27 November 2011


I have sort of an update on the religious liberty issue here at Vanderbilt, at least as it pertains to Vanderbilt Catholic. Many of you have been asking and praying about the situation. I thank you very much for your concern. It is something to be concerned about.

I had a meeting with the Provost of the University on Tuesday afternoon. It was a good meeting. I am certain that the administration wants Vanderbilt Catholic to remain an active presence on campus. They are also insistent about applying their non-discrimination policy to religious organizations. (Of course, they are not applying the policy uniformly. The university actually administers the discriminatory recruitment procedures for Greek organizations. It is called "rush.") Religious organizations are going to have to deal with the non-discrimination policy as it stands. The Provost asked if we could accommodate ourselves to this policy. I replied that it all depends on what the words say.

For membership and leadership of Vanderbilt Catholic, I am sure that we could craft some statement that would result practically in only Catholic leaders for the organization. But we would be doing so hypocritically, saying that these factors of time or service are of utmost importance when our religious mission is what our leaders need to embrace. We are not willing to act hypocritically.

It came to me, I believe as an inspiration, to work with our student Board on a statement for our constitution on membership and leadership that is based on the mission of Vanderbilt Catholic. We are crafting a mission statement that is strongly Catholic. It really expresses why Vanderbilt Catholic exists on the campus. Vanderbilt Catholic will be open to "all comers" who support the mission. I think that I can live with this. We will see if the Bishop and the administration can.

It is basically analogous to the chess club saying that it exists to promote chess on campus. Someone coming to the chess club looking for fellowship in cigar smoking could be directed to the cigar smoking club (there is one!), but the chess club would remain for chess.

If this fails, I really do not see what else we can do to stay on campus with integrity. I believe, however, that our constitution defining membership and leadership in terms of mission will be acceptable. I also believe that it will give Vanderbilt Catholic a stronger identity. I believe that other religious organizations could follow this example to remain on campus while strengthening their mission and identity as well. So please pray in particular about this proposal because it all depends on what the words say!

P.S. How 'bout them 'Dores!

15 November 2011


I wanted to share with you the type of inquiry I receive all the time. This came in yesterday:

"I am a VU alum and college counselor; one of our seniors should be a viable applicant to VU--her academic record certainly outclasses the one I presented. She and her mother have inquired about the Catholic community at Vanderbilt and I told her I'd reach out to you. Is it all right for that family to contact you with their specific questions?"

I love Vanderbilt. I was born here -- literally! It actually goes beyond that. My parents met here. I went to law school here. I am even I life-long Vandy football fan, and I can't want for the 'Dores to take on UT in Knoxville this weekend. When inquiries like this come in, I am proud to say that we have a vibrant Catholic community which compares well with peer institutions, particularly because it is substantial and not merely social. And the university gets all of this for free!

12 November 2011

What Happened?

A number of people reasonably have asked what happened with the Board of Trustees' meeting. The honest answer is that I don't know. But I do have hope in the goodness of the Trustees and of the administration that a solution can be worked out that will allow religious groups, including Vanderbilt Catholic, to remain on campus with integrity. Keep praying!

08 November 2011

Replies to a Trustee

Here are my replies to thoughtful questions from a trustee:

1. I do not really fear a "take-over" of Vanderbilt Catholic, although that is a possibility under this change of policy. What I do fear is the inconsistency of the university in applying its policy. Having religious qualifications for leadership in religious groups had been an acceptable practice only a short while ago. Now it is declared discriminatory. I fear what the university will decide is discriminatory tomorrow. I do fear this inconsistent and arbitrary application of policy by the university.

2. Let me frame the issue differently. I believe that religious organizations should be allowed to be authentically religious and not have to "cloak" what are really religious qualifications in some of the ways you describe. Vanderbilt Catholic must act with integrity, not figure out a way to "get around" unjust policies. A religious organization should be able to establish qualifications for leadership based on its core beliefs and mission. Religious organizations should not be singled out and told that they cannot be what they are -- religious. The one sin that Jesus was harsh about was hypocrisy. I am not willing to take a hypocritical pose for the sake of this policy.

This is a matter of principle. I have only so much room, or I lose my integrity as a religious witness. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, I am a good servant of Vanderbilt...but God's first.

04 November 2011

Letter to Chancellor Zeppos

October 24, 2011

Mr. Nicholas Zeppos


Vanderbilt University

211 Kirkland Hall

Dear Chancellor Zeppos:

I hope that you had an enjoyable Homecoming weekend. The campus is certainly a vibrant place with the alumni back. Vanderbilt Catholic was delighted to have a part in welcoming alumni as well. It is gratifying to see that for many alumni admiration for the work of Vanderbilt Catholic is included in the pride that they have for their university. The same spirit of collaboration between the ministry and the university is evident at Move-In Day and Family Weekend as well as when prospective students and families are visiting campus for the first time or later when they are weighing their acceptances. I am likewise proud that Vanderbilt Catholic offers so much to the life of the university, from a tailgate before the game Saturday, to Mass last night, to a lecture on Thursday at noon, to staffing the first Room in the Inn of the year in a couple of weeks.

In light of such fruitful collaboration, it is all the more distressing to see the relationship between the university and Vanderbilt Catholic threatened by the application of the university’s non-discrimination policy to forbid religious qualification for leadership in religious student organizations. The proposed application will restrict freedom and diversity in student life by jeopardizing authentic religious expression. For the good of the university, I am writing to urge you to reconsider the application of the non-discrimination policy to allow for religious qualifications for leadership in religious student organizations.

