LOS ANGELES — Not three weeks have passed since Pope Francis said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, declaring, “We have to find a new balance.” But on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, overlooking this city’s west side, a fight over abortion now threatens to rip the school asunder.
Trustees of the Jesuit university will decide on Monday whether to remove coverage for elective abortions from the faculty and staff health care plans. The coming vote has exposed a deep rift over just how Catholic a Catholic university should be in the 21st century — and how to maintain that distinctive Catholic identity amid growing diversity on campus.
Religiously conservative professors and alumni argue that as the proportion of Catholics on campus — in the student body and on the faculty — has fallen in recent years, the university has lost touch with its Catholic identity. They have leaned hard on university officials to re-establish a more prominent role for Catholic doctrine at the university, starting with eliminating insurance coverage for abortions.
But the potential end of abortion coverage has sent a collective shiver through much of the faculty, who fear that it could also signal the end of an era in which non-Catholics have been wholeheartedly welcomed by the university and professors have enjoyed the academic freedom to teach theories that do not necessarily accord with Catholic doctrine. Both sides, however, have come to view Monday’s vote as symbolic of a battle for the university’s soul.
“Loyola Marymount has always represented tolerance, diversity and a welcoming atmosphere where we can exchange ideas openly,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at the law school. “If this represents a shift in what it means for Loyola to be a Catholic university, and being a Catholic university now means exclusion, I think Loyola would lose something very special. It could dramatically change who’s attracted to the university and what faculty want to be involved.”
Christopher Kaczor, a philosophy professor who described himself as a “faithful Catholic,” agreed that it was potentially a turning point in the university’s history.
“Part of the university’s mission is to promote justice,” Professor Kaczor said. “And in the Catholic tradition, abortion is considered a justice issue. So to say the university supports justice and then also pay for abortions is a contradiction.”
Loyola Marymount is hardly the only Catholic university wrestling with questions about its religious identity.
Across the country, the percentage of faculty members who are Catholic has been dropping for years, as nearly a third of Americans raised Catholic have left the church, prompting some colleges to aggressively recruit Catholic professors.
At Notre Dame in 2009, protests over President Obama’s appearance on campus because of his support for abortion rights led to more than a dozen arrests. Boston College, meanwhile, tried to ban students from distributing free condoms in dorms this year.
While Catholics still make up at least 70 percent of the student bodies at Boston College and Notre Dame, only about half of incoming freshmen at Loyola Marymount identified themselves as Catholic this year. The percentage of Catholics on the faculty here has fallen well below 50 percent, according to university officials’ estimates. Students said there were few reminders that they attended a Catholic university at all, aside from the glistening white church at the center of campus or the occasional cross on a classroom wall.
And in 2010, David W. Burcham, a Presbyterian, was appointed president of Loyola Marymount — the first non-Catholic president of any Jesuit university in the country, according to school officials.
David Luke, an alumnus, said Loyola Marymount’s drift away from its Catholic roots has reached a crisis point.
This year, Mr. Luke helped found an organization called “Renew LMU,” which has pushed the administration to enroll more Catholic students and hire more Catholic faculty members (in 1990, Pope John Paul II issued a directive that at least half the faculty members at Catholic universities should be Catholic). Mr. Luke said that support for human life was central to Catholic teachings and that only professors who are against abortion should be allowed to hold certain posts on campus, like director of the Bioethics Institute.
“We are concerned about the overall Catholic character,” Mr. Luke said. “Secular faculty are welcome on a Catholic campus, but it’s incumbent on those faculty to inform themselves of Catholic teaching and show some amount of respect.”
In August, Mr. Burcham sent a letter to faculty and staff members saying that since 1988, the school had repeatedly inquired with its health insurance companies about whether it would be possible to drop coverage for elective abortions from the faculty health plan. Until this year, the answer had always been no. But this summer, the letter said, the insurance companies agreed to drop the coverage, and the trustees would vote on it in October.
An uproar soon followed.
Last week, dozens of faculty members signed a full-page advertisement in the student newspaper, The Los Angeles Loyolan, urging the trustees to maintain abortion coverage. Privately, professors without tenure expressed concern that they could scuttle their careers if they spoke up; some have started looking for other jobs.
“For a lot of us, it looks like some of our worst fears about teaching at a Catholic university are coming true,” said Anna Harrison, a tenured professor of Christian history.
Like other Jesuit schools, Loyola Marymount has welcomed scholars of all faiths. Condoms are not distributed on campus, but professors have been free to post stickers advocating abortion rights on their office doors. A performance of “8,” a play about the fight for same-sex marriage in California, was held on campus last year, over objections from religious conservatives.
Professor Harrison feared that Monday’s vote could mean the end of that free intellectual exploration.
“If teachers are going to become more cautious and less creative in the classroom, then it’s the students who will lose out,” she said. “We don’t want faculty who are afraid to embrace the complexity and richness of the subjects they’re teaching.”
Though Mr. Burcham has refused to comment publicly before the vote, his administration has also steadfastly insisted that whatever the result, academic freedom at the university will not be jeopardized.
“Faculty and staff have, and will continue to have, the right to express their strongly held beliefs and principles, and to pursue their scholarship wherever it may lead them,” said one statement from the president’s office. “Our commitment to academic freedom is at the very heart of what we do at Loyola Marymount University.”