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  Campus Crawl: of Faith and Free Speech

By David Tarrant dtarrant@dallasnews.com
The Dallas Morning News
January 24, 2004

WORCESTER, Mass. Set on a hill overlooking this town, the ivy-covered brick buildings and immaculately groomed landscape of the College of the Holy Cross would seem an ideal place to contemplate the world and current events from a lofty and safe distance.

That's just how the Jesuits, who founded this Catholic college 160 years ago, envisioned it.

But these days, more than just leaves swirl around St. James Hill. Many of the same issues whipping up debate during this presidential election year gay marriage, the war in Iraq, abortion and race relations also churn over this campus.

One student's support of gay marriage landed her on the front page of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Kathryn Meyers, co-editor of the student newspaper, The Crusader, wrote an opinion column in November supporting a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that a ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

"I was pretty sure people would object" to the column, she said.

In fact, she found herself at the center of a lot of sturm und drang from alumni. Leading the anti-column charge was a familiar adversary, Victor J. Melfa, Class of 1957. Mr. Melfa is president of the Holy Cross Cardinal Newman Society, an alumni group he has formed out of concern that Holy Cross has strayed from its Catholic roots in recent years.

The group developed after four alumni, who graduated in the late 1940s, sent letters to 10,000 older alums alerting them to the increasing secularization of the school.

In an e-mail letter to several thousand alumni, which was also posted on his Web site, www.hccns.org, Mr. Melfa said that the column was "in direct violation of Catholic Church teaching" against homosexual acts. He demanded that an apology from the school be printed in the newspaper and also an article reflecting church teaching on homosexuality which Ms. Meyers refused to do.

The college has a standing policy to not censor the newspaper, Ms. Meyers said, and editors try not to print advertisements or articles that are considered offensive.

"The Crusader Opinions pages will never be restricted or censored, nor should those of any college newspaper," she wrote in the newspaper in response to Mr. Melfa's criticism. "To do so would be to go against the very aim and purpose of higher education, and should never be allowed."

The column continues to attract comments from alumni in a forum on the group's Web site.

An active alum

It wasn't the first time Mr. Melfa and the school didn't see eye to eye. Mr. Melfa started his group in reaction to a performance of The Vagina Monologues at Holy Cross on Ash Wednesday two years ago. The play is based on interviews with women talking about their bodies, sex and sexual fantasies, as well as sexual abuse. It was sponsored by the Women's Forum, a student organization.

Mr. Melfa said in a letter to alumni that the play went beyond vulgarity into pornography and that he would no longer contribute to the school. He also organized a protest.

The Rev. Michael C. McFarland, president of Holy Cross and a Jesuit priest, said at the time that the play had value because it helped raise awareness of violence against women. But he also said he would have chosen a different way to convey that message.

On his Web site, Mr. Melfa states that the permissive culture at Holy Cross is linked with the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church.

"Just as Catholics were remiss in not being more vigilant in pointing out the truth of what was often cloaked in silence, political correctness, amorality and permissiveness, alumni are just as guilty for not learning more and informing others of what is flourishing at the Catholic colleges in the name of progress, diversity and academic freedom."

He wants to inform alumni and others considering contributions "of the true state of affairs at Holy Cross so they can make more informed decisions about their support of our college."

Ms. Meyers, who is heterosexual, said she decided to write the column supporting gay marriage to raise awareness and spark discussion on campus about homosexuality. "We're a small college and very homogeneous. There is a strong sentiment that people are very uncomfortable talking about homosexuality."

Trying to provoke

She tries to make her columns provocative. "The atmosphere here can be dormant it's easy to take a 'behind the gates' attitude and not look at difficult issues," Ms. Meyers said.

Your Turn:

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An alliance of gay and straight students and faculty is also trying to raise awareness on the issue of homosexuality. The group, called Allies, is distributing rainbow-colored stickers to students to display on their doors in the dormitories. Displaying the sticker "means you believe every person should be treated with dignity and respect," say posters promoting the effort.

Senior Liam McRell, an Allies leader, says anti-homosexual incidents, including slurs shouted at students, continue to occur on campus, but the atmosphere is improving. "We've come a long way," he said.

In another united front, leaders from several student groups organized an anti-hate march around the campus after racist slurs were scrawled in the halls of a senior apartment complex during the Columbus Day break.

Leaders from the Black Student Union, the Student Government Association, the Women's Forum and other groups joined forces to coordinate the November event, in which hundreds of students participated.

"We needed to break the culture of silence that was the basis of the march," said senior Alix Dejean, president of the Black Student Union, who spoke at the rally.

"It was an amazing event. It was beautiful, just to see that many people come out for the march," said Mr. Dejean, 21, a political science major.

The war in Iraq also provoked response from students and alumni, as well as a debate over the presence of military on campus. Last spring, a large anti-war banner was hung over the top of Dinand Library. About the same time, a group of students and alumni protested the campus-based ROTC program.

The Holy Cross-Military Free Network also protested the choice of Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine lieutenant general, as the 2003 Hanify-Howland Memorial Lecturer, a prestigious event that has included other distinguished alumni. The group also organized a peace memorial to anti-war activist Philip Berrigan, a 1950 graduate of Holy Cross.

Mr. Trainor, a 1951 graduate of Holy Cross, spoke about reconciling the realities of a world in which evil exists with the ideals of Christian faith and the principle of a "just war."

He noted that Holy Cross has a distinguished military heritage and two alumni including a Jesuit chaplain who received the Medal of Honor. "We've given our lives for our country and in just wars," he said, referring to Holy Cross alumni, according to The Crusader.

Alumni were involved in another controversy in May over the choice of one of their own as commencement speaker. MSNBC's Chris Matthews was invited to address the graduating seniors of 2003 and to receive an honorary degree. The selection drew criticism, however, because Mr. Matthews, who graduated from Holy Cross in 1967, supports abortion rights.

The bishop of Worcester boycotted the commencement, which attracted a group of protesters.

In his speech, the host of NBC's The Chris Matthews Show and MSNBC's Hardball said that arguing political issues had a long tradition at Holy Cross. During his years at the college, he earned the nickname "Arguing Matthews," because every night he would go to the cafeteria to "buy a Coke, hang out and talk politics."

Debating difficult issues and examining different points of view are essential to a college education, Ms. Meyers said.

"We're at a time in our lives when we have a unique opportunity to explore all different angles."