More on Catholic Identity, Ellen Goodman & St. Francis University

by Michael Sean Winters

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The controversy over St. Francis University's decision to dis-invite Ellen Goodman from speaking on campus because of her pro-choice stance continues to simmer. At Faith in Public Life, John Gehring takes on the "witch hunt" mentality that seems to animate the Cardinal Newman Society.

And, NCR has obtained a copy of a letter sent to the President of St. Francis University by one of their alumni, Matt Ussia. Here is the text:

Fr. Zeis,

I write you out of the utmost respect and out of the utmost concern for the future well-being of St. Francis University. I am a member of the class of 1999, and in the 12 years since graduation I have come to deeply appreciate the contributions this institution has made to my life. In every possible respect, it nurtured, sheltered, and cared for me when I was a deeply troubled young man. I have chosen education as a career, so that I may spend my life in the service of others, as a means to pay forward the profound debt I owe this institution. Therefore, recently I made the choice to change my middle name to Francis in order to honor the memories of my Father, Grandfather, and Alma Mater.

However, the recent cancellation of the Furlong Lecture has made me ashamed to call myself a St. Francis University graduate. Your decision has not only made international news but has deeply troubled me, as well as many of my friends in the alumni community.

It is popular logic it seems to say that Ms. Goodman’s potential speech would not be consistent with Catholic teachings. However, I simply cannot accept such an intellectually lazy explanation. I am after all, a graduate of St. Francis University and, therefore, know better.

One thing I learned at St. Francis is that with Catholicism comes a diverse and supple intellectual tradition that spans two millenniums. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine are both important Catholic theologians, though not always in agreement. Furthermore, Dorothy Day and Francisco Franco both considered themselves and their actions Catholic in nature. The question is: what exactly do we mean here when we say “Catholic values”?

I remember the St. Francis that I attended. I remember sitting with my family at freshman orientation and hearing that a crucial part of a liberal arts education is to be confronted with sometimes disagreeable information. I was told that this ultimately makes us stronger in our beliefs and helps us to better understand the world. At the St. Francis I attended, an action such as the cancellation of Ms. Goodman’s lecture would be utterly unimaginable. I want to know what changed.

So I ask do you still believe in free will and the ability of individuals to choose goodness out of their own volition? That is not a rhetorical question. I ask out of all seriousness because I want to know.

Or, is the grand tradition of Catholic Theology now so fragile it cannot handle the mere proximity of someone who disagrees or else it will shatter to its very foundation like a house of cards faced with a stiff breeze? If so, reading a letter from someone like me is very bad news for someone like you. Do you feel as though your student’s minds are so intellectually weak that, again, the mere proximity to someone who disagrees would lead them down a path of intellectual and spiritual ruin? Again, I ask because I need to know.

St. Francis University’s culture of intellectual exploration ultimately taught me to be a more compassionate and caring individual. I ask you again, where did the St. Francis University I knew go wrong with me and other students of my era? No, I do not make all of the choices approved by The Pope and Church, and if I am to face divine judgment for this, I only hope there is a greater degree of compassion and understanding of human imperfection than has been shown in this decision.

Perhaps the most profound thing I learned at St. Francis was not in a classroom but in an email I received from the late Fr. Thomas Carapella T.O.R. I saw the sentencing phase of a trial on TV once, and the judge, who was a Southern Baptist Preacher, told the defense attorney, “I know you are also a preacher, and you too have officiated over a funeral where you had serious doubts that the deceased was saved.” This bothered me for several years, so one day I asked Fr. Tom in an email if he ever had that experience. You know what he said to me? He said that it was not his place to judge, but to be compassionate to each and every person that he encountered. This is something I learned at St. Francis University that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and with that in mind I ask you this question: If every thought, every doubt you may have ever had could somehow have been recorded, could you pass an inspection from the Cardinal Newman Society?

Or is this, as some suggest, a cynical and fearful response to a well-funded organization and some institutional beneficiaries threatening to remove their financial support if their demands are not met? If this is the case, can we talk money? As a graduate student and educator, my means to support the university through donations are limited. I have not been the model alumni on this front. However, I and many other potential alumni donors I’m sure are eager to put our money where our mouths are and pool our funds to counter-act any possible lost donation from the Cardinal Newman set. However, before we begin, we need to know approximately how much money are we dealing with here? What will it take to buy back the institution we knew and still love? Are you deeply offended by my question? You should be. I’m deeply offended that I felt the need to ask it.

Finally, I ask you directly the question I have been asking all along. What does this say about who we are as people? I ask because I care. I ask because I hope that future generations of St. Francis University students can experience the same academic freedom and possibilities to explore their human potential that I did. And I eagerly await your response, even if you think I am wrong.


Matthew Francis Ussia ‘99

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