Each year, the choice of commencement speakers and honorees becomes an occasion for debate about the religious identity of many Catholic colleges. Should a Catholic college publicly honor a pro-choice politician? An advocate of gay marriage? A Catholic who publicly dissents on other serious moral issues?
In 2004 the U.S. bishops tried to resolve the matter with a clear mandate: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
The following year, pro-choice presidential hopefuls Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton were invited to address the graduates of Catholic colleges. The invitations proved explosive: Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore publicly refused to attend the ceremony at Loyola College featuring Giuliani, and officials of Marymount Manhattan College in New York discarded the college’s claim to a Catholic identity rather than conform to the bishops’ mandate.
The trend since then has been a decline in scandalous commencement speakers and honorees at Catholic institutions. The Cardinal Newman Society identified 24 in 2006, 13 last year and just seven thus far in 2008.
What’s more, this year we saw a Catholic college make the very unusual and courageous decision to rescind an invitation to its commencement speaker once concerns were raised. Presentation College in South Dakota withdrew its invitation to pro-choice state Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry and instead invited the local Catholic bishop to address graduates last weekend.
For the increasingly marginalized colleges that choose to ignore the bishops’ mandate, the embarrassment must be painful. Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, this week defended his choice of graduate school commencement speaker to The Boston Globe, yet acknowledged that “it’s appropriate to look at [a potential speaker’s] public record, to see how does that life size up.” It’s difficult to reconcile that with his commencement choice—Marye Ann Fox, chancellor of the University of California-San Diego—who has staked her reputation and career on an ambitious $115 million initiative in embryonic stem cell research.
Likewise the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, chose as this year’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient New York Governor David Paterson. The new governor is a staunch advocate of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research—as if his revelation of an extramarital affair immediately following the scandals of his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, isn’t awkward enough for a Catholic college named for the virgin saint from Peru.
But increasingly these are anomalies, and the problem of commencement scandals at Catholic colleges may soon be behind us. Last month in Washington, Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholic educators to fidelity and “public witness to the way of Christ.”
So the question may be asked: Is Pope Benedict’s vision for Catholic education—one that puts faith in the Catholic Church’s teaching on moral issues above the prestige and publicity of a commencement speaker—already becoming reality? It’s too soon to tell, but with God there is always hope.
Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization of more than 20,000 members that works to renew and strengthen Catholic higher education in the United States.