UK university refuses to recognize Catholic priest as chaplain over social media posts

Fr. David Palmer, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham serving in the Diocese of Nottingham, England. Fr. David Palmer, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham serving in the Diocese of Nottingham, England./ Courtesy photo.

A university in England has refused to recognize a Catholic priest as a chaplain over comments that he posted on social media.

The University of Nottingham, in central England, confirmed on Aug. 25 that it had declined to give official recognition to Fr. David Palmer, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

“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,” a spokesperson for the university told CNA.

Palmer, who serves in the Diocese of Nottingham, was named as chaplain to the Catholic community at the University of Nottingham by local Bishop Patrick McKinney.

The bishop also asked him to serve as Catholic chaplain to Nottingham Trent University.

While Nottingham Trent University accepted the appointment, the University of Nottingham invited Palmer for an interview on June 17.

Following the interview, the university wrote to McKinney expressing concerns about the appointment.

At a further meeting on July 1, the university specified that the concerns related to Palmer’s posts on social media, highlighting one on assisted suicide and another on abortion.

“They referenced a tweet where I had referred to the proposed ‘assisted dying’ bill [introduced in Britain’s Parliament in May] as a bill to allow the NHS ‘to kill the vulnerable,’” Palmer told CNA via email on Aug. 26.

“I was told it was fine for me to have this opinion, but they were concerned with how I expressed it. When I asked how they would suggest I express it, quite remarkably, they suggested I should call it ‘end of life care,’ which is a completely unacceptable policing of religious belief.”

The priest wrote on Twitter on Aug. 24 that the university also objected to a second post in which he described abortion as the “slaughter of babies,” in the context of the debate over U.S. President Joe Biden’s reception of Holy Communion despite backing legal abortion.

Palmer said that he defended both posts as reflecting Catholic belief.

The University of Nottingham was founded in 1881 and granted a royal charter in 1948. Its School of Medicine is the largest school in the university.

In November 2020, the university reached a settlement with a pro-life undergraduate student in a midwife program.

Julia Rynkiewicz, a 25-year-old Catholic, received an apology and payout after she was blocked from entering her program's hospital placement phase after the university learned of her leadership of a pro-life student group.

The university overturned its decision, but Rynkiewicz sought an apology.

Fr. Palmer told CNA that after the meeting where his social media posts were discussed, the university authorities contacted the bishop to say that they still had concerns, asking him to provide an alternative priest.

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The priest said that the bishop declined to nominate another priest and that following further discussions, the university agreed that Palmer could offer Mass on campus on Sundays as a “guest priest.”

The university’s spokesperson said: “The university values highly Catholic chaplaincy as part of our multi-faith approach where dedicated chaplains provide invaluable support to staff and students of each faith. We have no issue with the expression of faith in robust terms, indeed we would expect any chaplain to hold their faith as primary.”

The spokesperson added that the university was grateful to Bishop McKinney “for his solution that the current chaplain remains the recognized chaplain on campus and that Fr. David will celebrate Sunday Mass each week on campus.”

“The University of Nottingham remains committed to supporting staff and students of Catholic faith and continuing our 90-year tradition of providing Catholic chaplaincy for them,” the spokesperson said.

Palmer wrote on Twitter that the university does not pay for chaplains. He also said that following the authorities’ decision, most pastoral work with Catholic students would take place at the Newman House and St. Paul’s in Lenton, a parish led by Palmer that includes the university within its boundaries.

As a young man, Palmer was drawn to the Hare Krishna movement. But at the age of 21, he had a conversion experience and became a Christian.

In 2018, he wrote: “I steadily went ‘up the candle,’ becoming an Anglican Evangelical (ordained in 1999), an Anglo-Catholic and then, finally, a Catholic.”

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He was ordained as a Catholic priest for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in 2011. The ordinariate was established by Benedict XVI to allow groups of Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining elements of their patrimony.

Palmer told CNA that he rejected the university’s explanation for its decision to deny him recognition.

“The university says they have ‘no issue with the expression of faith in robust terms,’ but this is precisely what they had an issue with,” he said.

He added: “The university claims to support ‘diversity and inclusion,’ but it appears that diversity only goes so far, certainly not as far as the Catholic chaplain being able to express ‘robustly’ mainstream Catholic beliefs.”

Palmer also took issue with the university’s statement that “the current chaplain remains the recognized chaplain on campus.” He said that the previous priest chaplain had left, leaving a lay assistant to the priest chaplain.

He said: “The suggestion that they are grateful for the bishop’s ‘solution’ almost seems to imply that the bishop somehow agrees with the university ‘policing’ the expression of Catholic teaching on pro-life issues.”

“His ‘solution’ was an attempt to ensure that the university didn’t end up barring sacramental ministry to the students entirely. It wasn’t tacit approval of their behavior.”

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Nottingham said on Aug. 26: “Fr. David Palmer will celebrate Sunday Mass for the students of Nottingham University and will continue to serve young people through his priestly ministry, with the support of the student lay chaplain.”