The University of Nottingham has reversed a decision to reject the nomination of Fr David Palmer as the University’s Catholic chaplain, and has issued new guidelines for chaplains.
The controversy over Fr Palmer began when concerns were raised about tweets he had made that some considered inflammatory in tone. A spokesperson for the university said: “A university should be a place for the robust exchange of views and debate over ideas, and we have no issue with the expression of faith in robust terms – indeed we would expect any chaplain to hold their faith as primary.
“Our concern was not in relation to Fr. David’s views themselves, but the manner in which these views have been expressed in the context of our diverse community of people of many faiths.”
According to Fr Palmer, who asked the university what aspects of his language on social media had been considered so gravely offensive as to prevent him taking on a role as chaplain: “They objected to my Twitter account… when I asked which tweets they considered ‘problematic’ they mentioned two… one where I had referred to ‘assisted dying’ as a plan to ‘allow the NHS to kill the vulnerable’…I was told that this language was not appropriate.
“The other tweet was about abortion, where I referred to abortion as the ‘slaughter of babies’ (as in the ‘slaughter of the innocents’). I refused to back down and defended both tweets as reflecting Catholic belief.”
In later remarks Fr Palmer added: “We live in a free society and a university of all places is supposed to be somewhere where we have that freedom to discuss different ideas. The university talks about diversity all the time – diversity means allowing different opinions. Anyone is allowed to disagree with what the Catholic Church teaches but to say you cannot teach the Catholic position, even to Catholics, is crazy.”
The dispute got caught up in a wider national debate over freedom of speech in universities, and The Free Speech Union, an organisation founded by Toby Young, weighed in on the matter sending a letter to the university’s vice-chancellor Professor Shearer West.
Outrage was widespread. Simon Caldwell, long-standing and respected Catholic journalist, suggested that the university’s original decision could have been unprecedented: “I have never, in 30 years of Catholic journalism, come across a case where a university has objected to the views of a Catholic chaplain. It is ridiculous when a Catholic chaplain is censored because he has made remarks which reflect the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”
In a statement, the university said it had introduced a revised procedure for the recognition of chaplains of all faiths: “The procedure allows for a preparatory year to enable the nominated chaplain, the sponsoring faith body and the university to explore together if the role is right both for the individual and the multi-faith environment at Nottingham. Following constructive and helpful dialogue with the Diocese of Nottingham over recent weeks, it has been agreed that Father David Palmer will be recognised under this procedure as university chaplain for the Catholic faith.”
Bishop of Nottingham Patrick McKinney, said he was “very pleased” with the new system.
In a tweet, Fr Palmer said: "I look forward to getting on with the job."