Rory Leishman National Affairs

Rory Leishman National Affairs

For a striking illustration of the moral and spiritual degradation that afflicts so many ostensibly Christian universities in North America, consider the contrasting reactions to the screening of the excellent pro-life movie Unplannedat Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and King’s University College at Western University in London, Ontario.

Given that both Benedictine College and King’s describe themselves on their respective websites as a Catholic, liberal arts college, one might suppose that they would have uniformly welcomed an on-campus screening of a film like Unplanned. Joseph Naumann, Archbishop of Kansas City and Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has lauded the film in an online review as the “true story” of how former Planned Parenthood abortion-clinic director and employee of the year Abby Johnson was so horrified by witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week-old baby in the womb that she quit her job and went on to become one of the foremost pro-life champions in the United States.

In Naumann’s estimation, Unplanned is “the story of conversion, redemption, mercy and hope.” He suggests that the film “has the ability to change hearts, to protect women and men from experiencing the pain of abortion, and to help those who have been affected by it to seek the healing that they need and that God desires for them. I was deeply moved by her story and urge you to go see the film.”

Among other prominent Catholic backers of Unplannedis Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. He urges “See This Movie: It Matters.”

Of course, Unplannedalso has its implacable critics. Among them are no fewer than 44 faculty members out of a total of about 420 full- and part-time faculty and staff at King’s University College. Following a screening of the film by Campus Ministry at King’s on January 10, these critics signed a protest letter to University Principal David Malloy that has been reproduced without comment on the website of the King’s University College Faculty Association under the heading “Unplanned Screening Response.”

In this letter, the 44 protesting professors deride Unplanned as “an anti-abortion film ostensibly based on a true story, which has been widely discredited as anti-abortion propaganda that incorporates graphic and inaccurate depictions of abortion.” The professors insist that for the purpose of “truth-seeking through respectful dialogue and disagreement,” Campus Ministry should have assured that the screening of Unplannedwas “appropriately framed through the formal inclusion of faculty members or other experts.”

Which experts? The inference is clear: The professors think Campus Ministry should have formally invited critics like themselves to lambaste the film before the viewing audience.

As it is, the professors allege: “We have lost the opportunity to model to our students and the broader community the methods of inquiry and debate that are at the centre of the liberal arts.” Really? As the professors’ letter testifies, there remains no end of opportunities to model debate over Unplannedat King’s.

The protesting professors single out for particular concern Father Michael Béchard, Director of the Office of Campus Ministry at King’s, who told the CBC: “We chose to show the movie Unplannedbecause it’s really consistent with our general ethic of life at King’s. We support life as a Catholic institution from conception until natural death.”

That is not true, the 44 critical professors insist. They charge: “The Director’s pronouncements blatantly misrepresent King’s mission statement and values, which do not include any reference to an ‘ethics of life.’ Instead, our mission statement says we are ‘engaged in the open pursuit of truth.’”

What, though, is the truth about abortion? Pope Saint John Paul II crystallized the position of the Catholic Church in Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of life): “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being…. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”

The 44 dissenters at King’s presume also to disagree with this authoritative reaffirmation of the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church on the evil of abortion. In their letter to Malloy, they argue: “Abortion is a safe and legal health service for women in Canada and is accessed by approximately one-quarter of child-bearing women. Women who have exercised their rights to reproductive care risk being stigmatized and traumatized by the ideological position presented both in the film and in the Director’s statement.”

Note the euphemism “women who have exercised their right to reproductive care.” In plain English, these 44 King’s professors are implying that Father Béchard gratuitously offended Canadian women who have exercised their purported right to abortion.

In concluding their letter, the professors summon Principal Malloy to demand a formal apology from Father Béchard for stating, in effect, that King’s upholds the teaching of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of all human life. In addition, the professors call upon Malloy to “affirm that faculty, staff, and students at King’s University College are not mandated to ascribe [sic] to all or any elements of Catholicism (i.e. King’s is non-confessional).”

In a written response, Malloy stopped short of demanding an apology from Father Béchard, but clearly dissociated the University from his views. Malloy wrote: “The presentation of the film and the belief of life beginning at conception is the stance of Campus Ministry and not of King’s as a whole. King’s employees, faculty and students do not need to prescribe [sic] to the tenets of the Catholic Church. King’s does not have a position on abortion.”

How can that be? Is King’s no longer Catholic? Is it really now a secular “non-confessional” college as the protesting professors suppose?

If so, why does King’s still claim in the Strategic Plan appended to its online Mission Statement that: “Ideals deriving from the Catholic intellectual tradition and Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities (Ex corde ecclesiae) provide the framework for our understanding of a Catholic university’s identity, mission and activities.”

Would John Paul II have agreed that a Catholic college should have no position on abortion? Most definitely not. In Ex corde ecclesiaehe urged: “If need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society. A specific priority is the need to examine and evaluate the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective, and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life.” (emphasis in the original)

For Catholic universities and colleges, it is evident that far from remaining neutral on abortion, Ex corde admonishes them to summon up the courage to speak the truth that the deliberate killing of an innocent human being inside or outside the womb is a crime that can never be justified.

Malloy contends that the faculty at King’s are under no obligation to subscribe to the tenets of the Catholic Church. Yet according to King’s Statement on Academic Freedom: “All Faculty have a responsibility to promote or at least respect the Catholic identity of the College.”

John Paul II took the same position in Ex corde. While upholding “the academic freedom of scholars in each discipline in accordance with its own principles and proper methods, and within the confines of the truth and the common good,” he insisted: “All Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching.”

Correspondingly, in an address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America in April, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI stated: “In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges [and] universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

By this standard, the 44 protesting professors at King’s have grossly betrayed the Catholic identity and mission of the College by implicitly condoning abortion on demand. Instead of maintaining that these errant professors have a right as King’s employees to broadcast their anti-Catholic views on campus, Malloy should make clear that King’s continues to uphold the principles of a Catholic college as set out in Ex cordeand that, therefore, the 44 protesting professors must apologize or quit for having manifestly failed in their duty to respect the Catholic mission and identity of King’s.

Not to be overlooked in this affair is the role of Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario. Ex cordeprovides: “Each Bishop has a responsibility to promote the welfare of the Catholic Universities in his diocese and has the right and duty to watch over the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic character. If problems should arise concerning this Catholic character, the local Bishop is to take the initiatives necessary to resolve the matter, working with the competent university authorities….”

Notwithstanding this clear instruction, Bishop Fabbro has given no public reassurance of his determination to preserve and strengthen the Catholic identity of King’s in the aftermath of the Unplannedscandal.

Meanwhile, consider the illuminating reaction to Unplannedat Benedictine College, a Catholic institution in Atchison, Kansas, which US News & World Reportranks among the top 10 colleges in the Midwest. As soon as Unplannedbecame available, Benedictine College rented an entire nearby theatre and offered free tickets to all its students, faculty and staff.

The tickets were quickly gone, the theatre was packed for the screening and prominent among those in attendance were Archbishop Nauman and Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis. “We at Benedictine College take the pro-life issue very seriously and we support life from conception to natural death,” avowed Minnis. “We are excited about this new movie and its potential to transform the culture in America. We wanted our students to get the first look at it and be able to promote it to their friends and families.”

One final point: The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to “Promoting and Defending Faithful Catholic Education,” has compiled a guide to 16 Catholic colleges and universities in North America which offers students a faithful Catholic education. Benedictine College and Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, a small Catholic academy in Barry’s Bay Ontario, are listed in the Newman guide. Kings University College at Western is not.