The University of Nottingham refused to acknowledge the appointment of Catholic Chaplain, Father David Palmer, following concerns over the manner in which he has expressed his religious belief online. Comments made on Twitter regarding abortion and euthanasia were brought to the University’s attention, causing deep concern over “the manner in which these views have been expressed.” Although I disagree with Father David Palmer’s controversial opinions, I welcome them and the conversation which they have sparked.
As a multi-faith society, the University of Nottingham prides itself on inclusivity: it is “a community where everyone can contribute and be appreciated for who they are.” This notion is expressed within the University’s Equality and Diversity Policy, one by which both staff and students are expected to abide.
However, despite the University’s commitment to pluralism, concerns have been raised over Father David Palmer’s recent social media posts on abortion and euthanasia. The University cited the manner in which he expressed his religious opinions as the reason for their decision to break tradition, refusing to acknowledge the Chaplain’s appointment.
The Times reports that Father David Palmer was asked by the University to use more inclusive terminology when voicing his views online, yet he regarded this as “unacceptable policing of religious belief” and refused
Using Twitter, Father David Palmer expressed his belief that euthanasia – assisted dying – is “to kill the vulnerable.” While criticising US President Joe Biden in a later Tweet, Father David Palmer also referred to abortion as the “slaughter of babies.” Both comments have since been removed from the site.
The Times reports that Father David Palmer was asked by the University to use more inclusive terminology when voicing his views online, yet he regarded this as “unacceptable policing of religious belief” and refused. Having reviewed both Catholic teachings and authorities, Father David Palmer’s criticism of the University’s response may be justified.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a central document detailing Catholic belief. As stated here, euthanasia is believed to constitute “a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person,” and “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” Despite the University’s claims that the manner in which these views have been expressed online is concerning “in the context of [their] community of people of many faiths,” Father David Palmer does not divulge from Catholic teaching in opinion nor language. His use of dialect is synonymous with central authorities, and his choice to use social media to “[preach] the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ” is acting in tandem with the mission of the Catholic Church. If the issue lies predominantly with the latter, the University’s Policy should be revised to reflect this and extend to all University Chaplains with a strong social media presence.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights reported that too often controversial debates are shut down rather than allowing students to confront them
In reflection of this, one must ask whether the real issue lies with the controversy of Father David Palmer’s beliefs themselves, and whether the University’s actions constitute unlawful censorship of the Catholic faith.
The University of Nottingham and the Students’ Union risk contributing to growing concerns regarding censorship on university campuses. The Joint Committee on Human Rights reported that too often controversial debates are shut down rather than allowing students to confront them; “there is a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities.” Chaired by Harriet Harman, the Committee raised its concerns that safe-space policies on campuses are “problematic” in that they “often lead to the marginalisation of minority groups’ views.”
Should the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, requiring universities to defend free speech and “to help stamp out unlawful silencing”, be implemented, the University’s actions would be deemed unlawful
Father David Palmer’s failed appointment is not the first incident whereby the University of Nottingham has been seen to censor Catholic belief, having suspended Julia Rynkiewicz from her hospital placements for almost four months due to her involvement in ‘Nottingham Students for Life’. The Society was also initially denied affiliation by the Students’ Union until they threatened to take legal action.
The University maintained that they “support the rights of all students to bodily autonomy and access to safe, legal abortion services, which is the position in Law”, yet failed to address concerns over the ability of its staff and students to speak freely without repercussions. Should the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, requiring universities to defend free speech and “to help stamp out unlawful silencing”, be implemented, the University’s actions would be deemed unlawful. This legislation would extend to both the University of Nottingham and the Students’ Union as the Bill hasn’t come into force yet.
Exposure to controversial opinions sparks emotional debate; this should be welcomed and not avoided. The controversy surrounding Father David Palmer’s religious beliefs, and the manner in which they were expressed, does not justify the University’s decision. Our cognitive and spiritual development is reliant on our ability to access platforms where we may freely debate our conflicting opinions. Listening to views that do not align with our own does not mean that we are agreeing with these beliefs, but rather that we are learning from them. We are expanding our awareness and coming into our own.
I disagree with Father David Palmer’s opinions on abortion and euthanasia. I am pro-choice. I do not, however, resent his use of social media to express his religious belief. In fact, I welcome it. By refusing to allow those with differing beliefs to speak freely in multi-faith settings, we are fulfilling the snowflake stereotype; “easily offended and lacking resilience.” As the COVID-19 Generation, we are anything but.
To develop our moral compass, we must first be exposed to opinions with which we disagree. We must speak up for what we believe in, and out against what we believe is harmful. Most importantly, we must educate those who are unfamiliar with our perspectives and listen as others seek to educate us. Any conflict of opinion is an opportunity to grow; how else are we to learn what we do and do not agree with?
To borrow the words of Ann Furedi, former CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (‘BPAS’), we should “let Catholic students decide individually if they want [Father David Palmer’s] counsel.” After all, we are encouraged to explore divergent opinions within our university studies. This should be no different.
At the time of writing, the University of Nottingham had yet to comment further on the situation. They have since reversed their decision, and have introduced a revised Chaplaincy recognition procedure. Father David Palmer will commence his work on campus with immediate effect.
Note from the editors: A version of this article was printed in Impact’s issue #268 this December which was edited before publication. This resulted in the piece inadvertently expressing views that did not reflect the author’s own. This version is entirely unchanged.
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