Religious colleges walk a fine line

Academic freedom is the golden rule at American colleges, a long-cherished principle that protects the right of professors and students to conduct controversial research and classroom discussion without fear of reprisal, all in the cause of knowledge and understanding.

But as two cases show, colleges with a religious affiliation often must struggle to balance academic freedom with the potentially conflicting values of religion.

A part-time religion professor recently resigned from Chestnut Hill College after she said the Catholic school’s president told her that when speaking publicly, the professor could not identify herself as both a lesbian and a college employee.

In another case, Villanova University’s law school dean put curbs on summer internships open to students given law-school stipends. They prohibit students at the Catholic university from using their stipends to work for public-advocacy groups on issues involving abortion rights.

“There’s an inherent tension between academic freedom and religious limitations,” said Martin Snyder, an expert on academic freedom with the American Association of University Professors.

Catholic colleges aren’t the only ones struggling with academic freedom. Snyder said evangelicial Christian and conservative Protestant schools bump into conflict over science and creationism.

This semester, Meghan Sullivan, a 1992 Chestnut Hill graduate who has a master’s degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary, taught two religion courses at Chestnut Hill.

Sullivan, who was brought up Catholic, said she left the church a year ago because she was uncomfortable with Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and morally wrong.

In January, she heard a nun speak at the University of Pennsylvania on gay rights. A reporter for Penn’s student newspaper interviewed Sullivan for reaction to the speech.

In a story the next day, Sullivan was identified as gay and a Chestnut Hill College employee. Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of the college, saw the story and called Sullivan in for a meeting.

Sister Vale said in a recent interview that she did not fire Sullivan or ask her to resign, but tried to make clear what Chestnut Hill expected of its professors.

“When speaking as a representative of the college, we expect faculty to accurately represent the teachings of the church and to refrain from criticism of those teachings,” Sister Vale said.

Sullivan recalled the two-hour meeting differently. She said she was told she had a choice when speaking publicly _ to identify herself as a Chestnut Hill professor or as a lesbian, but not both.

Sullivan said that early in the meeting, Sister Vale sighed and told her, “You can never contradict official church teaching.”

Sister Vale said she was “shocked” to receive Sullivan’s resignation two weeks later. But Sullivan said that, given the choice, it was easier for her to maintain her personal integrity by leaving the college than by denying that she is gay.

Sister Vale said that faculty members “have the freedom to write, research and publish.” Although she expects them to accurately represent church teachings, in class they can discuss points of view that counter those teachings, in the interest of knowledge, she said.

Rob Moore, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University and former president of the American Association of University Professors’ Pennsylvania chapter, said that what happened at Chestnut Hill concerned him because it sounded as though Sullivan was not representing the college but merely speaking for herself.

Sullivan said that to her the “greatest tragedy” of the incident was that she had been articulating her “experience of being shamed and oppressed” by Catholic teaching and that her words had been “rhetorically contorted into misrepresenting Catholic teaching.”

In the last year, American Catholic bishops have instituted a series of norms required under a Vatican document called Ex corde ecclesiae, designed to ensure that theologians teach Catholic doctrine accurately. The norms, which require theologians to get a mandatum, or teaching approval, from the local bishop, had some academics worried that it would compromise academic freedom.

Sullivan said her case illustrated how the closer scrutiny of Catholic colleges by church leaders in light of Ex corde was making college administrators more wary. She said that during their meeting, Sister Vale expressed the worry that Sullivan’s public comments could generate a call from Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.