Church and college: A Catholic campus should be a political forum, too

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Like other religious schools, Catholic colleges sometimes face a difficult challenge in fulfilling their special role in American higher education. They must balance their spiritual mission with the imperative of educating students about the ways of the secular world. Because a college is Catholic (or Lutheran or Baptist) makes it no less a place where differing beliefs and opinions should be aired, the essence of an academic institution.

In this great tradition, Mercyhurst College in Erie invited Sen. Hillary Clinton to visit Tuesday night as part of her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. To the crowd of more than 2,000 who came to hear her speak (and Gov. Ed Rendell, who introduced her), the visit was surely an educational experience beyond any civics or political science class.

But one sour note was struck beforehand: With a fine disregard for what colleges are about, Erie Bishop Donald W. Trautman protested Mrs. Clinton's visit. "I am disappointed in Mercyhurst College for not reflecting the pro-life stance of the Catholic Church." As a result, he said he had notified Mercyhurst President Dr. Thomas J. Gamble that he would not attend Mercyhurst's graduation next month.

Bishop Trautman, of course, has the same right to free speech as anyone else and he also has his own duty as a bishop to speak out on moral issues of the day. But none of that makes his rebuke of the college wise. For one thing, it amounts to taking political sides. For another, it is based on a considerable misunderstanding.

Mercyhurst College, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1926, was not endorsing Mrs. Clinton's views on abortion by inviting her, no more than a newspaper endorses every letter to the editor or op-ed article in the forums it provides for free expression. As it happens, Mrs. Clinton never mentioned abortion; her speech was about economic issues. Nor was she singled out to speak; all three major candidates were invited and she alone accepted.

St. Vincent College in Latrobe had a similar controversy when President Bush was its commencement speaker last year. Although Mr. Bush has been pro-life in the sense of seeking to protect the unborn, the seamless garment of his philosophy is tattered by his pro-death penalty stance and his instigation of a foolish and unjustified invasion of Iraq -- opposed by the Vatican at the time -- that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Indeed, Mr. Bush's appearance was protested by some precisely because they felt it was not in keeping with what a Catholic college should be doing.

A more sensible view is that leading American political figures -- presidents and would-be presidents among them -- are the very people who should be heard on campuses, and their presence endorses nothing but the glory of American democracy.

If Bishop Trautman wishes to speak out against abortion, he has his pulpit. But he should not use his office to tell Dr. Gamble to restrict his college podium. After all, when Jesus mixed with sinners, he was not endorsing their lifestyle.


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