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Marquette and L’affaire McAdams

With the ongoing advocacy of gay marriage and mandatory attendance at “sensitivity” classes, pressures on faculty at universities to avoid doing or saying anything “politically incorrect” have significantly increased.

A recent example, which has entered into national headlines, arose when a graduate student in philosophy, Cheryl Abbate, teaching a course on ethics at Marquette University, was discussing John Rawls’ “Equal Liberty” principle, which affirms individual freedom unless the rights of others are impugned.

When Abbate asked in class for examples where this principle might be employed, one student offered the example of bans on same-sex marriage as flouting the principle. After class, a student recorded a conversation with Abbate on his smartphone (legal in Wisconsin and thirty-seven other states). He complained to her that discussion of same-sex marriage had been too abruptly cut off in class, and offered some arguments he thought reasonable against same-sex marriage.

Abbate responded that the discussion of certain topics would be “inappropriate,” including “sexist” or “racist” opinions. She reminded the student that if he did not want to avoid bringing up inappropriate topics, he could withdraw from the class. He did, and expressed his disappointment about his apparent muzzling to tenured Professor of Political Science, John McAdams, who sided with the student in his conservative and independent blog, and criticized the philosophy instructor for unnecessarily restraining the free speech of her students.

Hundreds of supporting messages and condemnations ensued for both McAdams and Abbate, not only from Marquette, but from other parts of the country. Some included insults or invectives. In the aftermath, McAdams has been suspended with pay, his courses for the Spring semester have been cancelled, and he has been prohibited by administrators from setting foot on the campus.

He has received legal support, however, from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). And Ms. Abbate has gratefully accepted the invitation to finish her doctoral work at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

John McAdams
John McAdams

McAdams’ suspension was rather strange for a Catholic University, especially one at which, for example, tenured Professor Daniel Maguire, nationally famous for his pro-abortion views, regularly teaches in the theology department without any restrictions. Do faculty statutes allow blatant opposition to Catholic teachings, but fail to support the academic freedom of a tenured professor to voice an opinion about what can be said or not in class discussions?

But aside from the legal issues and the ongoing efforts of Professor McAdams for redress, I would like to add the following (but perhaps even more important) considerations:

  • Marquette is a Jesuit Catholic university; but like most Catholic universities it has been affected by “affirmative action” guidelines in hiring since the 1970s. During the thirty-five years I taught there, I was occasionally on search committees selected to interview candidates for tenure-track positions in our department; members of the committees were admonished beforehand not to ask anything about the candidates’ religious beliefs or commitments. So one should not be surprised, after all these years, about the wide variety of reactions among the hundreds of individual professors there to traditional Catholic values. But it seems bizarre that in a Catholic university a student may be prohibited from bringing up in class an element of Catholic doctrine or discipline that seems to diverge from what a professor is maintaining. At the very least, this is an issue of free speech in an academic setting. An explanation or clarification should be expected to a legitimate question posed respectfully by a student.
  • Cheryl Abbate, in response to challenges to her implication that discussion of gay marriage would be “inappropriate,” has answered that she was focusing in class not on natural law theory, but on John Rawls theory about “Equal Liberty” – as if Rawls theory would obviously preclude bans on gay marriage. But her interpretation of Rawls relies on the assumption that marriage should involve no restriction to male-female relations, and can’t be denied to same-sex couples. Her interpretation also implies that homosexuals are “born that way” – which would make gay marriage a civil-rights issue, even thought there’s no scientific evidence for this claim.
  • But most important, a restriction of discussion on topics like gay marriage should not happen in a philosophy class. Since the time of Socrates, the task of philosophy has been the reexamination of “accepted” meanings and values. Socrates himself famously carried out this task with regard to then-prevailing ideas concerning justice, friendship, love, politics, the family, homosexuality, and other issues. Freedom to carry out such reexaminations is integral to the “mission” of philosophy. I recall a course on practical ethics I taught during the 1980s. On the first day, I asked students to bring up ethical questions on index cards – anonymously, no names. Then I organized the questions (totaling over 10,000 words) into categories, and spent the rest of the semester in class discussion of all questions, without exception. I ended the class with tests and assigned papers, which should show a student’s knowledge of pros and cons regarding ethical issues and reasons for the position they took. Interestingly, although there were numerous questions about sex – pre-marital sex, oral and anal sex, “living together,” etc., etc., there was not one question about homosexuality, although I had no restrictions on subject matter. (These were the halcyon days before the great movements towards “queerness.”) Most important: one of the questions asked in my “miscellaneous” category was, “Is it not morally wrong for a student to answer exam questions and write papers in such a way that he is merely agreeing with the instructor when the student is truly opposed to the instructor’s beliefs? It seems to me that this is hypocritical. Rather, the student should respond with whatever he believes and not worry about the ‘almighty grade’.”

