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Posted July 8, 2011

Resisting the climate of fear

Responding to editors' requests for a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press, here is an editorial titled "Resisting the climate of fear," which appeared in the July 6 issue of The Record, weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Perth, Australia. It was written by Peter Rosengren, editor.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI last September during his four-day visit to the United Kingdom, is famously associated with an idea of what a university is and what it should attempt to be -- both for those who seek education within its confines and for the society in which it exists.

The name of Newman, an Oxford Anglican who famously arrived at Catholicism after setting out on a quest to prove that Anglicanism was part of the Catholic Church, is now almost synonymous with the idea of a university as the locus of intellectual development. The Newmanic vision of a university is most notably set out in sections of his magnum opus, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," and in the series of Dublin lectures that were eventually published as "The Idea of a University."

Newman had a deep faith in and intellectual, rational vision of the importance of truth for its own sake which he saw could not possibly conflict with Christianity and the Gospel. He very clearly foresaw the dangers of stagnation which could quickly develop if those who proposed new theories, methods or approaches perceived that authority or others who disagree were waiting to pounce on the slightest perceived error.

Newman's name is therefore synonymous with intellectual freedom in the service of the primacy of truth and around the world today there are numerous university societies and residential colleges which bear the name of this intellectual giant of 19th-century English Catholicism, scholarship and letters.

The hallowed name of Newman came to mind in an unexpected way in the recent controversy generated by the visit of English peer Lord Monckton and his speech at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle.

When it came to the crunch over Lord Monckton's speech, the University of Notre Dame Australia did what many other institutions in Australia, including not a few universities, probably would not do: It not only talked the talk of academic freedom, it walked the walk. In doing so, the university's vice chancellor, Celia Hammond, and College of Business executive dean, professor Chris Doepel, resisted a considerable degree of blatantly attempted intimidation from within academia on the part of those who could not tolerate the idea that an Australian university would ever host a talk by an individual skeptical of their version of climate change. The intolerant demanded tolerance -- but only of their view.

Therefore, among the really illuminating lessons of the controversy were not only the importance (and example) of academic courage in the service of concepts such as the very idea of a university and its service to intellectual progress, but the way in which, by attempting to bludgeon Notre Dame into canceling his speech, anti-Monckton protesters looked very much as if they were confirming the British peer's point about the seemingly innate totalitarian tendencies of many fervent believers in climate change.

It was remarkable, bordering on amazing, to read the open letter penned by University of Western Australia doctoral student Natalie Latter, signed by approximately 50 fellow students and academics, leading the charge against Lord Monckton's speech and calling on Notre Dame to cancel the whole event. Not to put too fine a point on it, the extraordinarily vehement Ms. Latter, together with her fellow students and academics, bluntly attempted to shut down academic freedom via intimidation. Oddly, it seemed to escape Ms. Latter and the outraged academics that as they claimed the moral high ground of defending good science they were, in effect, acting to preserve their own view on climate change from criticism and scrutiny.

It seemed to escape them collectively that Lord Monckton's jibe in reference to the Third Reich was, at worst, eccentric in the way that British peers are famous for, a la P.G. Wodehouse, but nevertheless precisely a point about totalitarianism in intellectual matters. But Ms. Latter, a doctoral student in philosophy, clearly misconstrued it literally; she just didn't get it.

Remarkable. It almost seemed as if the "climatistas" were not really interested in the principle of intellectual and academic freedom at all. It was obvious that they entirely missed the point that having Lord Monckton deliver his speech at Notre Dame did not constitute endorsement of his criticisms and theories by the university at all.

Rather, hosting his speech contributed to discussion and argument on an issue which is by no means settled, as, just to pick one example, the very interesting recent paper on "Analysis of the Impacts of Station Exposure on the U.S. Historical Climatology Network Temperatures and Temperature Trends" by John Nielsen-Gammon of the department of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, together with six colleagues at a variety of universities (accepted for publishing in the Journal of Geophysical Research in March this year) shows.

It was also remarkable to consider how often many academics attack the Catholic Church as close-minded and opposed to truth and reason when every reading of history confirms that not only the inventor of universities and the Western tradition of scholarship, but their greatest defender as well, is none other than the church.

Strangely, it is academics in their remote theoretical laboratories who are most prone to becoming the fiercest foes of the academic freedom (of their opponents) which they so loudly trumpet.

By contrast, Vice Chancellor Hammond and Dean Doepel, faced with mounting pressure, internally and externally, took the courageous course. In doing so, they honored not only the principle of intellectual freedom but the very idea of a university as set out by Blessed John Henry Newman and the idea of a university still most widely valued around the world. They are in good company.

Notre Dame and those who organized Lord Monckton's speech, therefore, are to be congratulated for refusing to bow to a pseudo-intellectual lynch mob masquerading as the acceptable face of public opinion.