correct, with or without public outcry. There was nothing to gain by going through with the invitation, and there was so much to lose. While President Garvey thinks that an important principle has been undermined on his campus, this is simply not the case. On the contrary, several have been upheld.

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Main image: CUA in 1920