A state-run university in Ireland has banned a campus chapter of the Legion of Mary from the school after the group posted posters inviting students to become part of the Courage movement, a Catholic ministry to lesbian and gay people which promotes chastity and has been known in some instances to promote reparative therapy to attempt to “change” a person’s sexual orientation.
Officials from the National University in Galway said they made their decision because of the school’s “pluralist ethos” and its policy of “protecting the liberty and equality of all students and does not condone such behaviour” according to The Journal.ie.
RTE.ie reported that the poster’s message invited students with ” ‘same sex attractions’ to ‘develop an interior life of chastity … to move beyond the confines of the homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ.’ ”
The Guardian news report offered some background as to why the university came to its decision:
“The university said it had reviewed the actions of the society in the context of the college’s code of conduct and policies governing harassment. It said this led to the immediate suspension of the Legion of Mary, which is understood to have only a few members in its college society.
“The societies chairperson at the university, Patrick O’Flaherty, said he had been contacted by a number  of students who were upset or felt threatened by the content of the poster.
“In a statement, the university said it would not condone the production and dissemination of any material by students that discriminated against other students.”
The Legion of Mary’s response to the university’s action is curious. On one hand, according to RTE.ie:
“Representatives of the Legion did not respond to an invitation to attend a meeting to consider the issue.”
Yet, on the other hand, the same news story reported:
“However, after the suspension was imposed, a committee member did write to the group apologising for any distress that had been caused.
“She said the content on the document had been taken directly from a website. It was not aimed at attacking any person or group of people and was not intended to hurt or offend.”
Yet, the group also had a bit of a rocky history in regard to its application to become a recognized society on campus, according to RTE.ie:
“The group had applied for status as a college society in September of this year and at one point had around 100 members.
“As part of the application to become a fully-fledged society, its committee was asked to provide information as to its aims and objectives.
“This did not happen. Concerns about the lack of clarification contributed to the decision to suspend the society.”
London’s Telegraph newspaper published an essay on this controversy by Padraig Reidy, a senior writer at the Index on Censorship. While Reidy is not sympathetic with the Legion of Mary’s views on homosexuality, he defends their right to express their views on a campus. He wrote:
“. . . [W]e are in a curious position where a non-violent, non-intimidatory message from an orthodox Catholic position has been banned from a university campus. Without a trace of irony, the university claims that it is ‘committed to protecting the liberty and equality of all students.’
“The university Legion of Mary has said it was not their intention ‘to offend or upset any person or group of people.’ It probably wasn’t. In their own weird little way they probably genuinely think they’re offering real ‘support’ for gay people.
“But it doesn’t matter whether I, or the university authorities, agree with their idea of support or not. The issue at stake here is that they have peacefully put forward their views, without threat or abuse, and have still been punished, with even evidence of the Legion’s student society status removed from NUI Galway’s website.
“Universities are meant to be places where people learn to argue and find their way as adults. How this can happen when students are “protected” from even the slightest controversy, I really don’t know. Believers in intellectual and religious liberty should start praying for the Towers of Ivory.”
There are a lot of issues in this story which can be seen as black and white. Was the university correct in banning the group or was this censorship, as Reidy claims? Did the punishment fit the offense? Was it LGBT students or Catholic students who were experiencing discrimination?
While I do not condone the message of the Legion of Mary’s posters, I wonder if perhaps there could have been a teachable moment here. The fact that the Legion of Mary apologized shows there might be some opportunity for discussion with them. Perhaps a meeting between the Legion of Mary students and LGBT students would have helped to develop toleration and respect. The recent example of Providence College, a Catholic school in Rhode Island, is instructive here. When that school’s administration cancelled a public lecture by a pro-marriage equality speaker, students on campus organized an evening of discussion and dialogue about the case, which resulted in a re-invitation to the speaker for the spring semester.
As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, let us remember one of the greatest institutions he established was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up for victims of apartheid to tell their stories, but also to foster healing for that wounded nation. I think the Catholic community, and all communities that struggle with LGBT issues, such as the National University in Galway, would do well to follow Mandela’s model.