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Who could have guessed that the big debate on Roman Catholic campuses in 2012 would be over contraception?

For years, Catholic colleges have endured periodic debates over speakers who favor abortion rights. But despite Catholic teachings forbidding the use of birth control, contraception has hardly been on the table in a public way -- until this year.

Fueled by the debate over a new rule requiring employers, including religious colleges, to offer insurance coverage for birth control, campus controversies gained national attention. Among them are a decision at Xavier University in Cincinnati to deny insurance coverage previously offered to faculty members, and a faculty revolt at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where faculty members urged the college president to stand up to the bishops orchestrating opposition to the policy.

At the same time, perennially contentious issues were flaring, gaining new relevance (and airtime) from the contraception debate. Anna Maria College, a small Catholic college in Massachusetts, rescinded its offer of an honorary degree and a keynote commencement speech to Victoria Kennedy, widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, after the local bishop objected to Victoria Kennedy’s support for gay marriage and criticism of the church for denying communion to politicians who favor of abortion rights. And at the University of Notre Dame, where the outcry over another commencement speech three years ago -- President Obama’s -- still lingers, faculty are pushing the administrators to do more on gay rights.

It all could make you wonder: What’s happening to Catholic colleges these days?

For many, the answer is “nothing new.” Questions about whether Catholic colleges are Catholic enough have raged since at least the late 1960s, when a group of college presidents, led by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, issued a seminal statement calling for "autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical," for Catholic universities. In fact, relations between colleges and the church are better now than they have been for decades, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

But when Catholic colleges speak of their religious values and  mission, they frequently talk about “educating the whole person,” promoting service learning and social justice, and drawing inspiration from God and Christ. Other Catholic doctrines -- promoting traditional heterosexual marriage and sexual activity purely for procreation -- are less frequently mentioned, though colleges would argue that they have not been disregarded.

The recent controversies have brought those teachings to the forefront, causing tensions to flare. In some cases, those tensions are the result of the colleges’ own openness: Catholic colleges boast of having faculty and students of every faith (and no faith), but those differences can also lead to conflict with a more conservative administration or church hierarchy -- especially since many American Catholics, both students and faculty, now disagree with the church’s official positions on gay marriage and contraception.

“I think this has been kind of ramping up for a long time, much longer than the last few months,” said Samuel Schuman, the author of Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in 21st Century America. “I think the current political climate of the country has brought it much more into the limelight.”

Notre Dame and ‘It Needs To Get Better’

As tensions have flared recently, the University of Notre Dame has been at the forefront. While many measures it is the nation’s preeminent Catholic university, its staff is only slightly majority Catholic, and church doctrine has been a flash point before: President Obama’s commencement speech in 2009 generated a firestorm of national controversy because of the president’s support for abortion rights.

The controversy quieted down but never really faded away. But while the politics of contraception and the Obama administration have returned to the spotlight nationally, another social issue -- gay rights -- has taken center stage at Notre Dame.

By Catholic college standards, Notre Dame is progressive on gay rights, Schuman said. Fifteen years ago, the university established the Core Council, a group that focuses on gay issues on campus, planning educational events and serving as a resource for gay and lesbian students. The university promotes the “spirit of inclusion,” stating its support for gay students and faculty and forbidding harassment. “We consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish,” the university writes on the group’s webpage.

Students and faculty are arguing that it does not go far enough. In a video called “It Needs To Get Better at Notre Dame,” students and faculty call out the university for refusing to recognize an official gay-straight alliance and to include sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination clause.

In one of several separate videos from individual students, faculty and alumni supporting the movement, Christine Becker, an associate professor in the film, television and theater department, spoke of her love for the university, her coworkers and her students.

“We should thus act on our loyalty to Notre Dame not by ignoring conflicts within it or by leaving the community behind, but by actively trying to make Notre Dame an even better place and by working with others in that community toward that goal,” Becker said.

The video campaign was organized by a student group, but it includes several faculty members. “Many faculty that I know have been concerned about these issues for many many years,” said Peter Holland, a professor of film, television and theater who appeared in the video. “What happened this year is because of a real push by the students; we’ve been able to connect to their concerns very directly.”

