Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Letter on Abp. Tutu and St. Thomas

Since the issue has come up on the blog, and since it touches on aspects of a Catholic university's identity, readers might be interested in a letter from 18 members of the St. Thomas (Minnesota) law faculty to university president Fr. Dennis Dease and vice-president for academic affairs Thomas Rochon, criticizing the university's recent decision to veto an invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at St. Thomas as part of a youth conference on peacemaking.  The signers include the St. Thomas contingent on MOJ.

October 8, 2007

Dear Father Dease and Dr. Rochon,

We are members of the School of Law faculty with a variety of political and religious perspectives.  We write in our capacity as faculty of the University of St. Thomas and with respect for the leadership you provide the University.  We are concerned by the recent decision to veto an invitation to Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at St. Thomas.  We urge you to reconsider this decision and to join in inviting Abp. Tutu to speak in the Twin Cities.

In general, the appearance at UST of a Nobel-Peace-Prize winner, a major figure in the nonviolent movement against apartheid, would be a magnificent opportunity for the University community.  Although the conference at which Abp. Tutu would speak is sponsored by an outside group, without a doubt his appearance here would benefit UST students, faculty, and staff, and enhance the University’s reputation as a place engaged in dialogue with figures of international distinction.  We are distressed at the rejection of this opportunity, and especially at the rationale that the administration has publicly asserted: that the University should not host a speaker who, in comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has said things that are offensive or “hurtful to members of the Jewish community.”

At the outset, we note that the asserted rationale here is not that Abp. Tutu has been invited to speak directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his appearance at UST.  Rather, the administration’s rationale, that he has made statements that are hurtful to some on other occasions, reflects a far more restrictive attitude toward hosting speakers who are distinguished but in some way controversial.

To reject a distinguished speaker based on worries that his words may cause hurt or offense to some is entirely at odds with the search for truth that should characterize a Catholic university.  Speech taking positions on controversial subjects will often be offensive or hurtful to some people.  Nevertheless, a Catholic university should be willing to open itself to such speech – and criticisms of that speech – in order to learn the truth.  Only with such an approach can a university carry out its mission of “consecrat[ing] itself without reserve to the cause of truth” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae ¶4 (our emphasis)).  To give controlling weight to worries about hurt or offense cannot be reconciled with the University’s charge to pursue “all aspects of truth . . . without fear but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge” (id.).  We could easily cite secular academic norms as well, for in this case they harmonize with Catholic norms.

That an otherwise distinguished speaker should be rejected because he has made statements on disputed political issues that hurt or offend some people is a principle of breathtaking scope.  Under this rationale, it appears, the University would refuse to invite former President Jimmy Carter or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to speak on any matter of human rights or public affairs.  Proposals for speakers who have worthwhile ideas but are less well known might fare even worse under this calculus.

We recognize that Abp. Tutu has spoken on a broad range of issues, and that his opinions do not always comport with the views of the Catholic Church.  However, Abp. Tutu was to receive no award, honor, or generalized endorsement from the University; and his views on issues other than those he has been invited to address simply are not relevant in this particular case.

We urge that the administration issue Abp. Tutu an invitation in connection with the Peacejam conference, and in the absence of an invitation, that the University issue a statement acknowledging that it was a mistake to reject the invitation on the ground that has been offered.


Ann Bateson, Thomas Berg, Elizabeth Brown, Teresa Collett, Robert Delahunty, Neil Hamilton, Robert Kahn, Joel Nichols. Julie Oseid, Charles Reid, Elizabeth Schiltz, Gregory Sisk, Susan Stabile, Scott Taylor, Robert Vischer, Fr. Reginald Whitt, Virgil Wiebe, Jennifer Wright


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