The constitution of Vanderbilt Catholic has been found in compliance with the non-discrimination policy by the Dean of Students office, but I think the approval is based on an interpretation of the constitution that Vanderbilt Catholic does not share. Vanderbilt Catholic changed its constitution last year at the regular renewal time. At the time the student leaders simplified aspects of the constitution partially, in their words, "to get it on one page!" The submission of the new constitution was well before the current controversy, and no one at Vanderbilt Catholic considered the implications of the leadership requirements requested by the dean’s office. It was too far from experience to imagine someone other than a practicing Catholic qualifying for a leadership role. Vanderbilt Catholic reasonably interprets its constitution to recognize that only practicing Catholic students qualify for leadership. Such students have always comprised the leadership, and this requirement is implicit in the mission of Vanderbilt Catholic.

The university is proposing unilaterally to decide who is qualified to represent the Catholic faith on campus. According to the proposed interpretation of the non-discrimination policy, the university maintains that any student is qualified to lead Vanderbilt Catholic regardless of religious profession. Religious profession is, however, a rational basis for determining leadership in a religious organization. It is not invidious discrimination. Vanderbilt Catholic cannot bend on this principle. I have consulted Bishop Choby, and he is in agreement. The Catholic Church could not sponsor an organization at Vanderbilt under these conditions. I hope that you will decide to make it possible for the collaboration between faith and reason to continue in an authentically Catholic student organization at Vanderbilt by deciding to apply the non-discrimination policy in a manner that recognizes the reasonable requirement of religious profession for leadership in religious student organizations. Free religious expression is an integral part of the intellectual life.

I thank you for your consideration, and I am at your service for any discussion or clarification of the issues raised in this letter. Please be assured of my prayers for you as you carry out the responsibilities of leading the university.


Fr. John Sims Baker

Affiliated Chaplain

Cc: The Most Reverend David Choby

Dr. Richard McCarty

Mr. David Williams, II

Dr. Mark Bandas

The Reverend Gretchen Person

02 November 2011

New Books!

Come by Frassati House to see some good and beautiful new books on saints and churches! That's what happens when the new bookstore opens with a bargain table the first day, and I have gift cards in my pocket!

01 November 2011

A Message From Our President:

Hello! My name is Grace Burnworth, and I am serving as the President of the Vanderbilt Catholic community. As many of you probably know, Vanderbilt University is currently making decisions that will affect the way religious organizations will exist on Vanderbilt’s campus. At this time, Vanderbilt is reviewing the religious organizations stating, “The groups under review face dissolution unless they allow students who don’t share the same religious beliefs as their organization the ability to obtain a leadership position within.” Although the Catholic community currently remains in compliance with Vanderbilt University, we will be unable to maintain this status unless we change our stance on leadership positions. In previous years, the Catholic community has selected their leadership by having students apply and the board elect from those who have applied. It has been assumed that all leadership positions in the Catholic community be filled by students actively practicing their Catholic faith. If the religious organizations maintain the requirements that those in leadership positions be practicing their faith, the University will no longer recognize them as “registered” student organizations. The consequences of this privilege involve losing University recognition, the ability to provide Mass and services on campus, as well as the ability to obtain funds from the interfaith council.

So, to all of you here, I have a request.

To the students, I ask you to pray about how God wants you to act on this situation. At the Frassati House and after Masses, there is a Student Petition to the Administration. It states, “We believe that in order to preserve robust, authentic religious pluralism on campus, student organizations that expect student leaders to share the beliefs, values, and mission of the organizations should be recognized by the University as “registered” organizations with all associated privileges.”

On behalf of the Vanderbilt Catholic board, I ask you to consider signing this petition. In addition, if you feel called, please write a short statement telling the administration how the presence of the Vanderbilt Catholic community on campus has affected your college lifestyle. These statements can be collected following Mass next week or can be dropped off at the Frassati House at any time.

To those of you who are not members of the Vanderbilt Catholic community but are our brothers and sisters in Christ, I earnestly ask for your prayers. I ask that you pray for those making this decision, especially the Board of Trustees who will be meeting on November 10 and 11th to discuss and make decisions regarding this issue.

Your prayers are greatly appreciated. Thank you.

All Saints

Your being a saint should sneak up on people the way a Holy Day of Obligation during the week does. There it is in the middle of everything else! Nobody really notices (or cares) unless you are trying actually to do it.

Today, for example, I have a very ordinary family occasion -- it would be ordinary if I actually had much family! Of course, it falls on November 1, All Saints Day. What would ordinarily be something very simple and fun has actually become a strain because of what I have to do on All Saints Day, which nobody else knows about. So I try to work it out, with a little help from my friends. It gets done, but it is not like everybody else.

That is the story of holiness in the Christian life most of the time. We look like everybody else, but we are not. We are carrying out a supernatural mission in the midst of ordinary, natural life. Sometimes it works smoothly; frequently it is a strain. But our duty is to do it, whether anyone notices or cares.

Your friends will very likely not notice or care if you go to Mass today. It will not seem a big deal to them. For you, it will mean the strain of finding a Mass and all that entails in the midst of carrying out your other duties lovingly and well. It's our secret!