What passes for ‘free’ speech on a Catholic campus

Nicholas G. Hahn III
The Detroit News

When pro-life students at the largest Catholic university in America set out to recruit others to their cause, they probably didn’t expect a Catholic cleric to brand them bigots for it.

But that’s what DePaul University’s president the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider seemed to do in a recent note to Chicago’s Blue Demons.

College Republicans were not permitted to advertise their group’s meetings with a flier that read: “Unborn Lives Matter.” Holtschneider suggested the provocative poster was an example of “bigotry that occurs under the cover of free speech.”

The Vincentian priest cited the conservative students for violating a university document on free speech and expression that declares: “Speech whose primary purpose is to wound is inconsistent with our Vincentian and Catholic values.” A university spokesperson even accused the students of intending to “do a disservice to the Black Lives Matter and pro-life movements.”

It is difficult to imagine a more ironic episode on a college campus than to witness a Catholic university censor students who sought to promote an “unchangeable” teaching of the Catholic Church.

Holtschneider may allow other thought on campus, he wrote, so long as it isn’t “meant to cause distress.” DePaul is supposed to be an institution of higher learning, but Holtschneider seems more committed to creating a “welcoming atmosphere for all”— all but conservatives. It turns out speech at DePaul isn’t exactly free. For more on that, see conservative author Ben Shapiro whose planned lecture on campus was recently canceled by DePaul administrators.

It might not occur to the good priest that his attempt to protect minority students from uncomfortable speech is patronizing — and racist — as if members of the Black Lives Matter movement are incapable of defending themselves. These students deserve better.

But this isn’t the first time the 118-year-old university has marginalized pro-life students. When abortion activists vandalized a 2013 campus exhibit that marked just some of the unborn babies aborted since Roe v. Wade, DePaul’s administrators instead punished the pro-lifers after names of the vandals were made public.

The pro-life student leader was required to write a letter to himself as part of a Soviet-style “educational project.” That was in keeping with university policy which demands administrators “must respond” to controversial speech “by reasserting our fundamental values and by fostering educational opportunities, where appropriate.” If you have the wrong ideas, DePaul’s Vincentians — behaving more like early Jesuits — will re-educate you with theirs.

It is a good thing students on Catholic campuses have a higher church authority on their side.

In 2014 remarks to a delegation from the University of Notre Dame, Pope Francis insisted upon the “uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom.”

The pope reminded administrators Catholic colleges to protect their schools’ “foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”

The Rev. Holtschneider is due to end his tenure as DePaul’s president next year. If the university’s trustees find a replacement committed to truly free speech, the church’s witness at DePaul might have a prayer.

Twitter: @NGHahn3