Gonzaga and the Catholic identity debate

A group of alumni, parents, and friends of the Jesuit university have called for a return to its Catholic roots.


Frequenters of this blog and other Catholic corners of the Internet likely remember various controversies involving Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. The Jesuit school has come under fire in recent years for inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu—who is pro-abortion—to be its 2012 commencement speaker, for its apparent eagerness to provide insurance coverage for contraception in compliance with the HHS mandate, and, most recently, for refusing student-club status to the campus Knights of Columbus group on the grounds that it violated the school’s non-discrimination policy by requiring that members be Catholic (the KofC decision was ultimately reversed by the university administration).

Last week, a group of Gonzaga alumni, parents, and friends launched the 1887 Trust, a non-profit committed to strengthening the school’s Catholic identity in the face of these and other controversies. Taking its name from the year Gonzaga was founded by Father Joseph Cataldo, SJ, the group says that its mission is “to affirm and support what is admirable in regard to Gonzaga’s Catholic identity, while advocating measures to recover and strengthen that identity where it has weakened.” Some of those measures include:

–          being publically committed in its governing documents to achieving full compliance with the letter and spirit of Ex corde Ecclesiae;

–          working to attract and maintain a faculty body that is majority Catholic in composition, with 65% Catholics as the goal;

–          adopting a speaker policy that will avoid awarding honors or platforms to those who publicly oppose core teachings of the Church.

I am a Gonzaga alum, so the 1887 Trust and its activities are of particular interest to me—I realize that many Catholics outside of the Inland Northwest, if they have heard about Gonzaga at all, are probably only aware of the controversies mentioned above (or maybe of its men’s basketball team).

But the response from concerned stakeholders to the controversies should be of wider interest to those following Catholic higher education trends, in part because for several years the school had something rather remarkable: a serious, reasonably well-informed, campus-wide discussion of what it means to be a Catholic institution. This discussion was influenced in large part by the leadership of Father Robert Spitzer, SJ—the university’s then-president who touched off the debate in 2002 when he refused to allow The Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus—and was encouraged by faculty members and administrators on all points of the ideological spectrum, but it was, by and large, student-driven. In op-eds, at campus-wide events, and in personal conversations, students discussed and wrestled with Catholic identity issues—from guest-speaker policies to the mandatum to academic freedom. It’s true that these debates could get ugly and, as one might expect from undergraduates, sometimes threw off more heat than light, but for a time at Gonzaga you saw a good number of students actively engaged in a conversation about what, if anything, makes a Catholic institution distinctive.

Father Spitzer stepped down as president of GU in 2009, The Vagina Monologues was performed on campus in 2011, and I’ve been given to understand from folks still affiliated with the university that many of the conversations we had a decade ago have been largely dropped. This is a shame, as it is clear from recent controversies that this wasn’t because of an increased clarity about the nature Catholic higher education. My hope is that the 1887 Trust will pick up where the on-campus discussions left off, and encourage Gonzaga to renew its commitment to the Catholic ideals upon which it was founded.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.