Identity crisis in Catholic university

I would not be where I am today were it not for Loyola Marymount University (LMU). I literally grew up on the campus where my dad taught. As a student there, I was blessed with professors who kept me engaged with my faith when I was sorely tempted to lose interest.

The great value of a Catholic university is that, ideally, it engages and inspires both faith and reason. It does not brainwash, it challenges. Yet it also, again ideally, has its own strong sense of self as a Catholic institution. For many years there’s been a growing concern that many Catholic universities are losing their way, are losing their identity. It is no longer faith and reason. Too often it becomes faith versus reason, and the dominant paradigms are not Catholic, but secular. Student bodies become less Catholic. Faculties become less Catholic. The religious order presence shrinks, slowly at first, then more rapidly. The religious identity fades, as it long ago did at such Protestant universities as Harvard or Butler.

LMU still has some tremendous, faith-filled faculty, but the implications of its erosion of identity became painfully clear recently when the university announced that it would stop paying for elective abortions in its insurance plan. That a Catholic institution was ever paying for them in the first place is shock enough, but more unsettling were the comments of faculty who vigorously opposed the cessation.

Non-Catholic faculty expressed outrage and signed petitions. One well-known faculty member told The New York Times in an Oct. 6 story that “Loyola Marymount has always represented tolerance, diversity and a welcoming atmosphere where we can exchange ideas openly,” as if paying for abortions was merely the equivalent of debating whether abortion was the taking of a human life.

Earlier this month, LMU’s board of trustees upheld the administration’s decision. However, the trustees affirmed that it would arrange for separate coverage that faculty and staff could buy to pay for elective abortions, and it assured its employees that it would still pay for therapeutic abortions. The trustees’ statement hastened to affirm the school’s “faithfulness to the Catholic Church’s core teaching on the dignity of every human being,” while also saying that the school must uphold “diversity, academic freedom, unencumbered pursuit of truth and engaged debate.”

First, if the Church’s core teaching on life issues is to be affirmed, then facilitating the choice of others to take a human life (the Church’s teaching) would seem a contradiction. (Try using the same laissez-faire argument for sex slaves.)

Second, paying for abortions is not an academic freedom issue. Facilitating the means to pay for abortion is not the same as not penalizing someone who challenges Church teaching in class. The controversy inevitably leads to other questions: Have all the Jesuit universities in California been paying for elective abortions? Why have other Catholic institutions in California been able to find other insurance mechanisms to avoid paying for any type of abortion?

LMU has recently been devoting resources to promote “reparative justice,” the idea of just treatment of prisoners with an emphasis on rehabilitation.

It is a good cause, but I thought of a Sept. 20 pro-life speech by Pope Francis: “If you lose the personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”

The power of the Catholic witness isn’t in the picking and choosing. It is in the unity and coherence of its teaching. I learned that once upon a time at LMU. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.