Thanks to a reader, who forwarded this email from Fr. Biondi “clarifying” some of the issues that have put SLU in the news lately. You can decide for yourself if you find his clarifications satisfying:
———- Forwarded message ———-From: Office of the President <firstname.lastname@example.org>Date: Fri, Mar 14, 2008 at 2:12 PMSubject: President’s Monthly MessageTo: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
March 14, 2008
TO: SLU Faculty, Staff, Students
FROM: Lawrence Biondi, S.J., President
I have always viewed these monthly email messages as a way for me to share important information with all of you in our SLU community, and to give my perspective on issues that are being discussed or that may affect our University’s future. I am sure you understand there are some topics that for a variety of reasons — privacy, litigation, personnel — are not routinely discussed in these monthly messages. But recently, there have been several matters that have become part of the public dialogue – much of it sparked by the media — where inaccurate information has been reported about SLU and its position on important issues. In these days of 24-hour news coverage and Internet blogs, it seems everyone has the chance to stake out a position on almost any topic without being accountable for the accuracy of what they write or say. While my President’s Monthly Message isn’t a blog, it is a chance for me to communicate the truth to our University community on some of these issues, and to point out where SLU’s position has been misrepresented.
SLU’s Catholic and Jesuit Identity
Over the past several months, several national and local publications, including the weekly St. Louis Archdiocesan newspaper, The St. Louis Review, have published stories, columns or letters insinuating that Saint Louis University has disavowed its Catholic identity in its defense of a lawsuit challenging SLU’s receiving $8 million in tax increment financing (TIF) for Chaifetz Arena. Not only is this assertion patently false, it is disrespectful to all that we do to live out our Catholic and Jesuit heritage each and every day. Unfortunately, many of those who disparage SLU have no idea what we do here, and appear to be only interested in furthering an agenda that serves their own purposes.
The following are the true facts about the TIF lawsuit.
To help finance Chaifetz Arena, which will provide significant economic development to the Midtown St. Louis metropolitan area, the University sought the benefit of tax increment financing. A handful of property owners in the area around SLU, including the Masonic Temple Association, challenged the constitutionality of the TIF ordinances, alleging that they violated both the U.S. and Missouri constitutions by providing public funding to a university controlled by a religious creed, church or sectarian denomination. Without getting into all of the motivations for this lawsuit, the University, in its response, pointed out that SLU is not “controlled” by the Catholic Church, as that term is used in the Missouri constitution, or in a strict corporate legal sense. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with the University’s position that an institution is not “controlled” by a religion or a religious order so long as it is operated by an independent board of trustees, as is the case at Saint Louis University. Our Trustees, who represent many different religions, “govern” and “control” our University. They are committed to follow our bylaws to act in accordance with the laws of the United States, the State of Missouri and our Catholic and Jesuit tradition of education, research and service.
Contrary to what some have written, it is clear that throughout the prosecution of this lawsuit, the University has repeatedly embraced its Catholic heritage and has maintained that it is to be publicly identified as Catholic and Jesuit. We have also maintained that our teaching, learning, research and service are motivated by the moral, spiritual and intellectual ideals and traditions of the Society of Jesus. In upholding the constitutionality of the ordinances, the Missouri Supreme Court set forth that Saint Louis University is motivated to act under Catholic and Jesuit ideals and beliefs and recognized the University’s Catholic and Jesuit identity.
Our position has been very clear from day one. Anyone who portrays this differently is either misinformed or is deliberately attempting to defame Saint Louis University. We have been and always will be a University that is proud to be motivated by Catholic and Jesuit ideals expressed in the Jesuit tradition of education.
Recently, a letter from Father John C. Deken, a St. Louis Archdiocesan priest, was published in The St. Louis Review that contained misstatements regarding this issue. Our Vice President for Mission and Ministry, Father Frank Reale, S.J., wrote a response letter to the Review’s editor. Quoting the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Father Reale pointed out that “people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” In that spirit, Father Reale corrected Father Deken’s inaccuracies, only to be told by the Review editor that his letter would not be printed. I use this as an example to demonstrate that even when we have attempted to correct fundamental mistruths, we have not been able to rely upon the media — secular or religious — to state the facts or correct the record. I hope if you are ever asked about this issue that you will take the time to reinforce SLU’s commitment to our Catholic and Jesuit identity and to question the motives of those who would try to misrepresent who we are.
I was surprised by the reaction to comments made at an off-campus event by men’s basketball coach Rick Majerus. The news coverage continued for days, with some news outlets, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in particular, determined to keep the story alive long after most people had moved on to much more important national and international matters. The Post-Dispatch even sent reporters to stalk me with instructions to “get a comment from Biondi about Majerus and Burke.” From my point of view, the coverage was incredibly overblown and distracted people from much more important work.
In the immediate aftermath of the original story, the University was very clear in its statement that Rick Majerus’ comments, made at a non-University, off-campus event, were his own. He was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the University. There are several important points I’d like to make in regard to this issue.
First, while each of us works or studies at a Catholic and Jesuit university, we all have the right to our own positions and beliefs, according to our own discerned conscience: as Americans, we enjoy the right of free speech. We work in an environment that embraces academic freedom and encourages the exchange of differing views and beliefs among and between everyone in our University community. Some have agreed with Rick Majerus’ personal positions, some others have disagreed. I’m sure Coach Majerus has heard from both sides. With our American tradition of free speech comes the responsibility, sensitivity and subsequent understanding that free speech also extends to those who may disagree with us.
