Note: I am thankful that my school allows me to freely and comfortably practice my religion and does not oppress any religious groups on campus.
For those of you who don’t know, tonight is a big night for St. Norbert College. Speaker/activist/author bell hooks is here to speak at a few different events, and for tonight’s proceedings she will be having a discussion with speaker/activist/journalist Gloria Steinem. This has caused a major controversy, as St. Norbert is technically a Catholic college, and Gloria Steinem is outspokenly pro-choice. It’s been quite the hot topic. As I walked to my room about 45 minutes before the start of the event, 15-20 protesters lined the crosswalk on the closed street outside the theater where this event is taking place (and, admittedly, I should probably should be at the event and not here writing about it).
For me, a fiercely pro-life Protestant embracing academia at a tepidly Catholic institution, this is an unusual set of circumstances. As I look at the community members holding signs saying “Pray to End Abortion” and such, I am at a loss for a proper response. Because, at the same time, I commend my brothers and sisters in Christ (for presumably they are doing this out of religious reasons) for putting themselves out there and making a stand on an issue that I feel so strongly about, while I also shake my head and cringe at how bad this makes Christians look while having little to no foreseeable impact on the future of abortion in this country.
Like I said, I am fiercely pro-life. Under no circumstance do I accept abortion as an acceptable course of action, and I can only hope that I would say the same if I was a pregnant mother facing major complications in giving birth. I don’t hate people that are pro-choice, but I hate what our nation has accepted as reasonable.
So, in that regard, I disagree with Gloria Steinem on something, and probably a lot of things. But, on the other hand, Gloria Steinem is a major figure in feminism, and we need feminists to prod our society out of thousands of years of oppressive patriarchy into something humane. Gloria Steinem and bell hooks are giants of activism, people who have shaped and continue to shape our culture. As a member of an academic community, and as a person with a growing heart for social justice and equality, I want to endorse environments that cultivate learning and provide a safe place for tough ideas to be presented.
And, beyond that, Gloria Steinem isn’t here to talk about abortion. Yes, she’s pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean I discount her voice altogether. It also means I can’t help but wish the protesters would just go home, and spread the Christian message and the message of the sacredness of life in other, more personal, more loving ways.
HOWEVER. There’s an 800-pound gorilla in this room called Catholicism, of which I am simultaneously a frustrated detractor and a reluctant defender. Let me put my personal struggle on this matter aside and lay down what is the big problem here.
My college, in its way, flaunts Catholicism. We still use Latin mottoes like Docere verbo et exemplo and our three values are “Catholic, Norbertine, Liberal Arts.” Prospective and incoming students get a fairly clear picture of this. From the outside, this is a Catholic institution. Once you get on the inside? Not so much. There is not a strong tie back to the doctrine of the Catholic church here. Last year, when a professor wrote an article online bemoaning the college’s pursuit of numerical diversity at the expense of Catholic authenticity, the community went bonkers (I guess he probably shouldn’t have compared this to Maoism. Very poor choice of words). This year, when Catholic groups came out against Gloria Steinem’s scheduled event, the community once again bore down upon the circled Catholic wagons.
That’s not a sustainable system. I don’t think that my school can continue to value this kind of universalism while also claiming Catholicism. I wouldn’t be so libelous to insinuate that higher-ups are exploiting this system; far be it from me to make such accusations. But it doesn’t seem like those who genuinely want this college to adhere closely to the values and doctrines of the local diocese, the Norbertine order, and the Vatican can run the show alongside those who want to embrace total free-thinking and individuality. When the school accepts a speaker like Steinem, it has to know that the far-right Catholics are going to be upset, both locally and nationally. And it has to know that, if it chooses to go through with having a speaker who holds a number of beliefs that are directly opposed to the teachings of the Catholic church, that many Catholics are going to take that as a sell-out on the religion the school claims.
Something’s gotta give. And, as a third party, I can tell you the conservative Catholics aren’t winning.
So I’m confused. I don’t really know how to interact with this issue. I don’t go to this school because it’s Catholic. In fact, the founder of my version of Christianity basically said eff you to the Catholic church about 500 years ago (although the real founder of my religion said “I am the way the truth and the life” about 2000 years ago hey-oh!). I’m not Catholic, and I disagree with many beliefs of Catholicism. So while I might disagree with Steinem because I’m pro-life, I don’t see her coming as an attack on my religion. I may support the protesters because they are fighting for human lives, but I won’t stand with them for the sake of Rome.
I’m an academic and budding activist who wants to see important issues talked about. But I’m also pro-life and since Catholics are in my camp on a lot of issues, and since if they’ve got Jesus then we’re fam, I can’t help but admire and support those who speak out against abortion. But I don’t know that picketing is the way to do it. And I understand why Catholics may be a little miffed by St. Norbert College once again choosing a more inclusive approach over the school’s religious roots.
It’s taken me way too long to get around to this point, but I can’t really set this issue down without mentioning this. You should not do two things: You should not say that just because you invite a speaker means you agree with everything they believe, and you should not say that excluding a speaker on the basis of their beliefs is a silencing of opposing voices. In other words, just because St. Norbert hosts Gloria Steinem does not mean “the school” endorses her belief on abortion. But if the school should opt against hosting someone like Gloria Steinem, that does not mean they are saying “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA I can’t hear you! I’m right you’re wrong!” to all opposing beliefs, and non-Catholics should not treat Catholics with unkindness for putting a filter on their invites. But, of course, both of those things could be true too. It’s not necessarily one way or the other.
This is a messy subject. Really, it is. And, as so often happens, people tend to try to out-outrage each other and things escalate quickly. But to ignore the controversy, not just downplay it, is not an acceptable course of action. It’s times like these that will define this school long after I’m gone.
Soli Deo Gloria