Graduation Wars

by Michael Sean Winters

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The graduation wars have begun. As thousands of students at Catholic colleges and universities prepare to celebrate their graduation and take their degrees, their campuses are embroiled in controversy over who should and should not be permitted to speak at graduation and, in some cases, receive an honorary degree.

I am of two minds about these wars. On the one hand, as I suggested last week, Catholic institutions of higher learning must not be pushed into a kind of intellectual ghetto by the Torquemada-like fanatics at the inaptly named Cardinal Newman Society. Catholic colleges and universities should not be afraid to engage the culture and listen to anyone who has something to say on their campus. What are we afraid of? That a single appearance by an errant Catholic or a controversial non-Catholic will rob our students of their commitment to the faith? If so, we are not doing a very good job of inculcating that faith in the first place. More importantly, whenever the Church has built a wall around its institutions to keep the forces of the ambient culture out, the procedure has failed. The CNS folk can build walls as high as they like and still at the end of a graduation ceremony, and indeed at the end of every Mass, we are sent out into that world beyond. The urge to censor begins in a humane instinct, the desire to protect those we love from influences that might harm them, but it cannot always and everywhere trump another humane instinct, the desire to explore and engage, least of all at a college campus. A ghettoized university is no university at all.

On the other hand, I rather like the fact that we have these debates about the Catholic identity of our colleges and universities (and hospitals and social service providers). Harvard’s motto was once “Pro Christo et Ecclesiae” – for Christ and His Church – but having become a hotbed of Unitarianism and than rationalism, the motto was switched to the more anodyne “Veritas” in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Other great colleges and universities in America find, in the center of their campuses, over-large and under-used chapels – think Princeton, Yale, Wake Forest, Wesleyan – as a testimony to their former religious sensibilities and current lack of such sensibilities. James Tunstead Butchaell’s magisterial (in both senses) book “The Dying of the Light” catalogues how religious universities lost their religious identity over time and it makes for some grim reading. It is important, even vital, that we Catholics not let that happen to our institutions and so the debate about Catholic identity is a welcome one: we heard last Sunday about the need to prune in order to grow. Between the coarse censoriousness of CNS and the blithe indifferentism of the Ivy’s, we must find our way forward.

I have had difficulties with the USCCB’s document “Catholics in Political Life” since it was published in 2004. The bishops were worried, understandably and appropriately, that the specter of prominent Catholics in public and political life dismissing the Church’s commitment to human life, or paying lip service to that commitment while actively abetting its demise, might suggest that the Church’s teaching in this regard was somehow optional. It is not. But, the core of our Catholic identity is doctrinal, not moral, a belief in the Trinity not a belief in the need to get one more conservative justice on the Supreme Court. Our morals are linked, bound, especially in the case of abortion, to our doctrines: Only in the light of Christ does the mystery of human kind become enlightened (cf. Gaudium et Spes 22), and in that light, we see that every person counts and that abortion is thus not merely a crime against a person but an insult to the Creator.

The key, controversial stipulation of “Catholics in Political Life” as it applies to the commencement wars is this: “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.” Now, as is often the case, some on the left unfortunately accepted at face value the interpretation of these words offered by those on the right, feeding the narrative that an ascendant rightwing faction was taking over the Church. But, the words are more careful than some on the right suggest. I would submit that the qualifying phrase “which would suggest support for their actions” is more of a hurdle to the advocates of censorship than they would like to admit. In what way does having on campus someone who disagrees with the Church necessarily connote “support” for their views? I would also point out that these sentences, no matter how frequently cited, applied not at all to the appearance of President Barack Obama at Notre Dame in 2009: The document is entitled “Catholics in Political Life” not “U.C.C. members in Political Life.” I do think there is a difference, and an important one, in recognizing and honoring those who are not Catholics from those who are. The latter are a counter-sign to Catholic identity in a way that a non-Catholic can’t be.

