Confrontation at Catholic U

The following is reprinted by permission from the May-June 1971 issue of LIBERTY (“A Magazine of Religious Freedom”). The account of this experience at the Catholic University of America (Wash., D.C.) ought to have something to say to those who are so eager to solicit and obtain government funds for Christian schools.

Ti-Grace Atkinson doesn’t like the virgin Mary—or so it is believed by officials of the Catholic University of America.

The Catholic University of America loves Federal aid, receiving approximately 25 per cent of its funds from the Federal Government.

These contrasting likes and dislikes set up a confrontation on campus and in court in March that says something significant to every school administrator who feels he can accept Federal funds and yet remain independent of Federal policy.

It happened this way.

Students of Catholic University invited Miss Atkinson, a radical women’s liberationist, to speak to them. Meanwhile, school officials were apprised of a speech Miss Atkinson gave at the University of Notre Dame last year in which she allegedly unveiled a barrage of barracks language and, even more offensive, questioned the virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Catholic University officials understandably were upset to learn of Miss Atkinson’s impending visit to their campus—upset enough, in fact, to seek to cancel her appearance. The graduate and undergraduate student governments of Catholic University in turn brought suit against the university. On March 9, Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr., himself a Catholic, ruled that Miss Atkinson was constitutionally guaranteed the right to fill her appointment. It did not even matter, the judge made clear, that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary” is listed as a “patron” of the university.

“Whether or not anyone approves of the speaker or her views is not at issue here,” ruled Judge Smith, at the conclusion of a hearing on the lawsuit.

Miss Atkinson had received “formal written approval” for her appearance, and the university could not renege.

Smith said that University President Clarence C. Walton’s discovery of the nature of Miss Atkinson’s speech at Notre Dame was not sufficient grounds for canceling her appearance. Her right was protected by the First Amendment and the civil rights acts of 1871 and 1957.

What was the substance of the university’s protest?

Dr. Walton had acted, said attorney Stephen A. Trimble, on the basis of church law and dogma after learning of Miss Atkinson’s views on Christ. And the school, he insisted, was committed to “submission without reservation to apostolic” law.

“Catholic University is an institution of the church . . . [which] recognizes the supreme authority of Rome . . . We are being asked to put [our] religion aside and be like any school.”

And here we come to the moral of the story: Catholic University forfeited its right to be uniquely a religious institution of the Roman Catholic Church when it turned to the state for financial support. This was precisely the contention of Thomas Patton, attorney for the students. Said he: “The campus gates cannot be locked to the First Amendment when the university accepts such massive benefits under it.”

As we have already noted, the “massive benefits” consist of Federal funds approximating 25 per cent of the school’s budget.

As the Washington Post noted, Judge Smith was “apparently impressed” by Patton’s argument.

And so Miss Atkinson spoke, not forgetting to thank “the president and the Board of Trustees of Catholic University” for taking “considerable time and trouble to provide a demonstration of my theory of the Catholic Church versus feminism.”

And Monsignor William F. McDonough spoke also at a protest meeting:

“To deny the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God is to deny an essential teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said. “To hold up to ridicule the virginity of Mary is to be guilty of a blasphemy that strikes horror into the hearts of not only Catholics but of many Christians of other churches.”

One can sympathize with the viewpoint of Monsignor McDonough, the university, and the Catholics who demonstrated their unhappiness at Miss Atkinson’s appearance.

But one cannot escape this conclusion: If the virgin Mary was blasphemed on the campus of Catholic University, Miss Atkinson is not uniquely responsible for that defamation. Equally culpable are those administrators of Catholic University who forgot that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

As Associate Justice Jackson put it: “We cannot have it both ways. Religious teaching cannot be a private affair when the state seeks to impose regulations which infringe on it indirectly, and a public affair when it comes to taxing citizens of one faith to aid another, or those of no faith to aid all. If these principles seem harsh in prohibiting aid to Catholic education it must not be forgotten that it is the same Constitution that alone assures Catholics the right to maintain these schools at all when predominant local sentiment would forbid them.” –Dissenting opinion of Justice Jackson in Everson v. Board of Education, 301 U.S. 1, 27 (1947).

The Supreme Court has said repeatedly: “It is hardly lack of due process for the government to regulate that which it subsidizes.” –Wickard v. Filbum, 317 U.S. 111, 131 (1942).

Thus again, on the Catholic University campus, was demonstrated the evil results, so often witnessed in the history of the church from the days of Constantine to the present, of attempting to build up the church by the aid of the state, of appealing to the secular power in support of the gospel of Him who declared, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).