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Abortion Issue Sets Off Dispute at L.A. College

Group insists speakers at a Catholic school should back church's positions.

May 07, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Traditionalists have ignited a debate among Catholics over the selection of Congresswomen Loretta and Linda Sanchez -- both of whom favor abortion rights -- as Saturday's commencement speakers at a Catholic college in Los Angeles.

The two have been targeted by the Virginia-based Cardinal Newman Society, which also this year has challenged Catholic college graduation speakers around the country -- including a governor, a Supreme Court justice and a host of a political talk show -- who hold views contradictory to church teachings.

Members of the society and antiabortion Catholic groups plan to picket Saturday's graduation ceremony at Mount St. Mary's College, a 74-year-old school for women with campuses in Brentwood and near downtown Los Angeles.

"I cannot believe they did not know the position of the Sanchez sisters on abortion," said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, whose stated mission is to strengthen Catholic identity at Catholic colleges. "It's part of their political persona. The Catholic universities and colleges, if they consider themselves Catholic, must be consistent with church teachings."

Officials at Mount St. Mary's -- whose enrollment includes more than 45% Latino students -- say that the Sanchez sisters were selected because they represent women of immigrant heritage who rose to national prominence in public service and that the invitation "does not imply an endorsement of their political views."

"I know Linda and Loretta, and they are just wonderful people," said U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter, who sits on the college's Board of Trustees and for whom Linda Sanchez was a student law clerk.

"These two young women set the national standard by being the first sisters to sit in Congress together. [The controversy] is really unfortunate."

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood) said she believes the protest has been manufactured by antiabortion special interest groups.

"I'm a little puzzled by it, to be honest with you," Sanchez said. Saturday's joint address by the sisters is "not a political thing to promote someone's agenda, it's a commencement speech to inspire people."

But abortion foes within the church say the politicians are a poor choice, especially after Pope John Paul II issued a statement earlier this year insisting that Catholic politicians cannot be faithful if they dissent from basic church positions such as no abortion.

"It's like the NAACP inviting David Duke to their commencement, saying it doesn't like his views of race, but on transportation issues, he's great," said Joe Starrs, a protest organizer and director of the Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church, part of the Virginia-based American Life League.

Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society said the selection is particularly troubling because of the many potential speakers who would inspire students and who uphold church teachings.

"These Catholic institutions are holding up these individuals in an honored position. How seriously does the church takes its own teachings?" said Reilly, who estimates about 10% of the nation's 223 Catholic colleges host commencement speakers who have views in contradiction to the church.

Judge Hatter and college President Jacqueline Powers Doud said the congresswomen's positions on abortion weren't brought up when the school's trustees approved their selection. Instead, board members concentrated on the two Latinas' success stories and their contributions to working families, immigrants and homeland security.

"We were framing [the selection] on those kinds of things," said Doud, whose two-campus college -- founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet -- has 2,000 students, more than 75% of them minorities.

Jennifer McCreight, a 22-year-old senior, said students are looking forward to hearing from the congresswomen, and she thinks special interest groups are exploiting the situation. However, she did admit that her family was disturbed by the choice and an uncle was boycotting the ceremonies.

"My family is pretty upset," said McCreight, adding that the sisters' role isn't to debate church doctrine but to inspire the students. Besides, she says, Jesus would welcome the Sanchezes with open arms. "It's un-Catholic to be giving these girls so much grief."

The American Life League asked Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to stop the congresswomen from speaking. Though the college is located within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, it's an independent institution not under the cardinal's control. But an archdiocesan official said Loretta Sanchez's position on abortion is "troubling."

"Catholic institutions of higher learning should always be guided by the moral values of our church's tradition," said spokesman Tod Tamberg. "A cornerstone value, of course, is the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death. Loretta Sanchez's outspoken record on abortion rights is troubling."

When she heard about the controversy, Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) volunteered to give up her speaker role, an offer refused by the college, her press secretary said.

"They didn't waver at all," said Carrie Brooks, the spokeswoman for Sanchez.

Other commencement speakers who support abortion rights and are scheduled to speak this year at Catholic colleges include Vermont Gov. James Douglas at the College of St. Joseph in his home state; Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at Boston College Law School; and Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Robles, a senior senator of Mount St. Mary's student body, said critics of the Catholic speakers are clouding the issues.

"The Sanchez sisters are invited here to empower the seniors, to show Latina women who made it so far," said the 21-year-old. "They're speakers here because of their success, not because of their view on abortion."

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