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I am a very proud alumnus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I earned a bachelor’s degree there, I earned a master’s degree there, I met my wife there, and I was formed, intellectually, spiritually, and personally, there. Scott Hahn has called Franciscan a “greenhouse for holiness.” The lives of alumni engaged in missionary and charitable apostolates across the globe are evidence for that claim.

I’m particularly proud of my alma mater’s commitment to promoting the dignity of human life. Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR, the university’s extraordinary past president, spent time in jail during the days of Operation Rescue. Students pray at abortion clinics and hold baby showers for disadvantaged pregnant women. The Crossroads pro-life apostolate was founded there. The remains of five aborted children are entombed on campus. And hundreds of students travel annually to demonstrate in the March for Life.

Franciscan alumni, including a congressman, physicians, academics, and religious leaders, are among American Catholicism’s most vocal pro-life leaders.

In the past few days, a small fracas has emerged over the university’s 2012 conferral of an honorary doctorate upon Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and noted defender of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” On Tuesday, a report released from the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed a troubling picture of the CIA’s interrogation operations in the period following the September 11 bombings. The report implicated Hayden, suggesting that he authorized illegal tactics and willfully misrepresented information concerning CIA operations and their outcomes.

A petition has been circulated among Franciscan University alumni asking the university to rescind Mr. Hayden’s 2012 honorific. I received the petition from several friends, and I’ve spent a good deal of time considering whether I should attach my name.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”

I agree with Joe Carter, who has argued in First Things that forced waterboarding is a kind of torture. I also respect thinkers like Ross Douthat and Matthew Schmitz, who still seem to be working out where lines should be drawn. But some of the acts described in the Senate report are, by any human standard, indefensible brutalities.

Nevertheless, I’m not yet inclined to sign the petition asking that Mr. Hayden’s honorary degree be rescinded. I don’t know, as some have said, that the University should “repent” or denounce Hayden. By nature, I am uncomfortable with the idea of a post-facto denunciation. But Mr. Hayden is of little help to those who, like me, are inclined to counsel prudence. He disputes certain elements of the report, but his basic line of defense seems to be that barbarous acts were more effective than the Senate report admits. The utility of immorality is really not the question. The matter of the degree is a prudential judgment for the administration, and I trust that, if need be, the university will disavow his behavior with clarity. Disavowal, though, is probably the least important thing Franciscan University can do right now.

My admiration for Franciscan University comes down to her willingness to live the vocation of a prophetic witness. When it was commonly misunderstood, she witnessed to the power of the charismatic renewal. When it was openly mocked, the university witnessed to the authority and wisdom of Ex corde ecclesiae. And for more than forty years, she has witnessed to the dignity of every human life, created in the image of God.

Whatever the reason, Franciscan University is now associated with a man accused of sanctioning, facilitating, and hiding grave offenses against the dignity of the human person. The university has a new opportunity to offer a prophetic witness to the sanctity of human life.

Even without commenting on the Senate report, Franciscan University might immediately offer a strong statement affirming real Catholic principles of just war, human dignity, and universal human rights. In the spirit of St. Francis, Fr. Scanlan, and Pope St. John Paul II, she could condemn the consequentialist practice of torture, by any administration or agency, and propose something far greater.

Franciscan University has never challenged students and faculty to passable formalism with regard to the faith. The university has challenged her community, and the world, to holiness—to conduct far exceeding the minimum. The university can challenge the world to consider international relations—and even national defense—in the context of building John Paul II’s “civilization of love.” A prophetic witness to life—an exhortation to courage, holiness, and charity in matters of state—would be a worthy addition to the legacy of Franciscan University.

J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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