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Taking on the Newman Society

February 7, 2013

Any Roman Catholic college whose students have performed The Vagina Monologues, or whose administrators have invited a speaker in favor of abortion rights to campus, is familiar with the Cardinal Newman Society. The watchdog group for Catholic higher education is quick to issue reports and press releases when colleges act in ways the society deems un-Catholic.

Now another Catholic group has done the same for the society itself. Catholics for Choice, a pro-abortion rights group, recently issued a report on the Newman Society as part of its “Opposition Notes” series, examining the society’s tactics and quoting several critics from within Catholic higher education.

Leaders of Catholic colleges often dismiss the Cardinal Newman Society’s objections in private, or push back when the group calls attention to something on an individual campus. (The Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, has said the group has “no ecclesiastical standing and no academic standing” and is akin to “a political action committee,” according to the report.) But sustained criticism of the organization as a whole from another Catholic group is relatively unusual.

The report criticizes the group for its narrow definition of Catholicism and its approach to colleges who step outside that definition. “Learning institutions are sensitive about being portrayed as ‘anti-Catholic’ to alumni and parents, so the CNS can use its ill-gotten reputation as the last bastion of Catholicism and effectively extort schools to give in,” the group wrote, criticizing the society’s “selective outrage” and its focus on contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

The organization protests Democratic politicians' presence on Catholic campuses more than Republicans', the group argued, saying that the society did not object to President George W. Bush's commencement address at St. Vincent's College, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, despite Bush's support of abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother's life. (Bush was opposed to abortion in all other circumstances, and pursued policies as president to restrict abortion rights.)

The report also notes that many colleges do not give into the society’s demands -- a list of recent targets of the Newman Society’s ire include commencement speakers and honorees at several colleges who were honored despite the society’s objections. One was Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who spoke at a diploma ceremony at Georgetown University despite a petition from the Cardinal Newman Society; another was former Rep. Marjorie Margolies, who spoke at the University of Scranton despite pressure from the society and the local bishop.

“Is the contentious Cardinal Newman Society the way we want Catholic higher education to look?” the report concludes. “A vision of Catholic higher learning with real heart would be something more buoyant and beautiful, closer to Cardinal Newman, that inclusive thinker.”

Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Newman Society, said the group does not take the report seriously, in part because it is “full of inaccuracies and very old information.”

“Catholics for Choice is not a Catholic organization,” Reilly said. “It’s anti-Catholic, and therefore shares nothing in common with Catholic higher education.”

While Catholics for Choice has not historically spent time on higher education issues, it has recently tangled with the Newman Society over the Obama administration’s requirement that insurance plans cover contraception, including those of religious institutions. Catholics for Choice favors the requirement; the Newman Society has been one of its most vocal opponents.

 

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