It seems nigh impossible to be a Catholic at university if it means being open about a belief in the sanctity and inviolability of human life.
Just ask Fr David Palmer who was denied recognition as chaplain to the University of Nottingham because he tweeted against abortion and assisted suicide. Complaints were made against his appointment by Bishop Patrick McKinney of Nottingham and it took the threat of legal action by the Free Speech Union to bring the university to its senses.
He is now allowed to perform his ministry on campus under a period of probation. He is being watched and further complaints against him may lead to the university revoking its decision. The effect on free speech must be chilling, to say the least.
The university already has form in this respect. Exactly a year ago, it reached a settlement with Julia Rynkiewicz, a Catholic undergraduate midwifery student who was barred from a hospital placement phase, potentially wrecking her education, when the university learned of her leadership of a pro-life student group.
If anyone imagined that Nottingham is simply the bad apple in the crop they should look at the treatment of pro-life students elsewhere at the beginning of this term.
At a freshers’ fair in Oxford, for instance, students threw the contents of the Oxford Students for Life stall into a wheelie bin and refused to leave the site until they were assured that the stall would not be reinstated.
Anna Fleischer, the president of the society, said: “We are disappointed that a small group of students decided to take direct action against our stall, and are grateful to those working at the fair who have worked to protect our right to maintain our presence there.”
She was no doubt also disappointed by the online bullying to which she was subjected afterwards. She was deleted repeatedly from the Oriel Junior Common Room (JCR) Facebook page and when she complained was told by the JCR Women’s officer: “I’m so ****ing tired of people talking about pro-life. It’s not your body; it’s not your choice. Shut the **** up. Mind your own damn business.”
The college is now “investigating” while Oxford University has publicly indicated its support for the group and condemned the attack upon it as “an attempt to deny the right of expression to others”.
Yet to date there is no sign of any disciplinary action being taken against the perpetrators, who are easily identifiable.
Similarly, at Exeter University, members of the pro-life student group and their families were insulted and subjected to threats of violence by Facebook and Instagram.
“Fav place in Exeter gonna be the BOTTOM of the quay if u int careful Roberto,” said one online posting to a member, while another invited someone to beat him up.
Madeline Page of the Alliance of Pro-Life Students said: “Universities are places for reasoned debate. The ever-growing amount of hate and emotionally riled slurs towards groups with differing opinions is alarming and should not be tolerated. We need to re-educate university students on how to have these discussions.”
Sadly, freedom of speech is perceived as a threat rather than a value to many of the people who go to universities and to those who run them. Such institutions appear to be the fulcrum of the new and destructive doctrines that are utterly inimical to freedom and which are weakening democracy. Yet they hold the gateway to the professions and are preparing our future leaders for public life.
It is not just Catholics who are at risk. Only recently, Kathleen Stock, a philosophy lecture at Sussex University, was thrown to the wolves by her own union in October because of her views on some of the dubious claims of the ideology of gender, forcing her to teach remotely over fears for her safety.
The University and College Union not only refused to defend her against posters put up around campus calling for her to be sacked, but implicitly criticised the university for not supporting the activists.
Some of these people, incidentally, denounced her as “one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes” who, they said, should “die alone”, begging the question of just who precisely is being exposed to “hate” in this context.
The university reacted by saying it would strive to strike a balance between academic freedom and equality, diversity and inclusion. Such a craven response leaves no doubt that the forthcoming Higher Education Bill, which has been introduced specifically to protect freedom of speech in universities, cannot come soon enough.
But even this is a paltry intervention. The government, with its 80-seat majority, must show greater courage and resolve to protect the British way of life across the board. It is what the public expects from a centre-right party. Boris Johnson could start by leading from the front and admitting, when questioned by broadcasters, that women – and only women – have cervixes. Then he should think about obliging institutions and organisations to profess biological and scientific truths rather than the latest insane ideological fad. What is he scared of?
It’s time to stop running from the bullies. If our representatives won’t acknowledge the inextricable link between freedom and truth then perhaps we should elect some who will. There is too much at stake to carry on pretending that anything less will do.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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