In March, the Faculty Senate voted by overwhelmingly to request the college’s administration to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policies, and to support a student push for an official gay-straight alliance.

At least 80 faculty members are at least nominally involved with the student group leading the push, the Four to Five Movement, so named because surveys have found four out of five American college students support gay civil rights (if not gay marriage). At the beginning of the year, the group’s founder, Alex Coccia, a sophomore, knew of only 12 faculty who wanted to be involved, he said.

“I just continued to keep them in the loop with emails, and slowly but surely, people would say ‘I was talking to someone else and they want to be in the loop,’ ” Coccia said. “That list continued to grow.”

For the faculty, the call to do better on gay rights is a moral issue above all, Holland said. While he said he doesn’t know of any faculty members who have been denied tenure or fired due to their sexuality, the lack of a policy on discrimination and sexual orientation leads to “a climate of anxiety,” he said.

“These are entirely conformable to the teaching of the church,” said Holland, who is not Catholic. “This is not to move Notre Dame away from its position as a great Catholic university.”

But he also acknowledged that Notre Dame’s reputation as a nationally ranked research university has suffered, and faculty recruiting has been more difficult, because the college lacks a nondiscrimination clause. Some prospective graduate students have turned down offers of admission based on the university’s reputation on gay issues, he said. Faculty generally are aware of the university’s policies before they apply.

“The real question is, as it were, not the people who turn an offer down as faculty but the ones who choose not to apply,” he said.

The university did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed about the campaign or the likelihood of a policy change. The last major push for including sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination clause was 1997 -- a lifetime ago, in terms of American (and Catholic) support for gay rights. The ultimate goal is to put the issue before the board of trustees to decide this year, Coccia said.

Notre Dame has often been at the forefront in tensions between secular and Catholic values in higher education, Schuman said. “Places like Notre Dame have been respectfully but firmly staking out their position as independent institutions of higher education with a Catholic tradition and culture, but not under the management of the church,” he said.

Tensions between faculty and administrators at Catholic colleges should be seen as the rule, rather than the exception, said Galligan-Stierle, who said that Catholic bishops, administrators and faculty members agree on values but might disagree on methods.

“Catholics, people of no faith, and people of other faiths will always disagree on methods,” he said. “It’s the nature of the academy, and God bless us, that’s why we have an academy.”

Reigniting Old Debates

For weeks after the Obama administration announced that religious colleges would be required to provide insurance coverage to their female employees that included contraception, controversy raged within the Catholic church. A proposed compromise -- that insurers, not employers, would pay for birth control -- did little to quell the outrage.

But those most affected by insurance policies, the faculty and staff at Catholic colleges, were largely absent from the debate. The exception was John Carroll University, where more than 50 faculty members wrote a letter to the president urging him to stand up for contraception and defy the bishops who have led the protest.

Another college took a different route. Xavier University, a Jesuit college in Ohio, announced that while it had covered birth control for employees in the past, it would do so no longer. In a letter to employees, the university’s president, the Rev. Michael J. Graham, said that he reviewed the university’s policies as well as those of other Catholic colleges, hospitals and organizations, and decided that sterilizations, contraceptive pills and other methods should only be covered if they are medically necessary for reasons other than birth control.

Xavier was somewhat unusual in providing birth control coverage in the first place: while several Catholic colleges offer employee health insurance that covers birth control, most are located in states that at least nominally require it. Ohio does not.

Still, the decision to stop doing so was unusual as well. Xavier's motives were unclear; it didn’t appear to be influenced by the Cincinnati archbishop, said Galligan-Stierle, of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. The college is not commenting on the decision to end birth control coverage, a university spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

If the federal mandate is not overturned in court, Xavier’s decision will have produced quite a bit of controversy for relatively little effect: religious colleges will have to offer contraceptive coverage beginning in August 2013.

The decision will make Xavier’s policies more restrictive than some other Jesuit institutions. While Catholic colleges have joined the protests over the mandate, church leadership, not college presidents, have led the charge. The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities has been relatively quiet on the issue. Some Catholic colleges in Illinois already offer birth control coverage, and while Illinois does have a state mandate, it also has a relatively generous exemption provision, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

For at least two decades, some Catholic colleges have adhered more strictly to church doctrine while others, including Notre Dame, have acted relatively independently of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, said Schuman, who said that similar splits happen among Protestant colleges. With its decision, Xavier appears to have placed itself in the former camp.

