When Robert Spitzer, SJ, the president of Gonzaga University, refused to allow a representative of Planned Parenthood to appear on campus in the Spring of 2000, he touched off a lively debate about the nature of academic freedom and the implications of a school’s Catholic identity.  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.

Rationale for Non-Sponsorship

Before taking up the specific matter of Planned Parenthood, two key principles should be defined: 

    a.  the distinction between censorship and non-sponsorship, and
    b.  the principle of non-toleration and its relationship to non-sponsorship.
Censorship concerns the banning of ideas or viewpoints. Sponsorship is concerned with organizations making use of another organization’s name and facilities. Normally, non-sponsorship occurs not because of an organization’s ideas, or even because of its people, but rather because of its actions.

When one organization sponsors another, it indicates at the very least toleration not only of their ideas, but of their actions. The sponsored organization can then bring itself under the umbrella of the sponsoring organization (at least implicitly) by claiming, “When we were speaking at Gonzaga University last week. . . .”

It must be obvious, however, that there are certain actions of some organizations which are likely to come into conflict with the principles or beliefs of a sponsoring organization. This, in itself, does not necessarily constitute a case for non-sponsorship, but if the actions of the sponsored organization fall under the aegis of the principle of non-toleration, then the sponsoring organization has no recourse but to deny sponsorship. Notice that this occurs not because of the opposed organization’s ideas, but because of its actions.

Why doesn’t the sponsoring organization have any other recourse? Because sponsorship implies toleration, and if the opposed organization’s actions fall under the aegis of the principle of non-toleration, the two cannot be reconciled. Non-sponsorship, then, becomes the only means of upholding one’s principles and identity.

When do organizations’ actions fall under the aegis of the principle of non-toleration? When their actions are deemed to be seriously destructive to individuals or groups of individuals. The early abolitionists, for example, invoked the principle of non-toleration toward organizations sponsoring slavery. Very recently, churches against racism invoked a “zero-tolerance policy” toward people or organizations promoting racism. Clearly, the actions not tolerated by these organizations were destructive (seriously hurtful) to individuals or groups of individuals.

The Gonzaga case 
With the above two fundamental principles in mind, I will now proceed to the specific case of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the United States. The Catholic Church considers abortion to be “the killing of an innocent.” Therefore, Planned Parenthood’s actions clearly come under the aegis of the principle of non-toleration for Catholic institutions, because they are destructive (seriously hurtful) to individuals and groups of individuals. Inasmuch as the principle of non-toleration can be legitimately applied to the actions of Planned Parenthood, non-sponsorship is appropriate. Indeed, if a Catholic institution failed to apply the principle of non-sponsorship, it could be justifiably accused of not upholding its principles in the face of actions which are clearly destructive.

Notice that non-sponsorship of Planned Parenthood does not mean censorship of its ideas. Such ideas are discussed on Gonzaga’s campus all the time, as might be seen in the May 4th forum on “reproductive rights.” The real issue here is the toleration of the actions of Planned Parenthood in the face of the destruction which they cause to individuals.

No doubt the principle of non-sponsorship will be difficult to apply in certain hard cases. The issue of Planned Parenthood is not one of these hard cases, but rather a transparent case of non-toleration of the destructive actions of an organization. Nevertheless, the question must be addressed: How can a Catholic institution handle a hard case of non-sponsorship. I answer by noting the age-old legal adage that “hard cases make bad law.” This adage means that one cannot create a “law” or “policy” to manage every possible hard case that might arise. Obviously, the policy would be inflated beyond belief, would not be able to anticipate all possible hard cases, and, in the end, would be impossible to administer.

The better route for dealing with hard cases is to create a procedure where various stakeholders can give input to the group entrusted with the ultimate decision for sponsorship. At most Catholic Universities, this group is the board of trustees in concert with the president.

In Gonzaga’s case, this is clearly delineated in its Guest Speakers Policy: 

    The President reserves the right to deny usage of Gonzaga’s facilities to any person or groups of persons whose values are blatantly contrary to those of the University or whose presence would, for some reason, seriously embarrass or compromise the University.
Abortion is one of the major actions that the Catholic Church believes to be blatantly contrary to its values. It ranks up there with oppression, racism, ethnic hatred, genocide, and skewing of global resources leading to the starvation or maltreatment of underprivileged groups.

Returning to the important topic of creating a procedure for handling hard cases, perhaps the best way to begin is to form a committee specifically devoted to that purpose. The committee would be constituted by a wide range of stakeholders (such as trustees, regents, administrators, faculty, students, staff, alumni, and parents), and would make a recommendation to the president about whether an organization’s actions fall under the aegis of the principle of non-toleration or not. Each such decision will have unique properties which can help to form precedents for future decisions.

I believe the debate that has occurred in the recent weeks will be beneficial not only for Gonzaga, but also for many other Catholic institutions of higher education. It will no doubt help to clarify an issue which is bound to become more poignant as Catholic institutions attempt to solidify their religious identity amidst their commitment to the free flow of ideas. The alternative would be to live in ambiguity with all parties implicitly and politely deciding not to do anything controversial. This alternative does not bode well for the future of Catholic identity and principles at institutions claiming Catholic sponsorship. It also does not speak well for the free flow of ideas on our university campuses.