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The "New Orthodoxy" of Dissent
Cardinal Arinze's Georgetown Address

by James Hitchcock
May 25, 2003

If one listens long enough to people claiming to be oppressed, eventually one often hears a demand not just for liberation but for the right to oppress the alleged oppressors. Recent events at Georgetown University in Washington bear this out.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, an official of the Holy See, gave a commencement address at Georgetown, which is a Jesuit institution. As is customary at such affairs, he urged the graduates not to be narrowly materialistic but to cultivate spiritual goods in their lives. In particular he exalted loving family life. So far, so good.

But in one paragraph of a brief speech, Cardinal Arinze noted also that the family has enemies and that the phenomena of abortion, contraception, infanticide, euthanasia, pornography, homosexuality, sodomy, fornication, adultery, irregular unions and divorce undermine its sacredness. At that, Georgetown's roof caved in.

Seventy faculty members sent a letter to university officials protesting the cardinal's "inappropriate remarks", and one professor, a former Jesuit priest who now presents himself as a priest of "the American Catholic Church" who blesses "gay marriages", was especially offended. A dean then lamely replied that the cardinal "had not tried to hurt anyone", but "that doesn't mean it didn't happen", and she promised to meet with all those who might have been hurt. Judging from her comments, it is a fairly safe bet that, if university officials had it to do over again, they would not invite Cardinal Arinze.

For years Catholic universities have routinely chosen, as commencement speakers, people who are openly pro-abortion or otherwise at odds with Catholic teaching. The inevitable protests are met with a standard defense of "academic freedom", the claim that a university is supposed to be a place where all questions can be discussed freely. But Georgetown, it seems, will not affirm that in the case of Cardinal Arinze.

If academic freedom has any meaning, it surely cannot mean that people have a right not to have their feelings hurt by certain ideas. On the contrary, the usual argument is that controversial ideas are the only kind which need the guarantee of freedom. If Georgetown's speaker had, for example, denounced the pro-life movement, liberals in the university would be praising the speech as an act of courage and honesty.

Catholic universities have supposedly come a long way toward educational maturity, and indeed they have -- all the way to the point where the suppression of ideas is seen as a legitimate, even necessary, condition of freedom. (Anyone who can understand this is qualified to run a modern university.)

Most of those offended by Cardinal Arinze's remarks presumably reject Catholic teachings on the moral subjects which he briefly cited. Usually such people are called "dissenters". But I have long thought that term to be a misnomer. Dissent, properly understood, means that one recognizes that there is such a thing as orthodoxy but disagrees with it. The dissenter is then someone who has chosen to occupy a rather marginal place in the community. Today's theological dissenters, however, have set themselves up as definers of a new orthodoxy.

Cardinal Arinze is the highest-ranking African prelate in the Church and is often mentioned as a possible future pope. But amazingly, according to his critics, he has no right to appear at a professedly Catholic university and, almost in passing, affirm official Catholic doctrine. The dissenters have moved from claiming the right to disagree to insisting that no one has a right to affirm Catholic teachings. Orthodox ideas are not to be protected against the attacks of dissenters, but dissenters are to be protected even from the mildest affirmations of orthodoxy.

What does all this say about Ex Corde Ecclesiae [From the Heart of the Church], the Holy See's document concerning Catholic higher education? Over and over again Catholic educators have assured us that the document is unnecessary, because faculty of Catholic colleges fully accept the teachings of the Church. But, as the Georgetown incident makes clear, they sometimes have a funny way of showing it.

Editor's note: for the full text of Cardinal Arinze's address, click here.

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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