Catholic University of America students participate in the annual March for Life. (Photo courtesy of Catholic University)
Catholic University of America students participate in the annual March for Life. (Photo courtesy of Catholic University)

What do we believe? What are our core principles? For many weeks now – from racial violence in Charlottesville, intolerance and upheaval on many college campuses, to protests over the National Anthem – public discussion has been dominated by these questions of what we stand for individually and as a society, and what we do and do not want to be associated with.

Cities are debating street names and the presence of Confederate-era monuments. Sports teams and the entertainment media are finding opportunities to promote their views on social or political issues. Likewise, in multiple ways university campuses have sought to disassociate themselves from behavior of students, faculty and, in some cases, even the past history of the schools themselves. These actions are all grounded in certain core values that they wish to sustain and even advance.

For example, colleges have expelled or condemned students for taking part in white nationalist activities, voicing racial slurs at others, posting flyers or other messages and images on campus or on social media that are racially and/or sexually offensive, including images of lynchings, Nazi symbols and white students in “blackface.” A fraternity at a Midwest university was also permanently closed after a video surfaced showing members singing a song with racial epithets and references to lynching. “There is zero tolerance for this kind of threatening racist behavior,” said the school’s president.

We can all learn from these statements and affirmations of human and moral values. The fact that some universities take action against students who express views that are contrary to the core values of the school shows that they recognize that freedom of expression or speech is not the only normative value in societal life. These institutions of higher learning state that they are not required to subordinate their basic values to the claims of free speech or academic freedom. Freedom of expression does not require that schools provide a forum for those who wish to speak against the very foundational values of the school – what the school stands for. Nor does it require that their campuses otherwise be associated with objectionable ideas. This proclamation by some of our nation’s leading universities is a voice to be heard.

We see in some secular universities the claim to uphold their foundational values over the assertions of free expression. What can we expect from educational institutions that hold themselves out as Catholic – or “in the Catholic tradition?” Inasmuch as Jesus came to “testify to the truth,” Catholic universities cannot be less clear in asserting their Catholic tradition, heritage and values. Many Catholic campuses do assert that freedom of expression is not somehow an absolute right that trumps all other values. It would be more edifying if they all did.

Just as some schools rightly stand for racial equality and justice as foundational values, so should the inviolable value of all human life – from its nascent beginnings at conception to its natural end – be an essential and manifest part of our Catholic institutional identity.

To stand for truth and human dignity, to promote the value of human life and expect that human life will be respected and valued on campus – or in our communities and social organizations – does not mean stifling freedom. It means standing for genuine humanism, standing for what is just and good and true. For a Catholic university to be authentic is to stand with its core principles and its Catholic heritage.

Who are we as a people? What do schools that have a connection with the Catholic Church stand for? What do they not want to be associated with? A hundred years from now, let us hope that people will say that we and our schools were a beacon of light shining in a culture that obscured many human values. We hope they will remember that we stood up and spoke out for the dignity and right of every human life, of every race, sex, age, ethnicity and social or economic condition.