Politics, religion clash at campus

Commencement speaker's death penalty role faulted

Offer of honorary degree revoked

Mount St. Mary's reflects Catholic Church dispute

May 14, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

As a debate swirls in the Catholic Church over how to treat Catholic politicians who back abortion rights, Mount St. Mary's College has withdrawn an offer of an honorary degree to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales after a campus protest over his support for the death penalty.

The reversal came after some students and faculty asked that Gonzales, a potential Supreme Court candidate, not speak at the Catholic college's commencement May 23 because of his record on the death penalty, said Mount St. Mary's President Thomas H. Powell.

Powell emphasized that the offer was revoked because he had failed to seek proper approval from the executive committee of the board of trustees before offering the degree - not because of Gonzales' record.

"I made the mistake," said Powell, who is in his first year as president at the college near Emmitsburg in Frederick County. "I never should have proffered the honorary degree in the first place and that was an error on my part and I've apologized."

Gonzales is still scheduled to speak at graduation, Powell said. Gonzales' office seemed unfazed by the flap.

"Judge Gonzales is looking forward to going to Mount St. Mary's College and speaking at their commencement and congratulating the students on their achievements," said White House spokesman Allen Abney.

The school's decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree comes as the Catholic Church debates whether political candidates should be punished for violating church teachings, specifically on abortion.

In recent months, a small number of Catholic bishops has said that politicians who support abortion rights should be refused Holy Communion. Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis said he would refuse to give Communion to Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate.

On Wednesday, Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs also urged Roman Catholics to vote against candidates who defied many of the church's teachings on the sanctity of life as well as same-sex marriage.

"Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem-cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the church and so jeopardize their salvation," Sheridan wrote in this month's Catholic Herald.

The protest at Mount St. Mary's, which has an enrollment of about 2,000, emerged this month when 61 students and faculty signed a petition calling for Gonzales not to speak at commencement. Among other things, they noted Gonzales' work as an adviser to President Bush on executions when the latter was governor of Texas.

The protesters pointed to a 2003 article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine that said Gonzales had prepared 57 confidential death-penalty memorandums for Bush's review.

"We believe the College should not invite for Commencement speakers whose public record is glaringly incompatible with significant aspects of our Mission," read a letter from protesting faculty members, according to the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo.

The controversy at Mount St. Mary's is noteworthy because it does not focus on the hot issue of abortion, but on the death penalty. Critics have accused some Catholic leaders of employing a double standard, vigorously attacking abortion-rights advocates, but not those who support the death penalty - which the church opposes in most cases.

The Mountain Echo also quoted Mike Epstein of the school's science department as saying he did not oppose Gonzales' speaking, but, "By inviting someone who not only opposes the Catholic viewpoint on the death penalty ... but was also an active participant in implementing the death penalty in Texas, the College will be judged to be hypocritical if a speaker who is an advocate of abortion rights or gay marriage is prohibited from speaking on campus in the future in a similar role."

Powell said the school will hold a national conference in the fall to examine the church's teachings on the "fabric of life."

Sun staff writer Rona Kobell and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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