Gonzaga University, like many religious academic institutions, see-saws in perpetual tension between its Catholic tradition and its broad academic focus. Is it okay for the school to perform the Vagina Monologues? Have a pro-life club on campus? Have a non-Jesuit president?
If you thought the selection of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel peace laureate, apartheid-toppler, preacher against injustice and for forgiveness) commencement speaker, would avoid that sort of tension, apparently, you thought wrong.
Now, Tutu’s the subject of a critical petition from a few Gonzaga alumni.
First came a blog from the Cardinal Newman Society – a group with the goal to “help renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education” – which takes this angle on the story: “Gonzaga to Honor Pro-Abortion Rights Archbishop Desmond Tutu”
The specific problem they have with Tutu: “Archbishop Tutu earned the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to subdue violence in racially torn South Africa during apartheid. But as admirable as that work has been, Tutu also endorsed a constitutional amendment in South Africa to legalize abortion and even endorsed the work of the abortion chain Marie Stopes. “
To the Cardinal Newman Society, it’s a violation of a bishop’s directive stating that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
Today, alumni Patrick Kirby (who graduated from Gonzaga’s law school in 1993) and Maureen Kirby (who graduated from a Gonzaga Masters of Organizational Leadership program in 1996) have launched a petition drive to drum up their opposition.
“As alumni, faculty, staff, students and other friends of Gonzaga University, we are deeply troubled that Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu will give the 2012 commencement address and be honored with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree,” they write. “If this occurs on May 13 as has been announced, it will mark a sad day in Gonzaga’s history.”
Patrick Kirby says this has been in discussion among local Catholic, on the internet and over e-mail for some time. Now they have launched a campaign, upset over Tutu’s support for abortion, gay-rights, and critiques of Israel. He says his petition has some support among a few members of Gonzaga’s faculty and staff, though the didn’t feel comfortable naming who they were.
“Just because he has a Nobel peace prize doesn’t give him a license for an invitation to speak at a Catholic university,” Kirby says over the phone today. “It’s shocking. It’s offensive. It’s stupid.”
Representatives from Gonzaga did not immediately return phone calls request for a comment.
The petition has received national traction, not only being written up by the Cardinal Newman Society, but being tweeted by @AmericanPapist, a conservative Catholic blogger with over 10,000 twitter followers.
This is not the first time a Tutu being chosen as a commencement speaker has received backlash. The notion that the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, didn’t want Tutu to speak due to comments about Israel ended up creating a national firestorm in 2007. The University of St. Thomas later changed its mind, and extended an invitation.