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Mau-mauing the Georgetown Flak-Catchers?

Last week, addressing the appearance of Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president, at Georgetown, university President John DeGioia made a number of strong assertions: “In a time when the University of Missouri’s president was fired just for an ‘insufficient response to an off-campus racist incident,’ when two Yale professors had to give up teaching merely for suggesting that students (not the university) should gauge the appropriateness of ethnic Halloween costumes, when Emory’s president took seriously that students were terrified that “Trump 2016” was “chalked” on campus, and when Claremont McKenna’s president invited students to his office to protest against his own administration’s insensitivity, I cannot stand passively by. Ms. Richards has run Planned Parenthood for a decade. During that time it has aborted at least 3.25 million innocent children – and sold their body parts for money. Neither our Catholic beliefs nor mere human decency allows us to refrain from expressing our outrage at such a person being given a platform at our beloved institution.”

Well, no, he didn’t say that of course. And certainly didn’t do anything to prevent similar scandals in the future. Instead, a spokesman issued the usual PR dodge about the university encouraging “the free exchange of ideas” and extending invitations even to those who do not share its “Catholic and Jesuit identity.” Even by these modest criteria, the Richards lecture was a moral and academic fiasco. There was no free exchange, only her arguments (presented, according to reports, as if, of course, the audience agreed with her, which it largely did). Four questions were allowed from the floor. Four. Only one of which challenged her to explain why 94 percent of PP’s pregnancy-related services lead to abortion, only 1 percent to adoption. This perfectly reasonable question earned the questioner a laugh and dismissal by Richards, and ridicule from the crowd. So much for the free exchange of ideas.

As to the “Catholic and Jesuit identity,” we’re not talking about the distinguished history of Georgetown, the first Catholic institution of higher learning in America and still the most prestigious university in the capital of the world’s most powerful nation. We’re talking about the ghost of that institution, a disembodied spirit whose faint outline, like a bad conscience, not quite yet extinguished, haunts the otherwise secularized day-to-day activity on campus, which it would be difficult to distinguish from that of any other American university today. Hardly a surprise, because Georgetown, and most other top-notch Catholic universities, long ago decided that being universities in good standing (on the modern American model) trumps their Catholic “identity.”

You can tell who has power in a society by who is allowed, publicly, to get angry. Conversely, those who worry about expressing anger – who censor themselves sometimes so as not to provoke the wrath of the more powerful – have made public profession, even if they do not know it, that they do not have the courage (or power) of their convictions. There’s a simple logic and a simple reality at work in such cases. If Georgetown really believed, for example, that what Planned Parenthood does is not merely another “point of view” – like the two sides of the immigration debate – but a fundamental question of human dignity, like a conflict between the Ku Klux Klan and civil rights advocates, we wouldn’t see this faux impartiality between pro-lifers and baby killers.

Ms. Richards

The Catholic Church and other religious bodies with traditional morals are accused every day now of violations of basic human dignity and human rights over their views of homosexual activity and gay “marriage.” Lots of us now even find ourselves called bigots just for believing there should be Men’s and Women’s bathrooms. (Our president apologized for that in the UK just this week.) Pray hard about this, to be sure, and argue on every front in every way possible. But let’s also recognize that we’ve tried this for decades and it hasn’t worked. Other means would be necessary if we want to succeed.

Tom Wolfe, that nice Southern gentleman with a sense of how all sorts of once taken-for-granted realities started to become caricatures of themselves in the 1960s, wrote a long essay that explains much that’s happened in the past half-century: “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers [1].” Facts and arguments didn’t much matter in American society any more. Instead, wild protest groups (the Mau-mauers) simply overwhelmed the official spokesmen (the flak-catchers) in public meetings of all kinds, not just in politics, but at universities, businesses, the media.

It was an ugly procedure, but an effective one. You didn’t debate ideas, you made it personal:

If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into eyeballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into sh*t-eating grins so to speak – then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and the community organizing jobs to.

President Obama obviously learned similar lessons via Saul Alinsky.

Sad to say, this is the only sort of confrontation that might actually work in changing entrenched presidents, entrenched faculty, entrenched trustees. Sad, because our people won’t do it. They believe too much in order, reason, respect, dialogue. The other guys say those same words, but they mean them to inhibit us.

Praise the courage of Georgetown junior Julie Reiter, who asked Richards that challenging question in a hostile crowd. Praise all the other pro-life students who prayed and protested and prodded the university. And praise D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl who sharply chastised the university, and offered a pro-life Mass in nearby Epiphany Church the day after Richards spoke.

But let’s be clear: only ugly confrontations would change things, and there will not be – perhaps ought not be – such confrontations. The only alternative (Cardinal Wuerl rebuked Georgetown for not being with Francis’ Church and therefore should call Rome) is at least to declare, as is abundantly clear, that universities like Georgetown who claim the name of Catholic simply aren’t anymore. And, barring miracles, never will be again. They dishonor the very name. There are other places [2] where real Catholics can get a real Catholic education.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.