The Limits of Tolerance


When the president of a Catholic university, Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., refused to allow a pro-abortion speaker to appear on campus, he touched off a lively debate about the nature of academic freedom and the implications of a school’s Catholic identity.

Rev. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J.

On March 28, 2000 the Women’s Studies Club at Spokane’s Gonzaga University invited a representative of Planned Parenthood to appear on campus and discuss reproductive freedom, the 2000 presidential election, and the organization’s concerns about safety at abortion clinics. After learning of the invitation Gonzaga’s President, Father Robert Spitzer, SJ made the decision to “disinvite” the Planned Parenthood speaker — a decision which he announced on April 12. The resulting controversy on the Gonzaga campus and in the surrounding community sparked debate about the meaning of academic freedom and the nature of a university’s Catholic identity. That debate was especially pointed because the same general topics had recently been addressed by the Catholic bishops of the United States, in their latest discussion of the new guidelines for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on higher education.

As the controversy at Gonzaga gradually subsided, Father Spitzer spoke with Catholic World Report about the reasons for his decision.

How did you first learn of Planned Parenthood being invited to speak at Gonzaga?

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ: Two administrators approached me and asked, “Do you realize that the chalkboards in some of our classrooms have Planned Parenthood coming to campus, but they do not identify the sponsoring group?” I said, “No, I did not know that,” and told them that I did not want the event to occur.

This precipitated our Student Life department finding out who was sponsoring the event. We honestly did not know. As far as I can determine, late in the afternoon they found out that it was sponsored by the Women’s Studies Club, and Planned Parenthood was asked not to come.

Apparently, someone in the group notified the press, so that when the Student Life administrator, acting under my orders, went to the room where the talk was to be held to cancel the speech, he was confronted by the press. Had I known the press would be there, I would have gone myself.

This sparked quite a bit of controversy among students, faculty, and the community. The Spokesman-Review allowed me to publish an 800-word rationale for my decision. [See the accompanying sidebar.] The op-eds and letters to the editor have continued.

How did you reach your decision to disinvite Planned Parenthood?

Spitzer: The decision was immediate. Planned Parenthood was coming that night. I am familiar with Planned Parenthood’s involvement in abortion, and as I explained in my rationale, Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the nation. Planned Parenthood clearly sponsors something which is hurting a huge population of innocent persons. As Catholics we believe that those children being aborted are persons. This is not only blatantly contrary to our Catholic values, but is a legitimate application of the principle of non-toleration.

You are no stranger to pro-life issues. Could you say something about your work with Life Principles?

Spitzer: Human Life of Washington has produced a video series entitled Life Principles. It is a series of five videotapes that are used in parishes, schools, and college campuses to outline the ramifications of abortion.

Once you allow one morally corrupt thing to happen (abortion), other things start to happen culturally. The videos go into the other four cultural consequences of abortion.

Could you outline what you see as those cultural consequences of abortion?

Spitzer: First, abortion doesn’t hurt just the unborn. It subjectivizes the view of the person. Once you minimize the notion of personhood to justify abortion, it becomes much easier to minimize the notion of personhood for other groups of people, such as the mentally challenged, the elderly, or the economically marginalized. It opens up a Pandora’s box which allows special interest groups or the powerful to influence who is or is not a person deserving of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. Therefore, we must return to an objective ground of “person” which does not depend on anyone’s subjective viewpoint. We had this view of person prior to the Roe v. Wade decision — namely, “person” is a “being of human origin.” It does not matter whether this being is in the womb or out of the womb, green or black or white, having an IQ of 90 or 150, dependent on others or completely independent of others.

Second, if the government can determine what is or isn’t a person, they can also proscribe rights to that person. Yet we all have certain inalienable rights by virtue of our human existence. The government has the right neither to give, nor to take away one’s inalienable rights, such as the right to life.

Third, there is always the potential for rights conflicts, and therefore there must be an objective prioritization of rights. If right X is a condition necessary for the possibility of right Y, then right X is the more fundamental right. In Roe v. Wade the woman’s legitimate right to custody of her own body (a liberty right) is pitted against the unborn baby’s legitimate right to life. How do you resolve this conflict? Which right is necessary for the other? The right to life is, of course, a more fundamental right, for without it liberty rights are a moot point. Roe v. Wade went against this objective prioritization of rights and subjectively asserted that the woman’s liberty right is more fundamental than the unborn child’s right to life. If you take away the objective priority of rights and decide that a less fundamental right is higher than a more fundamental one, then one puts the will of the court above the objective ground of necessity. This is tantamount to the Indiana state legislature’s declaration that pi should be defined as 3.2, even though this completely ignored the mathematical proof stemming from objective necessity (This was a decision reached by the Indiana legislature in 1897.)

