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Catholic college official in hot seat for comments about allowing ‘students for choice’ club on campus

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A Wisconsin pro-life organization has taken issue with Viterbo University, a Franciscan Catholic college, for comments a school official made suggesting a willingness to allow an abortion rights group on campus.

The comments came to light after Pro-Life Wisconsin — a lobbying and educational organization — released a recording it obtained of the school’s executive director of mission and social justice saying she “would love to say yes to the club.” The official, Sister Laura Nettles, also discusses “curtailing” a student pro-life group.

“According to their website, what makes Viterbo Catholic is ‘a commitment to upholding the gospel understanding of the sacredness of all human life,’” Anna DeMeuse, Pro-Life Wisconsin’s communications director, wrote on the group’s website Aug. 25. Nettles’ comments, however, “raise suspicion over the validity of this commitment.”

She added: “It is long past time for these institutions to reclaim their Catholic identity and boldly profess the teachings of the Catholic faith, the Gospel of Life, without apology.”

Nettles and other administrators say her comments at an employee convocation were taken out of context, insisting that the roughly 2,500-student school in La Crosse remains strongly pro-life.

Rick Trietley, Viterbo University’s president, told CNA that Nettles’ remarks were “part of an informal discussion that doesn’t reflect the context of the presentation, which focused on why Catholic identity is so important at Viterbo University.”

“As a Catholic institution,” he said in a statement, “we embrace the words of His Holiness Pope Francis, who once eloquently said: ‘All life has inestimable value, even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn, and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.’”

DeMeuse, of Pro-Life Wisconsin, declined to comment on the school’s responses.

What was said on the recording

Nettles — a member of the school’s founding order, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration — spoke during the Aug. 22 convocation about a student’s request to establish a “Students for Choice” club on campus.

“I would love to say yes to the club, but I asked him if he would be willing to consider a different name like a ‘Health Club’ or ‘Reproductive Rights’ club,” Nettles says on the recording.

“What the student described he wanted to do in the club was to really advocate for women’s rights in health care to which I said, ‘amen’ to,” the religious sister continues. “So the question was whether he would be willing to think of a different title for it but do much of the same work.”

Nettles says on the recording that the “pro-life, pro-choice issue is a hot-button issue in the Church,” adding that using the term “pro-choice” in the club’s name is “a bit of a challenge.”

On the recording, someone in the meeting can be heard asking Nettles if the student pro-life club, V-Hawks for Life, should have to change its name. She replies that the club does not have to change its name because the Catholic Church is pro-life.

“However … we are significantly curtailing their activities — what they can do, what they can’t do; they have to actually jump through a lot of hoops to be able to do what they do, in a way that doesn’t feel great either,” Nettles says on the recording.

“But we want to make sure that they have a right to share what they do as would a reproductive-rights group that might be supporting access to abortions as a right. But we want to make sure that it’s done in a tasteful way, in a way that invites dialogue and doesn’t just alienate and anger,” she said.

“And I think certainly … the way that V-Hawks for Life ended last year — with a poorly timed display and how they went about it — that’s not going to happen again this year. Right, that was something that we needed to change.”

The recording, which lasts less than four minutes, ends with Nettles saying that V-Hawks for Life can keep its name but the group has to follow a certain set of rules.

Why curtail a pro-life group?

CNA interviewed Nettles about the controversy via email. She said her remarks were taken out of context and she criticized Pro-Life Wisconsin for not reaching out to her for comment.

Nettles told CNA she explained to the student that he could start a club that would advocate for high-quality women’s health care but not abortion or contraception.

Sister Laura Nettles, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and administrative official at Viterbo University, was recorded in an employee meeting indicating that she would favor hosting a "students for choice" club on campus. She says her remarks were taken out of context. Screenshot YouTube video
Sister Laura Nettles, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and administrative official at Viterbo University, was recorded in an employee meeting indicating that she would favor hosting a “students for choice” club on campus. She says her remarks were taken out of context. Screenshot YouTube video

She added that she strongly supports the V-Hawks for Life club and considers herself proudly pro-life. She also said that her response in the recording about curtailing the V-Hawks for Life included curtailing activities from all student clubs that are not officially approved by the school.

“To be clear, Viterbo University will not allow a pro-choice club to form on our campus, as it would be a direct contradiction to Catholic teachings,” Nettles stressed.

Kirsten Gabriel, dean of students and vice president of student life at Viterbo, told CNA that when Nettles spoke about “curtailing” the pro-life club she was referring to a new policy for all clubs that prohibits the presence of individuals not affiliated with the university at “tabling” events.

A tabling event is a display table hosted by a student club, around which the members hand out literature and engage with students.

V-Hawks for Life held such an event in May that included a display with information on pregnancy and parenting resources, information on the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, and an explanation of certain abortion procedures. A representative of Students for Life of America, a pro-life advocacy group, was present at the event.

Danielle Smits, president of V-Hawks for Life at Viterbo University. Courtesy of Danielle Smits
Danielle Smits, president of V-Hawks for Life at Viterbo University. Courtesy of Danielle Smits

Danielle Smits, president of V-Hawks for Life, told CNA she feels the rule singles out the pro-life club because of its dealings with Students for Life of America. Smits said she was hurt to hear Nettles speak on the recording about possibly allowing a club that advocates for abortion rights on campus.

Smits said that Nettles told her that the leaked recording was an edited version of what she said.

“I don’t know who to believe, but if there is a movement to create this so-called ‘Health Club’ that promotes abortion on our Catholic campus, you can believe I will not be quiet,” said Smits, a 20-year-old junior.

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Catholic college official in hot seat for comments about allowing ‘students for choice’ club on campus