Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be honored with a Doctor of Laws degree next month at Gonzaga University.
Gonzaga University will be honored as well.
Yet petititoners led by a local attorney claim that Tutu, the 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is unworthy of recognition from an institution that should uphold the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tutu supports same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion rights for women. Clearly, those positions are outside the church’s teachings, although not necessarily those of his Anglican faith. The Anglican Church splits on some of these issues.
But doctrines evolve. Perspectives change.
When Tutu received his Nobel, Gonzaga’s endowment fund held stock in several companies doing business in South Africa, where apartheid – state racism – denied black citizens basic rights.
The system was unequivocally evil. Blacks were killed. They were imprisoned. They were deported to so-called homelands carved out of the bush, leaving shattered families behind.
The decision before the university was whether to sell – divest – endowment stock as a gesture of opposition to apartheid, or hang on to the shares to support U.S. companies working to reform the system from within. Gonzaga retained its shares.
But pressure for divestment was building on other university campuses. In 1987, two Gonzaga students built a shanty on campus to dramatize the issue. Despite a 5-4 vote for divestment by a committee of students, faculty and administrators, and a 3-3 split among vice presidents, the trustees held their ground.
That decision was supported by The Spokesman-Review.
Finally, in 1990, Gonzaga’s trustees reversed their position. A year later, the apartheid laws were repealed.
Tutu has said pressure exerted by proponents of divestiture and boycotts helped topple the system. Unfortunately, his association with forces urging companies to withdraw investments from Israel, and comments in support of Palestinians, has prompted claims he is anti-Semitic. Tutu rejects those charges.
The petitioners chastise the university for awarding a degree and speaker’s platform to Tutu because his views are not those of the Catholic Church. But what would they say of comments from Pope Benedict XVI, who has suggested condoms might be appropriate if they would help slow the spread of AIDS, the very same scourge Tutu is trying to address?
Too often in recent decades, and especially at some of the nation’s more liberal universities, eminent speakers have been shut out or shouted down because their views were unacceptable. That such an effort would be made against a man as courageous and gracious as the archbishop is extremely regrettable.
Gonzaga is standing by its invitation to Tutu, a position bolstered by thousands of signatories to a counterpetition supporting the university. The Class of 2012 will witness one of the giants of the global human rights movement. Few other speakers could exemplify as well what they should strive to be in their own lives.