Fourth, we have replaced a “level 3” meaning of life with a “level 2” meaning of life. A “level 2” meaning of life is comparative and asks the questions, “How do I compare with others? How do I measure up? Who’s better or worse?” A “level 3” meaning of life is contributive. It asks, “How am I making a positive difference with my time, talents, energy, and life? How does my life make the world a better place?” A level 2 identity might look at a mentally challenged boy and say, “He has very little worth; his IQ is low, he is not coordinated, and his economic output is limited.” A level 3 identity might look at that child and see the love which that child can elicit from others. A mentally challenged child can, by his very presence, create a far more loving and humane ambiance around him. In that view, he has plenty of worth. Naturally, as people age, their level 2 identity decreases as their capacity decreases. However, their level 3 identity increases. As people age they have a greater capacity to share their experiences, their love, and their forgiveness. Emphasizing level 2 over level 3 will only lead to a culture which radically devalues its elderly. Level 3 views of identity and culture need to be reinstated and level 2 views need to be put in their proper place. The progress — indeed, the survival — of our culture depends on this. I have also addressed these principles in my book Healing the Culture which will be published by Ignatius Press in October.

Did you anticipate the controversy your decision would cause?

Spitzer: I knew it was going to be serious, and I knew that it would get into the press, but I did not anticipate it happening so soon. I had resolved, at the time, that it was crucial to make the distinction between censorship and non-sponsorship. At some point, religious identity has to be balanced with academic freedom.

Religious identity and academic freedom must be brought into balance and complementarity in order to have a “Catholic university.” Planned Parenthood is contrary to the values of the Catholic Church and objectively is, according to the Church’s view, promoting the “killing of innocents.” This activity qualifies for the legitimate application of the principle of non-toleration. To tolerate an organization that is killing infants would sacrifice our moral principles and religious identity. It also, from any point of view (Catholic or non-Catholic), is extraordinarily destructive to an entire population of vulnerable, innocent human beings. I had a decision to make, and acting on principle, this was my only responsible action. It was worth it.

At some point, all universities must decide whether they are going to act on principle or not. Such principles will inevitably qualify academic freedom — not so much with respect to censorship, but with respect to non-sponsorship and non-toleration. Catholic universities cannot tolerate organizations which deliberately hurt others (whether these be devoted to racism, abortion, genocide, etc.). To do so would imply commensurability between Catholic values and the sponsored organization. Furthermore, it would bestow undeserved academic and religious respectability on these organizations, and even allow these organizations to co-opt the Catholic university’s name — if they say, for example, “When I was speaking at Gonzaga University last week . . .”

Students are benefiting from this discussion. One female student came to my office and asked, “This is all about acting from principle, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes,” to which she responded, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” It has become the “buzz” of the residence halls and the student union building.

But this sort of application of principle is not something we see in academic settings very often, is it?

Spitzer: In academic settings, academic freedom frequently is thought to have absolute sway. However, you cannot act according to principle if you give academic freedom absolute sway. If that happens, anything is tolerable. If we make toleration an absolute principle, we can’t act from other moral principles. No university committed to the welfare of culture and society can live under that unwitting assumption. Without a principle of non-toleration, churches could not have argued against slavery or racism.

What has been the campus response so far?

Spitzer: A campus forum was held, and it demonstrated that there are two logics involved. One logic will always try to legitimize an absolute interpretation of toleration. The other kind of logic espouses a principle of non-toleration when certain objective criteria — such as the destruction of whole populations of vulnerable, innocent human beings — are present.

The culture is lucky to have Catholic, Protestant, and private institutions that have the freedom to qualify the principle of toleration when certain well-defined criteria are present. By qualifying the principle of toleration, these universities can provide some form of cultural critique based on moral principles rather than on feelings, moods, or media savvy.

Who will do this if these independent universities do not? The culture doesn’t need “one size fits all.” It needs a group of universities who will elucidate and apply principles according to logic, methodological precision, and clear and systemic definition of ideas. We are in a period when the culture acknowledges the goodness of diversity. Why then, would we say that one size fits all? Why would we say that all institutions should absolutize academic freedom and the principle of toleration? It doesn’t make any sense.

In your view, what is a Catholic University?

Spitzer: As a Catholic institution we stand for a set of base principles. Everyone in our community does not have to agree on them, but institutionally we stand for them because we are Catholic. We are theistic. We are Trinitarian. We believe that God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ, and that Christ is the Son of God. We also believe that Jesus revealed certain moral principles and the unconditional forgiving love of God.