Indeed.

Thought-control has been a hazard in the academic milieu for quite some time; but now, with the arrival of political correctness, it is becoming more pronounced and explicit, and shameful, especially at a university claiming to be Catholic.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “[M]embers of the committees were admonished beforehand not to ask anything about the candidates’ religious beliefs or commitments”

    What we have here is a principle, enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that “no one should be disquieted [inquiète] on account of his opinions, even religious ones,” that is entirely appropriate in governing the relations between the citizen on the one hand and the state and its agents on the other, but has no place at all in the relations between a voluntary association and its members.

    In other words, there is a failure to distinguish between the public sphere of the state and its administration on the one hand and the private sphere, which is the framework of civil society and the domain not only of individuals but of groups and associations (and thus of churches and religious communities).

    • Stan Marciniak

      You are quite correct, Mr. Paterson, but I wish the same disregard for an academic’s
      personal opinions and religious commitments would apply when public universities are considering a candidate’s suitability for position.

      There definitely exists a double standard here. Sadly, what is good for the goose is not mandatory for the gander.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Obviously, freedom of opinion excludes their intervention in, or impact on, the relations between private individuals and public authorities, encompassing the state, territorial authorities, public administration, and public services. This would include a public university.

        It protects above all the freedom to hold an inner conviction in the face of any kind of ideological influence or investigation by the state, including the right of non-disclosure. The European Court of Human Rights has developed an elaborate jurisprudence on the subject, under the rubric of the “forum internum.”

    • Gail Finke

      That’s a helpful way to explain it, thanks. I’ll remember that.

  • ericdenman

    I am threatened and I grief that more and more the freedom of speech and the freedom to explore that I knew in ’70’s philosophy classes in America are gone. Our academics, with Jesuits in the forefront, are destroying our culture and demolishing our God-given freedoms. May the “Professor McAdams” in our universities prevail.

  • Tarzan

    This example is one among many that you can’t have absolute freedom because that leads to contradictions. Our nation was founded on freedom as conceived by a Christian heritage. But now our culture is being overrun by a concept of freedom for the “enlightened”. These enlightened feel no obligation to be fair and reasonable.

    We need to return to a standard of reason enlightened by faith.

    • annmarie

      Every freedom has an accompanying duty. The right to free speech with duty to truth. The right to life with duty to live it well and care for one’s health. The right to liberty to use freedom to choose among various goods. We have the power, but not the right to choose evil, to commit suicide, and to lie. The law must prudently punish abuses with great wisdom.

  • Gail Finke

    I find it sad and infuriating that Gordon College, a Christian school in New England, has been in the center of an academic storm for having its students (as many Christian schools do) agree that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage is defined as requiring a man and a woman. Why is it that our Catholic colleges are not in trouble for at least teaching the same thing? One problem in fighting the HHS mandate to include no-cost contraception in all insurance policies is that many Catholic colleges and other institutions already provide them, and some also pay for other things we know are morally wrong, including benefits for non-married and/or same-sex partners. It’s bad enough that our colleges won’t actually teach Catholic teachings — which many faculty and administrators seem to think are quaint an outdated at best, and an outrage against decency and truth at worst. It’s even worse when faculty (including grad students) don’t seem to comprehend that things taught by the Catholic Church ought to at least be welcome for discussion in class. Why are our institutions not risking accreditation, fines, and jail over these issues? If they all did, these issues wouldn’t BE issues. We should demand better, but we don’t because a great many Catholics don’t believe in Catholic teachings or see why they matter.

