Cecile Richards at GU: The End of the World or the Beginning of a Discourse?

By: Katherine Butler-Dines

May 13, 2016

Georgetown University is no stranger to controversy, between Rush Limbaugh’s derogatory criticism of law student Sandra Fluke, the election of the first openly gay student body president, and current work to address the school’s history of owning slaves. Recently, when Cecile Richards, the CEO of Planned Parenthood, was invited to speak on campus by the Lecture Fund, an all student-run organization that is university funded, a new dispute broke out. Some both inside the university and from the larger Catholic community argued that the event was antithetical to Georgetown’s Catholic identity and backlash, protests, and petitions ensued. Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl wrote without directly mentioning Georgetown that “students, faculty, and the community at large are all impoverished, not enriched, when the institution’s Catholic identity is diluted or called into question by seemingly approving of ideas that are contrary to moral truth.”

Despite the outcry against her speech, for which she was not paid, on April 20, Cecile Richards spoke to a jam-packed auditorium about the goals and purpose of Planned Parenthood, but mostly about her own experiences with social activism. Outside the auditorium protesters held signs calling to defund the organization or questioning the validity of Georgetown as a Catholic institution, and inside some of those who opposed the event, led by the pro-life student group Vita Saxa, sat in a section of reserved seats. Personally, I found her message inspiring, but I believe the symbolism of the event is even more important.

Georgetown is the oldest Catholic university in America and indeed Catholic, and more specifically Jesuit values, run deep through its academic and social identity. While this event may have been viewed by some community members as an offense against Catholic morals and beliefs, I believe that it was essential because it showed Georgetown’s commitment to freedom of speech and interfaith dialogue. Our mission statement says, “The university was founded on the principle that serious and sustained discourse among people of different faiths, cultures, and beliefs promotes intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding.” No matter one’s views on abortion or Planned Parenthood, it must be recognized that the university is, first and foremost, a space that fosters open and respectful dialogue about critical but difficult issues. So by refusing to cancel the speech despite criticism Georgetown reaffirmed its commitment to these values.

As a Doyle Fellow I have reflected a great deal on what dialogue, interfaith or otherwise, really means. For me, dialogue can be defined as engaging with those individuals or beliefs who are radically different that you, yet respecting no matter how much you disagree that they have the right to exist and then trying to find common ground. Dialogue is difficult and observing discourse in America right now, be it on a college campus or in politics, I see opportunities for dialogue devolving into rhetoric of hate and an unwillingness to listen to diverse opinions. So I am proud to go to a school that understands its deep Catholic identity is not negated by a woman sharing her beliefs that may contradict the school's, but that the presence of a diversity of ideas, people, and religions on campus only serves to empower inclusive and civil religious discourse.

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Cecile Richards at GU: The End of the World or the Beginning of a Discourse?