The Surrender of Catholic Higher Education

Last month, Jesuit Rev. Lawrence Biondi, president of St. Louis University, resigned from the board of directors of Tenet Healthcare Corporation. Biondi had served on the board since 1998, most recently as chairman of Tenet’s ethics committee, for which he was eligible for annual compensation of more than $100,000. Biondi, like many Catholic college presidents, serves on numerous boards to help secure his university’s standing within the community.

Problem is, according to state records, Tenet’s national chain of 114 hospitals includes at least several in California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania that perform abortions. Tenet-owned MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Massachusetts, for example, performed 166 abortions in the year 2000—the most recent year for which records are available. The affiliated Tenet Healthcare Foundation has funded Planned Parenthood clinics in California, Illinois, and Texas.

Last summer, members of the Cardinal Newman Society and pro-life activists sent hundreds of letters and e-mail messages to Biondi, urging him to forego reelection to the Tenet board. Biondi refused and was reelected last July. Was his later resignation driven in part by the public embarrassment the protest caused him and the Catholic university he represents? Possibly not. After all, this is the linguistics scholar who responded to protesters with the assurance that he is “pro-life and anti-abortion…[believing] in the universal sanctity of human life from birth until death.” Birth until death? Despite several protesters’ requests for clarification, Biondi never corrected the statement and repeated it in communications with protesters throughout the summer and fall.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

It’s reasonable to assume that Biondi’s wording was a simple mistake, and for reasons of expediency and lack of concern about what the average Catholic thinks of him, Biondi stuck with his original form letter. Rather than revealing a pro-abortion position, Biondi’s carelessness more likely demonstrates his indifference to the charges of scandal.

Unfortunately, this same indifference seems to characterize many Catholic college leaders today. Biondi’s a good example, not only because of his Tenet service, but also because of scandals internal to St. Louis University under his watch. Despite protests and embarrassing media coverage, Biondi has refused to take corrective action. In February, the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and School of Social Work cosponsored the sexually explicit and offensive play The Vagina Monologues. Last year’s commencement speaker was St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, who has written of his “pro-choice” views, supported embryonic stem-cell research, and ridiculed the Catholic Church. In March 2003, the university’s School of Public Health invited former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, who encouraged contraceptive use and opposed a ban on partial-birth abortion, to deliver the prestigious John J. Flanigan, S.J., Lecture. And the medical school’s Center for Vaccine Development is recruiting sexually promiscuous women for a trial of a potential genital herpes vaccine and is encouraging the women to use contraceptives to avoid pregnancy during the trial. {mospagebreak}

A Pervasive Problem
These and hundreds of other recent scandals at Catholic colleges are documented in the Cardinal Newman Society’s new report on inroads made by the culture of death onto Catholic campuses. (The full report is available for download at

The report documents campus activity promoting or implicitly condoning premarital sexual activity, abortion, contraception, and euthanasia over the past five years. It is the most extensive evidence of problems in Catholic higher education ever compiled in a single source—and yet it only scratches the surface, relying primarily on media reports and college Web sites. Given sufficient funding, the Cardinal Newman Society intends to put the report in the hands of every Catholic bishop, educator, lay leader, parish priest, and parent.

At most Catholic colleges, praiseworthy activities far outweigh the scandals, but no scandal is minor if it leads college students into sinful and potentially dangerous behavior. What is striking is that the problems cited are rarely concentrated at any particular institution—with the exception of Georgetown University, which is featured prominently—but they are pervasive across most Catholic colleges in the United States. For instance, few Catholic colleges have campus speaker policies that bar abortion advocates from giving lectures and commencement addresses.

And that’s just the beginning. Consider just a few of the items our study uncovered:

  • College officials and faculty with ties to pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia organizations, including a Boston College law professor on the board of directors of the Death With Dignity National Center, a Georgetown University philosophy professor on the board of directors of the Compassion in Dying Federation, and two Georgetown University women’s studies professors who are also employees of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
  • Pro-abortion politicians serving as college officials and faculty, including Carol Moseley Braun teaching management at DePaul University, Geraldine Ferraro on Fordham University law school’s board of visitors and teaching public policy at Georgetown University, and Leon Panetta teaching political science and on the board of trustees and law school board of visitors at Santa Clara University.
  • Pro-abortion student clubs including the Reproductive Choice Coalition at Boston College law school, H*yas for Choice at Georgetown University, Georgetown Students for Choice at Georgetown law school, and a National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter at St. Ambrose University.
  • Nearly 200 instances of campus speakers and honorees who have been public advocates of abortion or otherwise contributors to the culture of death. These include at least 17 visits and lectures by President Bill Clinton at Georgetown University, researchers engaged in human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research at Assumption College and the College of the Holy Cross, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman at Boston College law school, radical feminist Gloria Steinem at Fairfield University, pornographer Larry Flynt at Georgetown University, and NOW president Kim Gandy at Loyola University of New Orleans.
  • Internships and service opportunities offered by Catholic colleges, including service as a Planned Parenthood “clinic escort” promoted by Nazareth College’s campus ministry and internships with Planned Parenthood offered by Villanova University.
  • Web-site referrals to pro-abortion organizations touted as medical or academic resources including Georgetown University links to local abortion clinics, LaSalle University links to NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation, Loyola University of Chicago links to Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority Foundation, Loyola University of New Orleans links to NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, and Seton Hall University links to the Feminist Majority Foundation and NOW.
  • “Emergency contraception,” an abortifacient, provided to students by the College of Santa Fe and Rockhurst University.
  • Student newspapers promoting sex and contraception, including sex-advice columns titled “Sex and the Univercity” in The Heights at Boston College and “Sex on the Hilltop” in The Hoya at Georgetown University.{mospagebreak}


The Banality of Evil
It’s easy to predict the response of many Catholic college presidents to this new report. They’ll say that compiling evidence of scandals at 223 Catholic colleges over five years into a single report exaggerates the problem. Furthermore, they’ll contend that with a few exceptions, the report describes only a few scandals at any given college. And the “scandals” can generally be justified by academic freedom and policies that encourage free discussion of controversial issues. It’s not as if most college presidents like all of this, you understand, but it’s a necessary evil in an academic setting.

In other words, there’s a terrible problem in Catholic higher education today. When Catholic institutions embrace a severely distorted notion of academic freedom at the expense of fundamental Catholic teaching, something’s seriously wrong.

Alarm bells should be ringing on most every college campus and in every diocesan chancery. Why aren’t they? Is it the same blind spot that caused most church-going Catholics to sit on their hands while homosexual activists tore down the institution of marriage, or to pass on the problem of clergy sex abuse without taking a serious look at its root causes?

While the fight for Catholic higher education is tremendously important in itself, it’s also a rescue operation for the next generation. Indeed, it’s perhaps the single best opportunity we have to begin a dramatic reversal in the Church—a return to what’s essential. The victory of morality over academic freedom run amok is key to a future victory of faith over secularism in American society.

But convincing Catholic leaders of this is a monumental task. Take for example the growing outrage over pro-abortion Catholic politicians. To increasing numbers of Catholics, there’s clearly something wrong with politicians claiming to be faithful Catholics while advocating abortion “rights.” Is it not then obvious that Catholic institutions shouldn’t be giving pro-abortion politicians—whether Catholic or not—a platform on which to promote their candidacies?

You would think so. And yet, that’s exactly what happened during the recent Democratic presidential primaries. In January, St. Anselm College in New Hampshire hosted seven pro-abortion candidates for their final debate before the state’s Democratic primary. Other campaign appearances included John Kerry at Georgetown in January 2003, Dennis Kucinich at Sacred Heart University last June, Howard Dean at St. Anselm last September and at Georgetown last October, Dick Gephardt’s daughter at Boston College last November, Gephardt and Kerry at Clarke College in Iowa in January, Wesley Clark at Rivier College in New Hampshire in January, and Kerry at Georgetown again in April.

During the previous presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore held a campaign rally at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, featuring the university’s basketball coach and cheerleaders. Bill Bradley campaigned at Mount St. Clare College in Iowa in May 1999, Gore campaigned at Marquette University in March 2000, and Joseph Lieberman gave what was billed as a major address on faith and politics at the University of Notre Dame in October 2000. President Bill Clinton spoke twice at Georgetown during the campaign season in November 1999 and September 2000.

Several of these events were protested by students and pro-life activists, but nothing like the furor that a Louis Farrakhan or David Duke might have attracted. A more audible outcry was heard in February when Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-abortion governor of Kansas, lectured at the University of St. Mary.

That incident led Archbishop James Keleher of Kansas City to ask all Catholic institutions in his diocese to stop hosting pro-abortion politicians and other abortion advocates as speakers or special guests at public events. Although other dioceses have banned pro-abortion speakers on Church property, Keleher’s action is significant because it affects Catholic colleges and other institutions that are not owned by the Church.

“It is imperative that our Catholic churches, schools, and institutions make every effort not only to support the pro-life movement, but especially to ensure that the public understands our unequivocal stand on this issue,” Keleher wrote.

