UST Class Action

Abusing Academic Freedom

"Education is only truth in a state of transmission." GK Chesterton

Academic Freedom is the right to explore controversial issues or consider different arguments on a subject as a means of ascertaining the truth. It is not a carte blanche. It doesn't give the instructor the right to violate norms of decency. In a Catholic school, it does not mean the teacher has a right to advocate or promote positions that attack Catholic doctrine and morals, without discussing and showing the shortcomings of those positions, because the student has a right to the truth.

The Handmaid's Tale (UST English Department Common Text for 2007-2008) violates norms of decency. Its boorishness and vulgarity offend many studentsí sense of modesty and good taste. Forcing the students to read it is presumptuously insensitive, and an abuse of academic freedom. The book is an inappropriate selection for this reason alone.

Students have the right to receive the truth from their teachers, not some ideology. The Catholic Church teaches that, just as there are truths about the physical world, there are spiritual and moral truths. And just as the student has the right to receive scientific truth, he has the right to receive moral truth. Therefore, promoting what is false, scientifically or spiritually, is a violation of academic freedom. The problem with advocating positions contrary to the Catholic faith without showing their shortcomings is best explained by using an example:

In 1920, a book was published in Germany titled The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life. It advocated killing the mentally and physically handicapped, and was fundamental to the development of the Nazi euthanasia program. This position is in direct opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church that one cannot directly and intentionally kill innocent human life. Thus a Catholic school could allow use of this book by a teacher who would expose the error of its arguments. But its use by instructors who agree with its false arguments and only seek to advance them is a violation of academic freedom. Its use by them would not be permitted.

Similarly, the English Department at St. Thomas, as evidenced by two thirds of its faculty voicing their opposition to "unmarried partners" travel policy, strongly opposes Catholic teachings on sexuality. The Handmaid's Tale attacks Catholic sexual teaching as oppressive and enslaving. Since the majority of the teachers in the English Department agree with this premise, they cannot, with conviction, demonstrate the falseness of this book from a Catholic perspective. The Catholic Church, as evidenced by Pope John Paul IIís book, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, knows the truth about human sexuality. Therefore, use of The Handmaidís Tale by instructors who agree with its premises and seek to promote them is an abuse of academic freedom, because they are teaching what is false. Its use by these instructors should not be permitted.

A few words from Pope Benedict are illuminative:

"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it."

"Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual."

Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Catholic Educators, April 17, 2007