Doctrinal Differences

Professors at Catholic colleges attacked for their stances on Schiavo case.
August 18, 2005

Professors who supported Terri Schiavo’s right to die have no place at Roman Catholic colleges, according to a conservative Catholic group.

The Cardinal Newman Society,  which has a handful of employees and about 18,000 donors, recently circulated a fund-raising letter calling for the removal from Catholic institutions of professors it said participated in the “pro-death movement.” The group has regularly criticized professors and campus speakers whose orthodoxy it questions, but much of its emphasis to date has been on the abortion issue. This latest letter has some worried because it comes at a time that some theologians already fear that the new pope may not be sympathetic to American standards of academic freedom.

The focus of the letter, which was written by Eugene F. Diamond, former president of the Catholic Medical Association and former chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University in Chicago’s  Stritch School of Medicine, was on five professors who signed an amicus brief in support of Michael Schiavo. “It’s not just the Schiavo case,” said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the society. “Some of these faculty members have advocated for physician assisted suicide, which is a black and white issue for the Catholic Church.” Reilly is worried that the professors jeopardize the identity of Catholic institutions, but the professors contend they acted according to their professional principles and, for those who are Catholic, according to Catholic traditions.

“What these people would like to do is turn Catholic universities into Bob Jones University,” said Daniel Maguire, a theology professor at Marquette University and a former Jesuit priest who was named in the letter because he supported, in a Fox News interview, the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube. “Thought would never stray from the party line.”

Reilly refers to a 2004 address by Pope John Paul II in which the pope said feeding tubes are a “natural means of preserving life,” and use should be considered “morally obligatory.”

The professors, however, said that Catholic tradition says otherwise, and that the statement of the late pope, who himself eventually refused a ventilator, should not be seen as blanket rule for all cases. James J. Walter, director of the Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University who signed the brief, points to a directive, number 58 in Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that says feeding tubes should be used only as long as “this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient.”

“For 500 years the Catholic Church has said if a patient considers treatment to be extraordinary, they can refuse it,” Walter said. He added that the brief was not about a Catholic tradition, but rather a legal one. “Jeb Bush had overstepped his bounds to overturn the 1990 Supreme Court ruling on Nancy Cruzan[‘s right to die],” he said.

Some professors are concerned that, with church officials calling for theology professors at Catholic universities to accept mandates from bishops, negative publicity from groups like Cardinal Newman could put some faculty members in jeopardy. “It won’t do much on the American scene,” Maguire said. “But it could cause some trouble for untenured faculty or church officials.”

Maguire said he refused the order to get a bishop’s mandate, because “the bishop is not an expert in my field,” he said. Maguire sent a letter telling of his refusal to the pope. “It’s like asking a hospital administrator to verify that a neurosurgeon is very good at brain surgery,” he said of the idea of mandates.

Some of the 18 professors at the 10 institutions named in the letter were annoyed that the group, which Reilly founded in 1993 after graduating from Fordham University, is attacking them rather than engaging in a discussion. “I think they’re looking for something to pin their fund raising to,” said the Rev. John Paris, a professor of bioethics at Boston College, who signed the brief. “So they went on a witch hunt for academics.”

Reilly insisted that Catholic institutions should make a better effort to conform to he said are Catholic teachings. He noted that, when the Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College, allowed a gay and lesbian support organization on campus, he insisted that “it be formally committed to not contradicting Catholic teaching on homosexual activity,” Reilly said.

Monika Hellwig, outgoing president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that the Cardinal Newman Society is a far right group, and that the professors being criticized acted in line with Catholic tradition. “This is a question different from physician assisted suicide,” Hellwig said. “The standard Catholic teaching is that ordinary means to preserve life should be considered, but the burden on the patient or the family should not be disproportionate to the benefit.”

When Lawrence Nelson’s mother was dying of lung cancer, his family chose to forgo radiation therapy that would have prolonged her life a bit, but caused unpleasant side effects. Nelson, an associate philosophy professor at Santa Clara University who signed the brief, said there is simply “a very deep ideological divide on what it means to take care of human life.” He said his mother was comfortable and died at home, “and I don’t think that’s an affront to God.”


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