“There’s an increasing gap between those that are taking a kind of independent position, which often involves embracing, or at least tolerating, socially liberal positions, and those that are becoming firmer in their disavowal,” he said. “I don’t see anything reversing that trend.”

Commencement Controversies

The most recent Catholic college controversy to grab headlines reflected an even older division within the church: not between more or less conservative colleges, but between colleges and bishops. Anna Maria College, a small college in western Massachusetts, offered Victoria Kennedy, the widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, a commencement speech and an honorary degree.

Then the invitation was rescinded -- reluctantly, and under pressure from the local bishop, as the college made clear in its statement.

“It was explained to Mrs. Kennedy that the college feels strongly that it followed the appropriate process leading to its initial invitation,” the college said in a statement. “The college also maintains its belief in the appropriateness of recognizing Mrs. Kennedy’s many contributions to the societal issues they both share, especially her work with gun control and the safety of children.”

Kennedy is not particularly politically outspoken, but her late husband famously held positions contrary to church doctrine. She once spoke in favor of gay marriage at a dinner honoring a gay activist, and wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2004 criticizing church leaders who would deny Communion to supporters of abortion rights.

The statement went on to say that the college felt under duress from the bishop, who reportedly threatened not to attend commencement if Kennedy spoke: “As a small, Catholic college that relies heavily on the good will of its relationship with the Bishop and the larger Catholic community, its options are limited."

Commencement speaker controversies aren’t uncommon, and the colleges’ choice of speaker can often be fraught. A 2004 directive from the church instructed colleges not to honor those whose views conflict with church doctrine. As well as the uproar at Notre Dame over Obama in 2009, Speaker of the House John Boehner drew protests from Catholic University faculty members when he served as that institution’s commencement speaker. They believed that his political positions did not uphold church teachings on poverty.

Senator Kennedy was a popular commencement speaker, but rarely spoke at Catholic colleges. His three honorary degrees from Catholic colleges are several decades old. Victoria Kennedy spoke at another Massachusetts Catholic college, Emmanuel College, in 2010, and will speak at the commencement for Boston College Law School this year.

While controversies over speakers on campus are perennial, bishops and presidents agree more frequently than they used to, said Galligan-Stierle. “When I look at where we were 20 and even 10 years ago, and where we are today, I think there’s substantial agreement,” he said, in part due to better relations between bishops and presidents. While the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative group that considers itself the watchdog of Catholic colleges, finds plenty of commencement speakers to object to every year, the bishops are less likely to get involved.

The personalities of the individual bishops, and the sway they hold over colleges in their diocese, can make all the difference, Schuman said.

In the case of Anna Maria, “it seems to me (the college) was kind of intimidated by their bishop,” he said. “They bowed to his direction, but obviously not enthusiastically.”

At Gonzaga University, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Anglican cleric and South African anti-apartheid leader will speak at commencement, some alumni objected to Tutu's views in favor of legal abortion and gay marriage. But the university stood its ground, praising Tutu as a "world-renowned Christian leader and social rights activist whose faith-based lifelong dedication to the cause of justice so clearly resonates with our work as a university."

Controversies at Catholic colleges, as at other religious institutions, can be cyclical. From his position dealing with most of the nation’s Catholic colleges Galligan-Stierle sees an increasing accord between bishops and presidents.

But that can mean more conflicts between faculty and administrators. Schuman, who has studied conflicts between religious and academic values at both Catholic and Protestant colleges, said that the clearest way for tensions to ease on social issues would be for the Catholic church to become more liberal.

“If, for example, the church loosened its stand somewhat on priestly celibacy, or the ordination of women, or the tolerance of people who proclaim themselves gay but didn’t practice physical homosexuality -- if there was a move in that direction in the Catholic church, I think the Notre Dames of the world might be more comfortable strengthening their link with the church,” he said. “But I don’t see that happening.”

As the world moves to the left on those issues and the church stays in place, a more likely outcome is that the divide will widen and deepen, he said.

“My guess would be that that gulf would get larger rather than smaller,” he said.

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