A famous philosopher once said that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

In this election season, voters are polarized by a host of emotionally charged issues that include same-sex marriage, threats to religious liberty, immigration, health-care reform, taxation, government spending and life issues such as contraception, abortion, embryo rights and stem cell research.

At the University of St. Thomas, far from beltway press conferences and evening news sound bites, the Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy has introduced Hot Topics: Cool Talk, a unique series that fearlessly explores Catholic positions and some challenging perspectives on current political issues in a context divorced from the heat of political campaigns.

The Murphy Institute inaugurated the series in October with a program on Minnesota’s proposed marriage amendment. Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and Dale Carpenter, a prominent professor of civil rights and civil liberties law at the University of Minnesota, each took 10 minutes to present their views – for and against – Minnesota’s proposed Marriage Amendment.

Each speaker was given two minutes to respond to the other’s remarks before taking questions from the room filled with law students, undergraduates, professors, lawyers and members of the general public. The topic was important, relevant and complex. The speakers were intelligent, articulate and civil. A series was born.

The Hot Topics: Cool Talk series, with the exception of the final debate, takes place monthly at the School of Law on St. Thomas’ Minneapolis campus. The programs are held over the noon hour and include lunch. They are tightly run and the short timeframe keeps the talks sharply focused.

The programs have been extremely popular, drawing audiences of up to 220 from the university and local community. “I heard about these talks from a colleague at Target. I found it fascinating how the dialogue tied relevant public issues together with the law practice. It was a nice change of pace,” said Andrea Mack, a senior manager of real estate at Target Corp., after attending the program on health-care reform.

The program on Minnesota’s Marriage Amendment has been broadcast twice on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Midday” radio program. “The event (also) lived up to its billing as civilized, informative and respectful discourse on a hot topic,” said Sasha Aslanian, a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio who attended the same-sex-marriage forum.

The Murphy Institute’s program organizers use the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” as a guide in choosing the topics, then invite nationally known speakers who bring real expertise from a wide range of academic and professional disciplines to the dialogue.

One speaker is charged to faithfully explain the Catholic principles; the other speaker offers another view – a different faith perspective or a different judgment – about the practical consequences of the Church’s position.

The series is dynamic. When the United States Department of Health and Human Services issued the mandate for contraception coverage in January, the Murphy Institute responded with a Hot Topics: Cool Talk “extra” to provide a forum for dialogue on this very timely issue and to offer considerations in determining whether government-mandated contraception coverage was a violation of religious freedom.

The Murphy Institute, a collaboration of St. Thomas’ Center for Catholic Studies and School of Law, was created to pursue the integration of law and the Catholic intellectual tradition. It accomplishes this in part by providing nonpartisan public policy analysis rooted in the Catholic tradition and engaging and serving the community through public events like the Hot Topics: Cool Talk series.

“The Murphy Institute is especially excited at the interest this series has generated in the larger Twin Cities community,” said Elizabeth Schiltz, law professor and co-director of the institute. “It demonstrates the appetite for rigorous but respectful engagement on difficult political issues.“

2011-12 Hot Topics: Cool Talk

Oct. 13 – Same-Sex Marriage Amendment

  • Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy
  • Professor Dale Carpenter, University of Minnesota Law School

Nov. 16 – Embryo Rights and Stem Cell Research

  • Professor Carter Snead, Notre Dame Law School
  • Professor Lynn Wardle, Brigham Young University Law School

Dec. 9 – Balancing the Budget

  • Professor Greg Sisk, University of St. Thomas School of Law
  • Katharine Tinucci, press secretary in the office of Governor Mark Dayton and University of St. Thomas School of Law alumna

Jan. 27 – Health-Care Reform

  • John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • Professor Robert Kennedy, Center for Catholic Studies, University of St. Thomas

March 2 – Immigration Policy

  • Professor Andrew Yuengert, Pepperdine University
  • Professor Virgil Wiebe, University of St. Thomas School of Law

April 2 – Religious Liberty and the Contraception Coverage Mandate

  • Professor Tom Berg, University of St. Thomas School of Law
  • Professor Susan Stabile, University of St. Thomas School of Law
  • Father Dan Griffith, University of St. Thomas School of Law

April 20 – Punishment Theory

  • Professor Marc DeGirolami, St. John’s University School of Law
  • The Honorable Richard Sullivan, Federal Judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

May 3 – Responsible Citizenship

  • Professor Steve Heaney, Philosophy, University of St. Thomas
  • Professor Bernie Brady, Theology, University of St. Thomas

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