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Abortion, “Witch Hunts” and the Catholic Right

September 23, 2011, 2:07 pm | Posted by John Gehring

ellen goodman.jpgThe Cardinal Newman Society strikes again. The conservative watchdog group that monitors perceived breaches of orthodoxy on Catholic campuses has successfully pressured St. Francis University in western Pennsylvania to cancel a lecture about civility by retired Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Ellen Goodman because she is pro-choice. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has the story.

“Saint Francis University is to be commended for taking such a courageous step in favor it its Catholic identity,” said the society’s spokesman, Adam Wilson

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown wasn’t involved in the decision, said Tony DeGol, communications director for the diocese. The only written guidance from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a document on Catholic politicians who vote “in defiance” of church teaching on the sacredness of human life. It says “they should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” Ms. Goodman isn’t a politician or a Catholic.

Let’s also be clear that Goodman came to talk about civility, not to provide a roaring defense of abortion rights. Catholic students at St. Francis are learning a terrible lesson, and one that counters the ideal of a Catholic university as a place that nurtures dialogue, civility and intellectual engagement. At a time when civility in politics and pop culture is hard to come by, St. Francis University is denying students a rare opportunity to reflect on a topic that gets too little attention. Are the sensibilities of young Catholics so fragile that they can’t even hear from an accomplished journalist with a history of advocating for many social justice positions the Church endorses because she disagrees with Catholic teaching on a divisive social issue? This breeds a bunker mentality that is defensive, fearful and alienates many faithful Catholics who have deep respect for our Church’s social and intellectual tradition.

Goodman’s response to being bumped from her scheduled Oct. 12 lecture should make every thinking Catholic cringe. “Imagine my disappointment at having my plea for civility returned with a pie in the face,” she told a reporter.

Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, offered an eloquent description of what a Catholic university should be back in 2006, a few years before President Obama’s commencement address at the university was met by a furious reaction from many Catholic bishops and Catholic right culture warriors like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.

“We are committed to a wide-open, unconstrained search for truth, and we are convinced that Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture… After all, a Catholic university is where the church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world,” Jenkins said in his statement Academic Freedom and Catholic Character.

The silencing of Goodman at St. Francis University is just the latest example of how Catholicism in the US is increasingly defined, and frequently distorted by, absolutist positions on a narrow set of “non-negotiable” issues. Even bishops are not safe from this pernicious strain of spiritual McCarthyism. Here are a few examples:

  • Catholic right activists routinely embrace a witch hunt mentality to expose “fake Catholics.
  • When Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston participated in the funeral Mass of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, a Catholic who disagreed with his Church’s teaching on criminalizing abortion, he was savaged by the American Life League.
  • The right’s decades-old campaign to defund the Catholic bishops’ signature anti-poverty initiative, which has gained renewed momentum in recent years, doesn’t shy away from character assassination – as the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ social justice office found out a few years ago.
  • This summer, the Catholic bishop of Toledo banned parishes and parochial schools from raising funds for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which fights breast cancer, citing concerns that the foundation may someday fund embryonic stem-cell research.
  • Some Catholic bishops who opposed landmark health reform legislation, based on frequently debunked claims that it would fund abortion, were quick to pounce on Catholic sisters who were a leading moral force behind the law.
  • The bishop of Greensburg, PA. even prohibited the Sisters of St. Joseph in his area from advertising vocational activities as punishment for signing a letter in support of health care reform organized by NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.

These are all signs of a troubling fundamentalism – rooted in anti-intellectualism and fear – infecting a Church that has a positive, global vision for human dignity and the common good. Perhaps a new generation of Catholics can help save a divided Catholic community from a future where witch hunts and single-issue theology becomes the norm.

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