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CUA President John Garvey’s Misguided View of Religious Liberty

This essay by Peter N. Kirstein (a professor of history at St. Xavier University, Vice President of the Illinois Conference of the AAUP and is chair of the Illinois Conference Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure) originally appeared on his blog.

By Peter N. Kirstein

John Garvey, president of censured Catholic University of America (CUA), a pontifical university that has a dismal record of aggressively promoting conformity to religious theological dogma over academic freedom, is protesting the government’s alleged encroachment on Catholic and religious institutions across the spectrum of American life. Beware of university presidents who believe truth is not subject to continuous skepticism and revisionism!

This ironic state-within-a-state approach that asserts the right to carve out a religious national sovereignty even takes aim at adjuncts who are paid $2300 a course at St Xavier University. Malcolm X and other luminaries of the Nation of Islam also advocated for a time a black state within the US. At least that was motivated to avert Jim Crow and discrimination. I assert as a person who demands academic freedom, that the President Garveys and his allies are seeking not to liberate but to dominate and restrict freedoms, in the name of religious liberty, of reproductive choice, contraception and the right to form a labor union in the United States of America.

In an op-ed piece entitled “Religious Liberty,” in the Chicago Tribune on February 19, President Garvey wrote his complaint against alleged radical secularism eviscerating the religious clauses of the First Amendment. This includes faculty rights to organize at St. Xavier University in Chicago: “The National Labor Relations Board regional office ruled that St. Xavier University in Chicago was not Catholic enough to be exempt from federal labor laws. The board’s New York office ruled the same way against Manhattan College, a Christian Brothers school.”

Adjuncts have the right to form a union, President Garvey. They have the same rights as full time faculty at St. Xavier have. I am sure the president is unaware that there is a faculty union at St. Xavier and has probably never been to the campus or spoken to one of its adjuncts. The union was formed in 1979 and the adjuncts, the majority of faculty at St. Xavier, merely demand the American right to attempt to organize for purposes of collective bargaining.

St. Xavier is non-creedal, its board is predominantly layperson, its faculty is diverse in terms of religious affiliation or the lack thereof, and there is no religious test; Roman Catholic Theology is not required in its Gen Ed program. Indeed, its charism is the Sisters of Mercy and it has a Roman Catholic tradition that it deservedly is proud of. Yet 55% of its students are on Federal Pell Grants and many receive state aid from Illinois. The university accepts other federal grants and borrows money from banks that are part of the Federal Reserve System and are FDIC insured. Asserting a strict barrier between the federal government and any religious institution is cynical in its attempt to prevent on an a la carte basis, faith-based institutions from having to adhere, when convenient, to civil rights, labor, and other forms of established law.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that Garvey is so critical of has more progressive ethical values than many so-called faith-based institutions. Maybe the author should read the Leo XIII papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum of 1891. As the president of a censured, pontifical Catholic university, I presume he is aware of this document and its impassioned call for workers’ rights, its denunciation of the exploitation of labor and its demand for worker justice and decency. How does this encyclical comport with his call for a wild-west show in which faith-based universities can apparently determine how to treat their employees as if decades of worker-related laws dating back to the New Deal have a phantasmagorical religious exemption?

Garvey then develops a laundry list of alleged provocative secular intrusions into religious matters. President Garvey has no standing, in my opinion, within the academic community to be lecturing other institutions on how to conduct their affairs or to claim a paternalistic interest in protecting religious-educational sovereignty. He should be concerned about the lack of academic freedom on his own campus and justice for the downtrodden, as opposed to carving out an autonomous-religious state exempt from federal law.

For 22 years the administration of Catholic University of America has been censured (pdf) by the American Association of University Professors. This hall of shame is directed at out-of-control administrators who use the power of their office to suppress, punish and cajole professors into intellectual conformity. This includes CUA, which removed a tenured, liberal theologian, Reverend Charles E. Curran, from the classroom because he supported contraception and refused to proselytize Roman Catholic theology in the classroom. It is apparently acceptable to CUA to teach merely one’s subject matter with robotic objectivity; one must suppress any commentary or opinion in the area of one’s discipline. What results is a “pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” And this is the voice of reason?

I wonder if the former Boston College Law Dean has anything to say about his censured university’s persecution of Rev. Curran? Not on your watch but it is your watch now, sir! CUA professors are not allowed to think in some instances but instead become robotic enforcers for the church. A censured university is one of shame and deserves to be shunned and denounced: not its faculty, not its staff, but its administration. The AAUP censuring of Catholic University of America is an inconvenient truth that needs continuous public referencing: an exercise unfortunately ignored by the press and other media that publish Garvey’s edicts and promote his right-wing agenda.

9 comments on “CUA President John Garvey’s Misguided View of Religious Liberty

  1. Millard Pryor
    February 27, 2012

    The article proves David Horowitz is not inaccurate in his condemnation of such professors: The article is statist, an implicit atheism, a contempt for authority, an assault on the Marxian alleged “bourgeoisie”: in this case President Garvey, a distinguished legal scholar, patriot and president of a major Catholic institution. It is also patently unfair in dredging up a decades’ old case in which the Pope and the Archbishop of Washington agreed that Rev. Curran should not teach under the authority of the church if he could not present that authority in a manner respectful of the Magisterium. I am glad the author “demands” academic freedom; he is fortunate that his own CATHOLIC university grants him such license.

  2. Peter Neil Kirstein
    February 29, 2012

    The persistence of this “decades old case” is a reflection of several CUA administrations’ ongoing refusal to rectify the lack of academic freedom that caused the censure in the first place. AAUP merely publishes an annual report of woe in which most censured institutions simply ignore some anodyne form letter. How about AAUP selectively but actively revisiting censured institutions to determine if continuous transgressions against university faculty is continuing. Academic freedom is not a right that one is “fortunate” to have; it is the essence of academic democracy that a professoriate is entitled to possess and an administration is morally and legally obligated to defend.

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