Second, Rick Majerus is not a theologian nor an ethicist nor a member of the University’s faculty. He does not speak with authority for Saint Louis University on such issues. Saint Louis University is committed to acting consistently with the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic and Jesuit university, Saint Louis University’s mission, vision and values support the Catholic Church’s positions and teachings on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
While Saint Louis University does not engage in embryonic stem cell research, it does actively participate in research involving adult stem cells, which includes umbilical cord blood stem cells. This research is consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Of the letters and emails I received about this subject, some were thoughtful, but many others were vitriolic, which leads me to believe that in this day and age, any difference of opinion or belief cannot be tolerated by some individuals.
As an institution that welcomes people of all races, ethnicities and beliefs, let us continue to encourage the exchange of ideas, even those with which we don’t personally agree. We must all think analytically and critically. As educators and learners we must learn to distinguish facts from biases, to seek the truth and to be tolerant enough to accept the reality that not everyone sees the world in the same way. Angry, threatening pronouncements only serve to further polarize our American society and make reconciliation difficult.
The Vagina Monologues
Again this year, Provost Joe Weixlmann asked those students who wanted to raise awareness about the issue of violence against women to propose some new programming for the month of February that would be more unifying than The Vagina Monologues, which had been performed for a number of years on campus. Instead, the organizers decided to hold an off-campus production of The Vagina Monologues, which they had every right to do. A companion production by the same author had been organized for a presentation on campus. However, the script for the second piece, A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer, appears to come straight out of The Vagina Monologues. The sponsoring students were informed that they could not have this event on campus because, for all intents and purposes, the second piece was a condensed version of The Vagina Monologues.
As with some of the other issues, inaccurate reporting led to emails and letters to various offices across the University. First, the Cardinal Newman Society — self described as “the only national organization dedicated to the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic higher education in the United States” but which is in my opinion an organization that sees itself as God’s direct censor and communicator of what is and what is not appropriate programming for each and every one of the over 200 American Catholic college and university campuses — once again inaccurately reported that SLU would have an on-campus presentation of The Vagina Monologues. That misinformation resulted in dozens of ill-tempered and chain letter messages from persons who have no knowledge of our University, but who indicated with great certitude that we had abandoned our Catholic identity. At the same time, our student organization, UNA, decided to launch its own media campaign when the companion play was not allowed on campus. That resulted in a new round of angry emails from other groups, accusing the University of a lack of concern about the very important issue of violence against women.
Violence against women is intolerable, and as a University community, we should strive together to support and strengthen the effort to end the tragic crimes that are committed against women in the St. Louis metropolitan area, across the United States and around the world. But it occurs to me that those on both sides who sent angry messages miss the point by taking such extreme positions. SLU wasn’t less Catholic when we held a presentation of The Vagina Monologues on campus, and we aren’t less concerned about violence against women because we asked that some other play or event be presented to raise awareness of this important issue. For some people, everything is either black or white – you’re either good or you’re bad, Catholic or non-Catholic, caring or unsupportive, with me or against me. What we don’t do well is talk with each other and engage in a meaningful dialogue about what common ground we do share. I think we would be surprised to see that we have more in common than we think. And I am very concerned about the lack of civility that I have witnessed recently in regard to these issues and the tendency to accuse and criticize others or positions without any attempt to research or question the source of a rumor or news report.
I would hope in the months ahead that a variety of campus groups will come together and propose new programming on this very important topic of violence against women in a way that will engage the entire SLU community. As a campus community, I know that each of us is committed to making the world a safer and more peaceful place for all of us.
The Cardinal Newman Society
As many of you know, Pope Benedict XVI will visit the United States this spring. During his visit, the Holy Father will address the presidents of the American Catholic colleges and universities.
Unfortunately, the excitement about the Pope’s visit is already being marred by a misinformed and inaccurate mailing by the Cardinal Newman Society. It is the latest attack on America’s Catholic colleges and universities by the Cardinal Newman Society and its president, Patrick Reilly. For years, Reilly has used distortion, inaccurate information and scare tactics to attack many fine Catholic colleges and universities in his effort to raise money. Reilly continues to attempt to dictate the academic agendas and students’ social life at Catholic institutions such as SLU. Reilly would like to have the ability to approve every commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient on all Catholic college and university campuses in the United States of America. His organization openly challenges the academic freedom that all American colleges and universities cherish.
In his latest salvo, Reilly has mailed a thinly veiled fundraising solicitation to more than 100,000 Catholics in which he accuses our nation’s Catholic colleges and universities of being a “breeding ground” for “challenging the Pope.”
We are far past the time for Reilly’s distortions and half-truths to be left unchallenged. He and his organization have repeatedly launched narrow-minded attacks on SLU, Marquette, Loyola Chicago, Loyola Marymount, USF, Detroit-Mercy, Notre Dame, Georgetown and many other fine Catholic universities. Until now, we have ignored these unfair assaults on American Catholic higher education, but in light of this latest crass attack, I feel it is necessary to alert you to the deleterious activities of the Cardinal Newman Society. The presidents of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) also are responding to these attacks.
If you receive one of the solicitations from Patrick Reilly and the Cardinal Newman Society, I urge you to see it for what it is: an attempt to raise money by unfairly attacking our American Catholic higher education institutions and the work all of us do to provide the best possible educational experience for our students.
I thank you for allowing me to share my views on these very important matters. I hope I was able to offer a fresh, clearer perspective and dispel some rumors and falsehoods.
Thanks to Father Biondi for the enlightenment– er, I mean, enlightening– remarks.