But, what I fail to see is how the document does not necessarily feed the idea that religion can be reduced to ethics, which is the first step towards secularization of culture. I do not see how we can say that it is fine to have a Baptist who denies the Real Presence at commencement but not a Methodist who supports abortion rights. Nor do I think we can draw neat lines of causality from people’s public actions to their motivations. I know a gay couple that lived in accordance with the Church’s teachings but nonetheless had to register for a civil partnership because one of them worked for the government and had great health care coverage and the other was self-employed and could not afford insurance. I know some Catholic politicians who genuinely wish there were no abortions but who also think that proposals to use the coercive power of law to achieve an end to abortion would backfire. I think they are partly right and partly wrong on that, but my point in this context is only that we cannot reduce Catholic identity to this or that political idea. There are some on the right who think some Catholic teachings are “non-negotiable” but all Catholic teaching is, in a sense, non-negotiable, it all hangs together. There is much to negotiate when it comes time to try and convert the culture to that teaching.

Mind you, if I were the President of Georgetown University, which I am not, I would not have invited HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to address the graduation ceremony at the university’s School of Public Policy. (And, if I were President of the United States, which I also am not, Ms. Sebelius would not be the Secretary of HHS!) One wag suggested yesterday that Georgetown signed up Ms. Sebelius because Cecile Richards was busy. Ouch. Now, Ms. Sebelius has a long and difficult relationship with the Catholic Church, and not all the fault is on her side to be sure. But, nonetheless, Ms. Sebelius has chosen to pick a fight with the Catholic Church and thrown in with groups like Planned Parenthood which could scarcely be more hostile to the Church. I know that many women look at Planned Parenthood and see a benign institution that has helped them or friends of theirs with their medical needs. But, I look at Planned Parenthood and see an organization that has still not shed the eugenic sensibilities of its founder. It is both, to be sure. But, at this moment in history, Ms. Sebelius has ranged herself and her allies on one side of an important public issue and while I would support inviting her to speak on any campus, and generally think having controversial figures is a good thing, inviting her now and at a graduation suggests that, like the graduates she will address, she has somehow earned her place on the stage. This is not at all apparent to me. Certainly, the professors who sent Congressman Paul Ryan a letter that both welcomed him to campus and challenged him to more fully embrace Catholic teachings in advance of his appearance on campus a fortnight ago should bestir themselves again to pen a similar letter to Secretary Sebelius.

Of course, across the country, at another Jesuit school, Gonzaga University has come in for criticism because it has invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at their graduation ceremony. Mind you, Archbishop Tutu is not only a hero to the world for his role in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa and, just as importantly, promoting societal reconciliation afterwards, he has also, at the invitation of the Vatican, spoken at the Augustinianum. But, the people at CNS are more Catholic than the Pope, don’t ya know. Archbishop Tutu holds many theological beliefs that differ from our Roman Catholic beliefs, as does Archbishop Rowan Williams: Will the Cardinal Newman Society protest outside the synod hall this autumn, when Williams addresses the Synod of Bishops, as Pope Benedict has asked him to do!

In Worcester, Bishop Robert McManus pulled the rug from under an invitation to Mrs. Vicki Kennedy to speak at Anna Maria College, although insofar as Ms. Kennedy has never run for, nor held, political office, it is difficult to see how the strictures of “Catholics in Political Life” apply to her in the first place.

Round and round it goes. I suppose this is nothing new. We all know the story of Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the Temple but tend to gloss over the question: What were they doing in the Temple in the first place? The line between faith and culture is always shifting, never easy to discern. It is better to have these debates and discussions than to not have them. It is a good thing that our faith still matters enough to have them. Here, then, are my general rules. University administrators should consult their bishops before such invitations are issued. Bishops should be frank but also generous in voicing their concerns. A distinction should be drawn between giving someone a platform and giving them an honor. We should all be – at the same time – less afraid to engage those with whom we disagree and more intent on finding ways to express our Catholic identity in the intellectual realm.

Last week, the Holy Father addressed a group of American bishops during their ad limina on this topic. He said:

Faith’s recognition of the essential unity of all knowledge provides a bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue; in this sense, Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today. Firmly grounded in this vision of the intrinsic interplay of faith, reason and the pursuit of human excellence, every Christian intellectual and all the Church’s educational institutions must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord’s dominion over all creation.

I think Pope Benedict gets it exactly right: A Catholic institution of higher learning must be outward looking and inward believing at the same time. When we engage others, even those whose positions we find distasteful or objectionable, they are yet not “alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord’s dominion over all creation.” Yet, Catholic institutions have a specific role, one that only they can fulfill, of proclaiming the fullness of our faith in a world that is always in danger of losing its way. There is a balance, and like all balancing acts, judiciousness goes a long way.

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