Will other bishops follow suit? Most seem to be waiting for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to produce a unified strategy for dealing with pro-abortion Catholics (although that probably won’t address non-Catholic abortion advocates speaking at Catholic institutions). Last December, the Cardinal Newman Society wrote all the U.S. bishops urging them to forbid pro-abortion advocates from speaking at Catholic colleges and to take violations into account when determining whether an institution can keep the label “Catholic.” Hopefully, that idea will be given prayerful consideration.

Enemies of the Good
While college leaders’ complacency is certainly to blame for many of the problems in Catholic higher education, it would be unfair to characterize any of the colleges as institutionally pro-abortion. Nevertheless, there are instances where enemies of the good are diligently at work on Catholic campuses.

After more than ten years of advocating stronger Catholic identity at Catholic colleges, I’m still sometimes shocked by what I see. Take the notorious theology professor Daniel Maguire at Marquette University, for example. The former priest and outspoken dissenter on sexual morality and abortion actually teaches ethics. His 2003 book, Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, argues that Catholic theology makes allowances for abortion and contraception. In 1994, Maguire founded the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics to advocate abortion rights, contraception, and stem-cell research.

Other dissenting academics are not so well known, like Georgetown’s advocates for physician-assisted suicide. Philosophy professor Tom Beauchamp, a senior research scholar focusing on biomedical and business ethics for the university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, is also a member of the board of directors of the Compassion in Dying Federation. He has argued the morality of assisted suicide in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Lauro Halstead, clinical professor emeritus of medicine, is on the board of Autonomy, a national organization advocating the rights of disabled people to assisted suicide. In Georgetown’s September 2000 press release announcing the hiring of Peter Rubin to the law school faculty, the university touted his experience before the U.S. Supreme Court in Vacco v. Quill, opposing New York’s ban on assisted suicide. Rubin teaches constitutional law and individual rights and liberties.

Even some college officials raise serious concerns. Sheila Smith, who was president of Mount St. Clare College (now renamed Franciscan University) in Iowa for nine months in 2001 and 2002, was a 1992 candidate for the U.S. Congress and a 1994 candidate for Illinois lieutenant governor. Candidate Smith advocated abortion rights and was backed by the pro-abortion NOW.

Similarly, Mary Jane England, president of Regis College in Massachusetts, is a former president of the pro-abortion American Medical Women’s Association and led the Washington Business Group on Health, which encouraged Fortune 500 companies to cover birth control, sterilization, and abortion in employee health plans. There are several additional cases of abortion advocates serving on Catholic college boards of trustees.

Administrative staff at Catholic colleges may not have a particular agenda but nonetheless pose a danger when not instructed on the meaning and implications of a college’s Catholic identity. In April, the Cardinal Newman Society interviewed human resources personnel at all 13 Catholic colleges in California. The purpose was to determine the impact of the Califor-nia Supreme Court’s ruling requiring most religious employers that are legally independent from their churches—including most Catholic colleges—to offer employee medical plans that pay for contraceptives when other prescription drugs are covered.

We found that nine of the colleges’ health plans already pay for contraceptives. (Santa Clara University hadn’t responded by press time; two others—Thomas Aquinas College and Queen of the Holy Rosary College—do not cover contraceptives, and Campion College has only part-time employees with no health plan.) At one of the colleges that cover contraceptives, a human resources employee told us, “We have many non-Catholics working here, so we have to obey the law of man, not the law of God.”

While Catholic Charities of Sacramento fought the mandate all the way to the state supreme court, most Catholic colleges folded without resistance.

Behaving Badly
If anyone needed a sense of what plagues Catholic higher education today, look to the annual shenanigans around St. Valentine’s Day, now renamed “V-Day” by radical feminists (referring to the genitalia, not victory or the beloved saint). The Vagina Monologues was performed or read on at least 30 Catholic campuses this February, March, and April.

The Monologues presents women discussing their sexuality and sexual encounters, replete with vulgarity, explicit language, and graphic descriptions of lesbian activity and masturbation. One scene describes the seduction of a sexually inexperienced 16-year-old girl by a 24-year-old lesbian, who first intoxicates the girl with vodka. Instead of presenting the incident as sexual abuse that would be illegal in most states, the play declares it the girl’s “surprising, unexpected and politically correct salvation.”

In the words of law professor emeritus Charles Rice, writing in The Observer at the University of Notre Dame: “In light of the ongoing scandal in the Church, it is totally inexcusable for any ‘Catholic’ institution, and especially the University of Our Lady, to allow itself to be used as a public forum for a portrayal of the sexual exploitation of a teenager by an adult as a ‘salvation’ for the victim.” Bishop John D’Arcy of South Bend made a similar point in his public statement chastising Notre Dame for hosting the play.

