Justin Peligri: Campus religious groups are no place for politics

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Justin Peligri

Everyone has an opinion. I share mine on a regular basis through my columns on this page.

And last week, a group of students, supported by Newman Catholic Student Center chaplain Father Greg Shaffer, shared their thoughts with the community in what they called a peaceful demonstration opposing abortion.

Students should be able to stand up for a cause that they believe in. A university should be a safe haven for free expression, even on controversial subjects that we don’t all agree on, like abortion.

But on a campus as eclectic as this one, it’s also important that students feel as though their views on faith are both respected and represented. Groups like the Newman Center, which are generously funded by the University and the Student Association, have a religious purpose on campus – not a social or political one. The chaplain is there to hold religious services, offer communion for interested students and foster a sense of community among Catholics at GW. Contentious national political issues should be outside of the Catholic Student Center’s purview.

Apparently they don’t think so.

To get more students involved in spiritual life on campus, numerous religious groups, including the GW Catholics, are joining together to participate in interfaith-related activities, which they hope will broaden their support base. The Interfaith Council is hosting religious activities, but it’s also thinking out of the box by incorporating community service into its programming.

Through their demonstration, the Catholics are negating their own efforts to attract members. They inadvertently ostracize students who may be interested in the services that the Newman Center offers, but feel uncomfortable participating because their political stances do not align.

It’s no secret that the Catholic Church formally and outwardly opposes marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose. But the purpose of an on-campus religious organization should be to help students living away from home safely practice their faith, not to participate in divisive political debate.

Politics has a place on our campus. The College Republicans and College Democrats can and should hold debates about abortion rights and advocate for their positions all they want.

But GW Catholics, it’s not your job to enter the political fray, especially on a college campus that strives to be inclusive and open-minded.

This isn’t the first time that the Newman Center has found itself in the midst of controversy as a result of Father Shaffer’s vocal involvement in social issues. Last May, he wrote a blog post aggressively stating his opposition to the legalization of marriage equality.

With offensive comments like this, it’s no wonder LGBT students felt the need to form their own more inclusive Catholic organization on campus, Dignity GW, last October. It’s great that members of the LGBT community who also happen to be Catholic have a place to come together and practice their faith, but it’s a shame that so many people feel unwelcome from the central Catholic group on campus.

There’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even if it incites controversy. In fact, I’m sure the views I have expressed in this column will come off as contentious to some readers.

But if the Newman Center does not want to alienate students, it’s going to have to tone down its message.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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