Ultimatum for Catholic college CFO raises questions about university policy, guns

by Mary Rezac

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Credit: St. Thomas University, CC 4.0

Having been given an ultimatum, chief financial officer of St. Thomas University in Florida Anita Britt resigned last week after being told she had to choose between her CFO position and her membership on the board of a company that manufactures guns.

Britt sits on the board of American Outdoor Brands, the parent company of Smith & Wesson, which manufactures guns including the AR-15, the weapon that was used to kill 17 students in the Parkland, Florida high school shooting last month. Britt joined the board on Feb. 6, a month after beginning her position at the university.

Originally, Britt was told that her position at the Catholic school and her membership on American Outdoor Brands’ board did not conflict.

“Ms. Britt’s position with American Outdoor Brands provides her the opportunity to participate in helping the company achieve its objectives of making our communities safer and... does not conflict with her responsibilities here at St. Thomas,” Monsignor Franklyn M. Casale, president of St. Thomas University, initially said in a letter reported on by the Miami Herald.

However, after additional pressure due to the recent shooting, Casale backtracked from his initial stance and presented Britt with the choice of either staying on as CFO and resigning from American Outdoor Brands board, or leaving the university. Britt resigned from St. Thomas March 13.

Casale told the Miami Herald that he changed his original position regarding Britt because “it has become clear that many of the sensible and reasonable solutions to this gun epidemic, which have been discussed previously, were becoming less and less clear.”

“I came to the conclusion that St. Thomas was being associated with gun violence and that was not an image I thought was good for the university,” he added.

Professor Brian Scarnecchia, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Florida told CNA that while St. Thomas University is free to make personnel decisions, Britt’s position on the board of American Outdoor Brands does not conflict with Church social teaching.

“The president of St. Thomas University had it right the first time. There is no inherent conflict in working for a Catholic institution of high education and being on the board of a firearms manufacturing company. Both provide morally neutral products and services,” Scarnecchia said. 

“A Catholic can work for a firearms company in good faith. A Catholic could not work for Planned Parenthood or Playboy magazine in good faith. The difference is that a firearm is a neutral product, but the principal products and services of Planned Parenthood and Playboy are not,” he added.

“I say a firearm is a neutral product because it has no inherently bad or good purpose. A firearm may be used for home defense, recreational target shooting, hunting or murder,” he said, whereas pornography and contraceptives can only be used for evil.

The university’s position about Britt raised questions about others affiliated with the university.

Victor Mendelson, who sits on the board of St. Thomas University, is the co-president of HEICO, a company that builds technology and components for military aircraft, drones, and weapons systems.

St. Thomas University did not respond to questions about Mendelson’s position or about whether it had investigated the standings, in light of Catholic social teaching, of other companies and institutions represented among their board members.

Casale himself previously served as board secretary to a nonprofit housing corporation that, during his time on the board, partnered with Miami’s Pride Center to develop an LGBT-focused housing complex.

Neither the archdiocese nor the university responded to questions about whether faculty members teaching theology have received the ecclesiastical mandatum required by Pope St. John Paul II's Ex corde ecclesiae. The mandatum is an acknowledgment by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church.

The Archdiocese of Miami, which sponsors St. Thomas University, told CNA that Archbishop Thomas Wenski “permits (per bylaws) the Board of Directors (of St. Thomas) to pursue their responsibilities and provide direction for the university’s success.”
 
“Decisions made by STU’s president,  Msgr. Franklyn Casale, and the university’s board members are made autonomously, permitting them to  function within the realm of their positions,” Mary Ross Agosta, communications director for the Archdiocese of Miami, told CNA.
 

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