This doesn’t mean we cannot discuss these truths or ask questions about them. Nevertheless, this does not mitigate our institutional commitment to them. We hire faculty and staff and we show them our mission statement, which indicates these institutional commitments to the Catholic and Jesuit character of Gonzaga. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to anyone that these are the commitments under and through which we exist.

Part of our job is to show that these are reasonable and responsible beliefs, and show how principles can emerge from these beliefs. We are not just asserting these beliefs arbitrarily. We bring issues into the arena of responsible discourse. This means that we will represent these principles to our students and to the world outside our community. It also means that we will try to act on those principles so far as they affect the areas of leadership, service, and ethics.

We educate the whole person. The heart liberates the mind and the mind liberates the heart. The key thing we want students to know is where they stand, why they stand there, and where they stand in relation to the whole.

Can we ask any question we want to on campus? Of course. There are no mind police on campus.

Father Thomas Reese, SJ, wrote that “to ban people from coming on campus is an admission that you have not been able to convince your students of the truth . . . and you don’t want people who could lead them astray.” How would you respond?

Spitzer: Father Reese’s contention ignores my distinction between censorship and non-sponsorship. The issue is not who is going to be convinced or who did the convincing. The key point is: Shall Catholic universities tolerate everyone? Shall we give them academic legitimacy, or are there intrinsic limits to doing this? That is the question. Since Father Reese has not answered that question, I have no idea of his opinion. If there are no limits, I should like to ask Father Reese if he would bestow academic and religious credibility on any organization by inviting them to America magazine?

I would have to dispute Reese’s findings that this issue was resolved in the 1960s. If it has been resolved, who resolved it and according to which of the two above-mentioned logics? Given the extended nature of this controversy, I would submit that Reese’s contention is, to say the least, premature.

Do you anticipate that your actions will have an impact on other Catholic colleges?

Spitzer: Yes. Several people have already called me from other colleges, wanting to discuss this whole matter of balancing academic freedom and Catholic identity.

That translates into another issue which has to be resolved. Namely, the principle of non-toleration. As I stated earlier, the issue of academic freedom depends on a more fundamental question: “Can the principle of non-toleration be legitimately applied to organizations which deserve neither academic nor religious respectability?” We have to decide if principles based on ethics can legitimize some qualification of the principle of toleration. If the answer to that is Yes, then there will be no doubt that there are legitimate qualifications of academic freedom. If the answer to that is No, then the principle of toleration cannot be qualified by any other principle, and all ideas would have to be considered to have equal moral standing. This seems to run counter to one of the main goals of education: critical thinking — that is, the discipline of distinguishing good opinions from bad ones according to legitimate criteria and logic.

Do you see your actions as matching the general directions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae?

Spitzer: Obviously, the issue of non-sponsorship and its relationship to Catholic principles and identity is related to the issues of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. How this relationship will become concretely manifest will depend on the upcoming rulings of the Holy See and their interpretation by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

How do you see this controversy affecting Gonzaga in the future?

Spitzer: First of all, the controversy has not hurt us. Indeed, it has helped us. For a variety of reasons, Gonzaga’s projected fall enrollment is the highest it has been in the history of the school. Enrollment was capped at 822. We literally turned down everyone who submitted an application after the May 1 deadline. We have a capital campaign that is going through the ceiling, and have generated 80 new program initiatives in the last two years. Our academic quality continues to increase.

This controversy has generated considerable healthy discussion on campus. My rationale (in the Spokesman-Review) is being used in classes to show how to outline one’s principles, and apply them to specific cases. Residence halls have been humming. People are taking sides. This is what a university campus is all about.

Do I want our students asking these questions? Of course. I don’t want drones who just accept someone’s declaration. I am happy with these and other concomitant developments. The community support and the Op Eds have also been healthy. This kind of dialogue is great for Gonzaga, the Spokane community, the national Catholic educational community, and the national, general educational community.

Rationale for Non-Sponsorship
[As the debate over Father Spitzer’s actions extended beyond the campus, the Gonzaga president submitted this op-ed column to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, which published it in slightly abridged form.]




Tim Drake. "The Limits of Tolerance." Catholic World Report (July, 2000).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly.


Tim Drake is an award-winning journalist and author.  He has published more than 600 articles in various publications. He serves as staff writer with the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. Tim Drake is the author of There We Stood, Here We Stand: 11 Lutherans Rediscover their Catholic Roots, Saints of the Jubilee, and Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow's Church. He resides in Saint Joseph, Minnesota. Visit his website here.

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