    • Martha Rice Martini

      Spot-on!!

  • Paul Vander Voort

    Isn’t Ms. Abbate following Francis’ lead? Wasn’t his point free speech should have limits?

    • Howard Kainz

      Francis’ point, as I understand it, was that we shouldn’t use free speech to denigrate persons. That was not the case here.

      • ABBonnet

        Your memory needs a bit of a jog, Dr. Kainz. what the Pope said was in response to a question asked by a French journalist during a Jan. 15 press conference held en-route to the Philippines. The journalist asked if the Pope saw freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. He replied,

        “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith,” Pope Francis said. If you do, he said, you “can expect a punch.”

        It had NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with denigrating persons, but denigrating faith.

        This Ponitfex has no regard for traditional freedom of speech, unlike St. John Paul II.

        Welcome to the LEAGUE OF BERGOGLIO SPIN DOCTORS.

        Never thought I’d see you in their company.

        • Howard Kainz

          Good point! — unless someone considers opposing gay marriage the same as denigrating their faith (the faith that accepting gay marriage is the Christian thing to do).

      • ron_goodman

        As I understand it, this was the third time that McAdams was reprimanded by the administration for attacking a student by name in his blog.

  • Noah_Vaile

    I am so drawn towards making a sarcastic remark about this absurd mis-step of ‘higher education’ that i feel I must say nothing at all.

  • BXVI

    Catholic colleges should teach that Catholic doctrine is true. Hence, they should teach that homosexual conduct is an abominable sin that cries out to God for vengeance. And they should teach that same-sex “marriage” is an absurdity that can never be recognized as legitimate. Any college that allows its professors to teach otherwise is leading souls to hell and can hardly call itself “Catholic.”

    But alas, our once-great Catholic universities are shells of their former selves. They have hired and given tenure to non-Catholics who despise some or all of the Church’s teachings, and have given haven to professors who claim to be Catholic while rejecting certain Truths of the Catholic faith.

    So, I guess you can put me down for students’ free speech rights but against the right of a professor at a Catholic university to use their position, in the name of “academic freedom” to sow dissent and confusion and to destroy souls in the process. There are plenty of secular schools that will be happy t have them. They should not be teaching at Catholic universities.

    Should a student be permitted to express disagreement with the Catholic Truth? Of course, and without reprecussion. But should professors be teaching heresy? And, particularly, should they be stifling student speech that conforms with Catholic teaching and questions the false narrative? Absolutely not.

  • The Eh’theist

    This seems to be a shameful attack on the principle of academic freedom. Faculty protect their right to expression by defending free expression in the classroom within the context of the subject being taught (for example debating vegetarianism in a cooking class on roasting is outside the context of that class and can be stopped as a distraction).

    It appears that the student in question wanted to discuss the topic of same-sex marriage within the context of the philosophical point being covered. If this is the case and the discussion can be carried out in a mature and respectful way, it makes sense to do so, in order to provide concrete examples of the principle in action (in fact, this seems like a good subject for a discussion of Rawls).

    If the student was wandering off into other disciplines; attempting to make arguments that didn’t relate to the subject matter of the class (Rawls) or couldn’t make the arguments in a respectful and civilized manner, then this may have moved from an issue of free expression and academic freedom to one of inappropriate behaviour in an academic context, which should definitely be addressed. Without a clear transcript of the discussion, it’s difficult to know which point should take precedence, but based on what we know the administration’s approach seems very heavy-handed.

  • reasonnotfeelings

    As a member of a evangelical denomination that devotes lip-service to its anti-credal history, while holding its teachers and missionaries accountable to the spirit, if not the words of its faith and message, I have some sympathy with this institution’s historical devotion to dissent in the spirit of academic integrity. At least, I’m sure it started that way when John McAdams was given his tenure, irrespective of his pro-abortion views. Now it would seem that Marquette is merely politically correct and secular to the same degree of medieval inquistors.