Sharing or Plagiarizing?

President of Saint Louis U. used material for his opening homily from one last year by president of U. of San Francisco.
October 17, 2005

The academic integrity policy at Saint Louis University defines plagiarism, in part, as a student "submitting materials authored by or editorially revised by another person but presented as the student's own work." Punishments can include suspension and dismissal from the university.

Some students at the university want to know if the policy applies to homilies given by the president, the Rev. Lawrence H. Biondi.

The student newspaper and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch have reported that Father Biondi took substantial portions of his homily last month to open the academic year from the homily given by the Rev. Stephen A. Privett, president of the University of San Francisco, to open the 2004-5 academic year at his institution. Saint Louis University and the University of San Francisco are both Jesuit institutions, which typically hold a special Mass of the Holy Spirit to mark the beginning of an academic year.

The University News, the student newspaper, first broke the story. Father Biondi told the paper that he and Father Privett have an agreement to exchange homilies and to use them, and that such exchanges are common among priests. Father Biondi declined to talk to The Post-Dispatch for its article and a spokeswoman for Saint Louis University said on Sunday that the university would not discuss the matter.

Father Privett, who could not be reached for this article, confirmed to the The Post-Dispatch that he traded homilies with Father Biondi and said it was not the least bit unusual. "We are both university presidents, we both have Masses of the Holy Spirit, and neither one of us has an unending source of wisdom and knowledge," Father Privett told The Post-Dispatch. Father Privett added that he had never used any of Father Biondi's material as his own, but that "for Larry to take some part of my homily to use -- I just don't see that as unethical at all."

Not everyone agrees. The article in The Post-Dispatch -- which said that about one-third of the homily by Father Biondi was "taken directly" from Father Privett -- quoted numerous experts on homily ethics. While many said that sharing of homilies is in fact common, they said that such sharing should be acknowledged and that the acknowledgment -- even if not as formal as a footnote in a scholarly paper -- is what makes the practice legitimate. (There was no indication in Father Biondi's homily that any of the material originated with another homily.) Others said that uncredited use of another's homily might be OK for a parish priest, but not for a prominent figure like a university president.

Andrew Ivers, editor in chief of The University News, said that he had attended the opening homily by Father Biondi and been moved by it. An anonymous tip led him to compare an audiotape of the homily with a transcript of last year's address at San Francisco. Ivers said he's disappointed in his president.

"If he had just said that he was riffing off this other guy, I would have had no problem with it," Ivers said. "But I personally think he should take the time to write his own homilies."

Ivers said that even if homily-trading is common among priests, and even if Father Privett said it was OK to use the material, that doesn't get around Father Biondi's role as an academic leader in additional to being a religious leader.

"I understand Father Biondi is a busy man, but we are still an academic institution and a cornerstone of that is learning from others and building on others' ideas in part by crediting their work," Ivers said. "Taking so much from someone else and essentially passing it off as your own when you stand up there and deliver a homily, I really don't think that's a good example." Ivers said that the incident was particularly grating because it happened right after classes started, when students heard about academic integrity from all of their professors.

John Griesbach, president of the Faculty Senate at Saint Louis and an associate professor of law, said he did not view the homily as a case of plagiarism because it was a homily, not a scholarly paper; it was a speech, not something written down; and it reflected an understanding between Father Privett and Father Biondi. But Griesbach said it was "unfortunate that Father Biondi didn't say that he was using language from his friend Father Privett."

Griesbach said that the "ambiguity" the incident creates in students' minds is part of what makes the lack of credit "unfortunate."

A historian who blogs under the pseudonym Hiram Hover took issue with the argument that the nature of the homily as a non-scholarly address lessens the seriousness of using someone else's work.

When graduation speeches have been copied, Hover wrote, people have taken it seriously. Those speeches are "also inspirational and not really academic works, but commencement speakers don't get a religious exemption," he wrote.


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