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Shawn Vestal: Tutu offers chance to challenge our beliefs

Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The madness that afflicts Gonzaga usually ends in March.

But this year there’s been a prominent case of April Madness – an effort to undo the “travesty” of having Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at graduation and receive an honorary degree.

This effort is being mounted by a group of uber-conservative Catholics, who are unimpressed by Tutu’s history of courage and moral leadership, and who are appalled by his support for gay rights, abortion and, yes, contraception.

Fortunately, Gonzaga – which has, in the past, blocked a theater performance about lady parts – is standing by Tutu. He’s only an unsurpassed example of applying your life to a cause of moral seriousness, a historic figure whom Spokane is fortunate to welcome, someone you’d describe as a perfect commencement speaker so long as your definition of perfect didn’t end at “anti-abortion” and “anti-gay.”

It’s good to be reminded on occasion that there are those who consider contraception a moral issue of more or less equal weight with apartheid – who will acknowledge that, OK, sure, Desmond Tutu was heroic in helping to force historic change of a despicable regime in South Africa, and that was cool and all, but on the other hand … he’s pro-choice.

I can’t quite do the moral math here, so let me quote one of the objectors:

“We have a man coming to speak to campus who has an admirable record – a heroic record – of standing against the evil of apartheid. But he embraces an evil of at least as great a magnitude – and arguably a greater magnitude – which is the killing of innocent unborn human beings. The evil of racial segregation has been replaced with the evil of extermination.”

It might be an interesting exercise for GU students to undertake, arguing the magnitude of these evils. Comparing and contrasting. Asking themselves whether they believe this is true – that apartheid is not quite equivalent to abortion in the ranking of evil.

To be clear: The “travesty” in question doesn’t have anything to do with how Gonzaga ranks these evils. No, it’s that Tutu – this abortion embracer – will stand on a stage, talk, and receive a fake degree, thus making a grotesque mockery of commencement speeches and fake degrees.

The petitioners, some 700 strong, wrote this to Thayne McCulloh, GU president: “We pray that you find the courage and wisdom to do what is right so the souls of the students in your care won’t be led astray.”

To his great credit, McCulloh is not doing the right thing.

The effort to rescue GU from Tutu fits, more or less, directly in the tradition of The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that identifies its mission as saving Catholic education from “a mistaken notion of academic freedom.” The society has strong feelings about freedom and academics and the purpose of an education: “Catholic higher education provides students with the unique opportunity to seek understanding through Faith and Reason, made complete by a free obedience to the Eternal Law.”

Obedience is always most free when it isn’t complicated by any ideas other than the right ones.

Tutu is a moral giant. That is not to say he’s perfectly moral or without mistakes. But his life and leadership in South Africa – his commitment in the 1980s to the controversial path of divestment, which ultimately helped bring down apartheid; his vigorous but forgiving resistance; his organization of peaceful protests and the personal sacrifices he made during the struggle; and, yes, his understanding of contraception and childbirth in the context of a continent ravaged by AIDS – make the typical American pontificating about principle seem like moral weaklings.

The souls of GU graduates can only be enriched by his presence. If some of those students believe that abortion is a greater evil than apartheid, that Tutu’s heroism is tempered by his support for contraception, then perhaps it will be good for them to conduct this calculation for themselves. To examine what constitutes moral leadership. To find their beliefs challenged, rather than constantly sustained.

To think.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.