The denial of the Society of Freethinkers as an official University of Dayton student organization comes down to that little word with a big meaning, according to the Rev. Jim Fitz, S.M., university rector and vice president for mission.
“The concern we have is that SOFT has denied the faith side of the discussion, not allowing that to be part of the discussion,” Fitz said.
According to Fitz, the university is built on the tenet of “searching for truth, grounded in faith and reason.”
It is under that qualification that SOFT, a group in which a majority of its members identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, has been denied official recognition. Flyer News published a story on Friday, Feb. 8, about SOFT’s third denial in two years to become an official, university-recognized student organization.
Fitz said he has not been directly involved with the decision-making process regarding SOFT over the past two years, but has been consulted throughout. According to Fitz, SOFT will not have a chance to re-apply for recognition at this time.
The debate surrounding SOFT’s attempts to become a student organization is not black and white, Fitz said. It is filled with complexities, he added, comparing it to the national debate on gun control laws.
“In that debate, I think people of goodwill differ on where to draw the line, to which side to give attention or the most weight to, the common good or individual rights,” Fitz said. “And so there are decisions that are not black and white, but are open and you just have to make a decision. Those of us who made this decision feel we have to uphold our search for truth, grounded in faith and reason.”
According to Fitz, the university has reached out numerous times to SOFT to allow the group to hold public forums or panels on an issue of the group’s choice in conjunction with Student Development or Campus Ministry.
Fitz did say that he has never had any direct contact with SOFT or its leaders, but that’s because the issue should be handled at the level of Student Development or Campus Ministry, which Fitz was in charge of from 1998-2002.
This debate is not exclusive to UD, according to Fitz.
DePaul University has a university-recognized secular student group. Notre Dame University and Duquesne University have both ruled similarly to UD and turned down secular groups for recognition.
The issue of whether SOFT was denied due to going against Catholic values is not necessarily the case, Fitz said. He pointed out that there are student organizations that promote religions that differ from Catholicism.
“I think as a Catholic university, we have not forced our Catholic faith on any faculty, staff or student,” Fitz said. “No one is ostracized for their belief. No one has ever been expelled from the university because they have expressed a skeptical or agnostic point of view.
“On the other hand, when you say this is a ‘University of Dayton group,’ it implies endorsement of the university’s administration on that opinion. … I think everyone can understand that there are values on both sides here and reasonable people can disagree on what weight to give those values. At this point, we feel we cannot endorse a group that would go against one of our common themes of the university.”
It is this denial of faith that has SOFT contemplating what to do next after this third, and apparently final, attempt at recognition.
In the Feb. 8 issue of Flyer News, SOFT leader Branden King said while disappointed with the decision, he understands the university has the right to deny SOFT recognition. King would just like SOFT to have some kind of voice on campus.
“We want to be part of the interfaith dialogue,” King told Flyer News.
Fitz agreed, saying he wants to move past any conflict or confrontation to a point of productive dialogue and discussion.\