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Catholic University’s decision to cancel an LGBT event underscores larger conversations within Catholicism

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
(Focus Features)

Higher-ups at the Catholic University of America, in Washington DC, recently canceled a planned screening of Milk, the 2008 Academy-Award-winning biographical film about gay politician Harvey Milk, reports Michael O'Loughlin at Crux. In addition to the screening, the event, which was being sponsored by the College Democrats, was to feature remarks from a CUA professor as well as an alumnus on how the Democratic Party has been shaped by LGBT issues.

The university offered an explanation for its last-minute cancelation of the event, saying all campus student groups are required to submit a written request for permission to hold events featuring speakers who are not students, faculty, or staff. When the request was made last month, it was granted, read the statement, because of its emphasis on education. However, on Wednesday morning, the day of the planned event, university officials decided the focus of the event had shifted from "education" to "advocacy."

The evidence of this shift? A flyer advertising the event that boasted the words "Kick off to LGBT awareness month."

But Jackson Tovar, Communications Director for the College Democrats, doesn't understand why the university cited the flyer as its reason for the last-minute cancellation, given the fact that the flyer was submitted to and approved by the Office of Campus Activities in mid-September. In other words, Tovar alleges, the university saw the LGBT-friendly flyer weeks ago.

Here's the flyer College Democrats submitted to the university for approval.


Here's a photocopy of the same image with the university's approval in the bottom righthand corner.

Flyer CUA

CUA is a pontifical university — an academic institution certified directly by the Holy See — and as such "does not allow student groups to hold events that advocate for positions contrary to teachings of the Catholic Church," according to O'Loughlin. Pope John Paul II reiterated this position in a 1990 encyclical, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), which asserted that "institutional fidelity of the University to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals." This fidelity, wrote John Paul, also applies to non-Catholics on campus, who are "required to respect the Catholic character of the University, while the University in turn respects their religious liberty."

JPII's encyclical wasn't the first word on Catholic universities and academic freedom. In 1967, under the auspices of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, several Catholic educators prepared a document meant to address the "rapidly evolving" nature of the Catholic university. The document, called The Idea of the Catholic University, made it clear that "institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions" for Catholic institutions of higher education: "To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself."

To be sure, CUA's cancellation of Milk is not an issue of academic freedom because "academic freedom is what happens between professors and students," says Patrick Hornbeck, Chair of Theology at Fordham University. Citing a statement from the American Association of University Professors, Hornbeck said CUA's decision to cancel Milk and Cookies "doesn't fall foul of the guidelines" on US academic freedom since the event was student-led.

Hornbeck does, however, think the cancellation raises some other issues — specifically regarding the sharp distinction administrators at CUA are making between advocacy and education. Said Hornbeck, "The more we learn about how education takes place, and how we learn, and how ideas are expressed, it's not necessarily as valid now for people to draw a sharp distinction between education and advocacy."

This point is echoed in a piece at the Daily Beast by Jay Michaelson, who says it's "worth reflecting on what the 'fine line' between education and advocacy really means."

On some issues, you can be educated and be left basically neutral. [But] LGBT equality is different.  As we have seen over the last five years, when reasonable people are educated about sexuality-that it's a trait not a choice, that there are wild gays and quite tame ones, that love is good-the education, itself, does the advocacy.

This isn't the first time CUA has appealed to an education/advocacy dichotomy while disallowing an LGBT activity on campus. As O'Loughlin notes, in 2012 the university refused to grant permission to a LGBT student alliance, saying "there is a fine line, easily crossed, between a group dedicated to education and support of individuals who identify themselves as homosexuals and one that engages in advocacy on behalf of a homosexual lifestyle."

In many ways, what happened this week at CUA is emblematic of the larger shifts happening within contemporary Catholicism. Under the leadership of Pope Francis, says Hornbeck, the Church has adopted "a change of tone that many folks hope will be followed by a change of substance." Francis' now-famous "Who am I to judge?" comment and his remarks about civil unions "signal an openness that previous popes have not shown," says Hornbeck.

Yet Francis' openness is being interpreted — and imitated — in different ways, as the Milk cancellation shows.

"More openness in one place doesn't mean we'll see openness in another place," said Hornbeck, who told me that a Milk screening on his campus, or at "the majority of Catholic campuses," would not be met with a negative response. "On each campus, just like in each parish, folks are having to navigate these positions for themselves."

Hornbeck, who writes about LGBTQ experiences, added that he's "saddened" by the cancelation. And though he admits "the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ community are very much at odds," he believes it's important to note that "one of the fundamental commitments Catholicism makes in its theology is a commitment to the dignity of all human beings."