Potential restrictive speaker rules would weaken Catholic intellectual tradition

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis recently published new guidelines that address the question of who can speak at Catholic institutions in the archdiocese.

According to the guidelines, which debuted in November, a prospective speaker’s previous writings and presentations must “be in harmony with the teaching and discipline of the church.” In addition, “those living a lifestyle at variance with church teaching would also not be eligible [to speak].”

These guidelines make some sense for parishes as well as for Catholic elementary and high schools. But if the archdiocese tries to replace St. Thomas’ current speaker policy with these more restrictive rules, the university’s claim to be a school that is “inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition” would be weakened.

If a university is inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, it is open to the discussion of different opinions. It encourages informed debate among students and doesn’t restrict students’ access to speakers, as long as those speakers are respectful and don’t insult the Catholic faith.

St. Thomas’ current speaker policy strikes a healthy balance. The Rev. John Malone, vice president for mission, said St. Thomas’ policy allows for the expression of a diverse range of opinions while simultaneously advancing Catholic teachings.

“We would insist regardless of who’s speaking that we state our Catholic position,” he said. “People who come here who have a different position than that, they should talk about what they’re here to talk about, not to take a tack on various positions of the Catholic Church.”

This is a rational way of deciding which speakers should be allowed at Catholic universities. Prohibiting speakers based on their lifestyle choices, on the other hand, could have harmful repercussions. Students would benefit from listening to a speaker discussing poverty in Third World countries, even if the speaker’s personal lifestyle isn’t perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. As long as the speaker is there to talk about the issue and not to sell the benefits of his or her lifestyle, I don’t see a problem.

Malone said no one has decided yet exactly how or if the new guidelines will apply to St. Thomas, but he doesn’t think they will replace the university’s current policy. However, he also said he thinks the archdiocese would like some form of the new policy to be put into place at St. Thomas.

This can’t happen if St. Thomas wants to keep its reputation as a university that promotes intellectual freedom and informed discussion. The policy we have now provides us with a good mix of new ideas and respect for Catholic teachings. It’s always a precarious balancing act, of course, and I’m sure there will be numerous discussions in the future about which speakers should or shouldn’t come to campus.

But as we debate what being a Catholic university means, we should remember that listening to opposing viewpoints can actually strengthen our own beliefs. St. Thomas should continue to offer students access to different opinions so we can be informed citizens who are aware of many viewpoints, not just our own.

Katie Broadwell can be reached at klbroadwell@stthomas.edu

57 Replies to “Potential restrictive speaker rules would weaken Catholic intellectual tradition”

  1. First, Mr. Blissenbach, my definition of a “competitive” university does not include the University of Minnesota, although the U of M is indeed a very good school. Secondly, I find it to be a gross exaggeration for you to call the University of Minnesota hostile to religion as a result of a single play put on by a few people in the Theater department. The production, by the way, was in no way intended to be anti-Catholic or anti-Jew or anti-anything, as the director is quoted as saying.

  2. And also, Mr. Blissenbach, I am still interested in hearing your response to my earlier question about your op-ed piece. My question again: can you provide a concrete example of how one can “see the world through a Catholic’s eyes” as opposed to seeing the world through the eyes of any other world religion? This was one of the primary issues I took with your piece because your op-ed piece made many vague statements about the importance of “seeing the world through a Catholic’s eyes” and yet failed to provide any concrete examples of why the same statement cannot be applied to any religion. I, for one, believe that it is beneficial to look at the world from the viewpoint of multiple religions and not only Catholicism.

  3. I am also a former alumnus of St. Thomas College (this gives you an idea of my age) and I also fully support the policy that the Archbishop has presented. The people commenting presented some good arguments against the policy but Michael Blissenbach was astounding in his precise accurate reply to each of their objections.

    Michael, you did an excellent presentation in defending the reason why St. Thomas should be a Catholic institution and not a secular school for learning.

    Thank you for your contribution to this article.

  4. Michael (and Thomas)- if you think the speaker policy ought to be made more specific, or interpreted to allow the above scenarios, then it’s essentially no different then the policy we have now. Obviously, if the archdiocese wants to institute it, then they don’t have that interpretation in mind.

  5. Thanks for the response, Mr. Blissenbach. For some reason I didn’t see your response earlier which is why I asked the same question again (maybe there was a delay in the moderator accepting the comment or something). To be honest I found the response largely unsatisfying however because you didn’t provide a concrete example of how Catholics see the physical world differently, you simply explained how the religions’ belief systems differ. But I won’t press the matter any further because that topic isn’t entirely relevant to the speaker policy. I’ll bow out of this discussion now because there is little else to say. We both have fundamentally different ideas about what is best for a university and it’s quite clear neither of us will change the other’s mind. I will still check this page occasionally in the coming days in case someone would like me to clarify one of the points I have made above but beyond that I will be done with this discussion. I’ll just end by wishing all the current Tommies good luck in opposing this policy and I hope that UST will continue to value intellectual freedom and diversity of opinion in the future.

  6. Mr. Commers,
    Although it is clear we disagree as to what the role of a Catholic university is, I want to thank you and all who have commented on this forum for the honesty, charity, and straightforwardness of your remarks. I greatly appreciate that.
    Also, Mr. Commers, in my experience, a person’s most deeply held beliefs shapes how that person sees the world. The same can be said for religions. A Catholic worldview is shaped by the teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and so a Catholic views the world through the lens of those teachings. A Buddhist would view the world through the teachings of Buddhism, and a Jew would view the world through the teachings of Judaism, and so a Catholic, a Buddhist, and a Jew would see the world very differently because the three religions teach very different things.
    I don’t understand why you didn’t think my post showing the differences of beliefs of the three religions regarding whether or not there is a God was disappointing. Perhaps I misunderstood your question, since for me reality includes the supernatural as well as the natural. Perhaps for you reality is only the natural?

  7. Unless anyone else has any further comments or questions for me, this will be my last post in this particular discussion.
    I want to close with an excerpt from a message from the Venerable Pope John Paul II. In this excerpt, Pope John Paul II addresses the youth, and his words are as follows:
    “”Let yourself be summoned by the love of Christ, recognize His voice which rings in the temple of your heart.
    Have no fear of the fact that the response He requires is radical, because Jesus, who first loved you, is ready to give what He asks of you.
    If He asks much it is because He knows that you can give much.”
    May God bless you and all who set foot on the St. Thomas campus.

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