St. Francis cancels talk by writer who backs abortion
Saint Francis University in Loretto has canceled a lecture on civility by syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman after an advocacy group called attention to her strong public support for abortion rights.
"After careful consideration, the University feels that the body of your work has reflected statements that are not in close enough alignment with some Catholic teachings and with the values and mission of the university as required for an event of this stature," Saint Francis provost Wayne Powel wrote to the retired Pulitzer Prize winner.
Ms. Goodman, who had been scheduled to speak Oct. 12 at the Cambria County campus, replied, "Imagine my disappointment at having my plea for civility returned with a pie in the face."
On Sept. 13 the Cardinal Newman Society, a lay group in Virginia that monitors the adherence of Catholic colleges to church teaching, posted an objection to her appearance, citing her writings on abortion. On Tuesday, it praised the cancellation.
"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.
Such conflicts have been increasingly common at Catholic colleges and universities. The most high profile case was in 2009, when some bishops, students and alumni protested the decision of the University of Notre Dame to award President Barack Obama an honorary degree and make him the commencement speaker. That event went forward.
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities has no written guidelines on speakers. But at workshops for school administrators, "we bring forth that the goal is the pursuit of the common good using gospel values and also the advancement of civil discourse," said Michael Galligan-Sierle, president of the association.
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.
The lecture she was to give was endowed 25 years ago in memory of William Furlong, a professor who was faculty adviser of the student newspaper. For the 25th year, the committee wanted a high-profile journalist, said Kelly Rhodes, an assistant professor of English who chaired the lecture committee.
"We thought there might be some people who would take objection to her, but abortion wasn't part of her comments. Her topic was unrelated to it. We felt that the body of her work was such that the choice was appropriate and consistent with Franciscan values and the vision of the lecture series," she said.
She had no indication of a problem until the Rev. Gabriel Zeis, president of Saint Francis, called her in to say the lecture was canceled, she said.
Joe Furlong of Germantown, Md., a son of the professor who the lecture series honors, said the family had been pleased with Ms. Goodman but that he could speak only for himself. He quoted his late father on the need to accord dignity and tolerance to students whose views ran counter to his own.
"I would like to express my personal regret at the decision of the university to deny its students and the community the opportunity to hear Ellen Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, discuss the need for civil discourse," he said. "This is a most timely discussion, given the current tone of political and social discourse in America."
Saint Francis has guidelines for the selection of speakers at high-profile events but "it was a broken process in this case," said Mr. Powel, the provost. "The people who should have been looking and paying attention to who was considered by the committee didn't do so. It should have been looked at by the senior administration, including myself."
Speakers for signature events must be closely scrutinized "because they are symbolic of the institution. We want to make sure these will be speakers that we feel will represent us as a Catholic institution," he said. "Even though her topic was not going to be on issues of choice, she is well known for her views in that area."
Mr. Powel was uncertain how her support for abortion rights came to Father Zeis' attention, but the president raised the issue with his advisers and canceled her speech, he said. He said she would still receive her speaker fee.
In an interview, Ms. Goodman said she was concerned about silencing diverse voices.
"The only thing that matters on some campuses and other places is what your view is. Not even what you are going to say, but what you believe on abortion," she said.
That question, she said, outweighs any insult to her.
"It's not my problem; it's their problem," she said. "All I lost was a lot of work preparing a speech on civility."
First Published September 21, 2011 12:00 am