Officials at prominent institutions like Boston College, the College of the Holy Cross, DePaul University, Georgetown University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Notre Dame allowed the Monologues to be performed by students and/or faculty. Several productions were sponsored or cosponsored by faculty in a wide range of academic departments including communications, English, political science, social work, theater, and women’s studies. Astonishingly enough, at Nazareth College in New York, the play was cosponsored by their campus ministry. And student attendance at the performance at Stonehill College in Massachusetts was counted toward “merit points” used to assign campus housing the following year.

Proceeds from the event at St. John Fisher College in New York supported a rape crisis center affiliated with Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States. Organizers of the production at John Carroll University planned to give the proceeds to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, a member organization of the Freedom of Choice Cleveland Coalition, until protesters convinced the university administration to redirect the funds to a charity in Mexico. Some college presidents tried to distance themselves from the play, only weakening their arguments for allowing it at all. Rev. Harold Ridley, S.J., president of Loyola College, admitted that the play was “in questionable taste” and “not the vehicle I would have chosen” to address domestic violence. Likewise, Rev. Michael McFarland, S.J., president of the College of the Holy Cross, said parts of the play were “objectionable” and the play “isn’t the vehicle I would have chosen.” And Brother Craig Franz, F.S.C., president of St. Mary’s College of California, told a protester: “While I might not have chosen this play to spur conversation on campus regarding women’s rights, I respect the academic freedom of our women’s studies program to select this play.” One suspects a coordinated message.

A statement issued by Providence College’s administration declared “much of the content and the language of The Vagina at odds with the ideals and values embodied in the Catholic tradition” and with the college’s mission statement. Yet the college deemed the event protected by academic freedom.

The play’s sympathizers acted with even less decorum. Ashley Oliverio, public relations coordinator for Carroll College in Montana, placed an op-ed in Helena’s Queen City News calling the Cardinal Newman Society the “Catholic Taliban” for protesting announced plans to produce the play at Carroll, which in fact never happened. Oliverio, who performed in a community production of the Monologues, admitted and defended the play’s graphic discussions of sexual activity.

Even angry nuns got into the picture. Sister Mary Ann Flannery, communications department chairwoman and organizer of the Monologues at John Carroll University, told a campus newspaper that the Cardinal Newman Society is the “closest organization in the Catholic Church to the Taliban” (again, a coordinated message?). Flannery further accused more than 1,000 e-mail protesters of “harassment and terrorist tactics to shut down the president’s computer system and to do harm to my department’s office.” A petition supporting the performance at John Carroll was signed by 38 faculty members.

Lost Cause?
Given the scandals in Catholic higher education, many faithful Catholics no longer trust Catholic colleges to live up to their mission. Many parents deliberately send their children to non-Catholic schools with the view that at least when their sons or daughters are confronted with falsehood, it won’t be confused with Catholicism.

While I certainly sympathize, I cannot subscribe to this view. Too often it’s coupled with distaste for the several authentically Catholic colleges that are available, simply because they’re deemed too Catholic. It also ignores the fact that despite all the scandals, a student who is serious about his or her faith can find much that’s worthwhile and helpful at almost any Catholic college. What Catholic higher education offers the Catholic student cannot be found at a secular college, not even one with a good Newman Center. (For statistics demonstrating both the problems at Catholic colleges and the inferiority of other college choices, see the survey of Catholic college students posted at

If Catholic higher education has intrinsic value that needs to be preserved, then the renewal of Catholic colleges is of the utmost importance to the Church. Exciting and faithful Catholic colleges have much to contribute to the renewal of their wayward companions. This renewal must include many aspects of a Catholic education—providing authentic theology programs, improving campus ministry, hiring faculty committed to the college’s mission—that are not addressed here. It also means tackling the scandals beyond those related to abortion, contraception, and euthanasia—particularly the homosexual activism that has seen a dramatic increase in recent years.

Beginning with the issues of human life and sexuality, however, is a good start. This means closing off the inroads forged by the culture of death: removing problem employees and developing better hiring policies, establishing guidelines for campus speakers and honorees, ensuring that administrative and health services personnel understand their role in a Catholic institution, etc. It also means building a culture of life on campus: developing outreach programs for pregnant students (whose numbers are much higher than anyone wants to admit), forming students’ consciences through campus ministry and authentic theology, and finding ways to institutionally represent the pro-life position. This is the “dialogue between the Gospel and culture” to which Pope John Paul II calls Catholic colleges in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, not the surrender to the culture of death that characterizes too much of Catholic higher education today.


  • Patrick J. Reilly

    Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...