Graduation Wars & Catholic Identity

If the azaleas are in bloom, it must be time for the annual battle over graduation speakers and Catholic identity, one of the perennial struggles in the culture wars and one of the least illustrative.

Let’s start with a question no one asks: What is the value of a graduation speech? In the past, and at certain elite schools, these speeches could be genuinely important. It was in 1947 that Secretary of State George Marshall delivered the graduation speech at Harvard in which he outlined the plan for the reconstruction of Europe that bore his name. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy used his graduation speech at American University to propose the nuclear test ban treaty. But, it has been a long time since any graduation speech served as a vehicle for a similar announcement of a public policy of importance.

Graduation speeches are awful speeches to have to deliver. The moment is ill chosen. This milestone in a young person’s life benefits little from the intrusion of a stranger peddling advice. Few are the people wise enough to match the moment with a message that will resonate or even be remembered. I cannot recall who spoke at my graduation from the Catholic University of America in 1984, still less what they said. I do recall my high school graduation speaker because it was me, and a valedictorian has a better shot at delivering something memorable to his or her classmates than a perfect stranger. And, of course, there is something to be said for bringing in a comedian: At least they will be funny and generate a laugh.

The significance of graduation speakers, then, is something of a mystery. I suppose it is rooted not in the needs or desires of the graduating class but in the needs and desires of university administrators. Graduation is the largest public ceremony of the year so they desire to risk the general air of celebration with a dose of earnestness, preferably an earnestness that will speak to the schools’ mission and values. This desire should be resisted and administrators should let the kids and their friends and families just enjoy the celebration. But, as that is unlikely, we are forced to consider what these speeches, and the people who give them, say about the universities that sponsor them.

This gets us into the issue of identity, who we are and what are we about, and for Catholic colleges and universities, this necessarily, and appropriately, raises the issue of the Catholic identity of the institution.

Identity is not my favorite word, as regular readers will know. At its essence it means “sameness” which is especially ill-befitting anything that bears the name Catholic. James Joyce’s “here comes everybody,” better captures the reality of Catholic life than any obsessive concern with uniformity. Certainly, Catholic colleges and universities are vastly different one from another. What they share, what they must share, in common is the foundation upon which all Catholic activities and institutions are built, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the apostles. Alas, He and they are not on the speaker circuit and are unavailable to deliver an address at graduation. (He speaks to us the night before at the Baccalaureate Mass.)

Most of the controversy in recent years has centered around the selection of graduation speakers who fail to meet someone else’s standard of orthodoxy, most especially if the speaker is pro-choice. The inaptly named Cardinal Newman Society has made this a fetish. This year, Boston College leads CNS’s list of offending institutions because the school has Secretary of State John Kerry as its speaker. To be clear: I would object to Kerry as a graduation speaker because he is most often a spectacularly dull speaker, but that is a different issue. But, surely, whoever is serving the nation as Secretary of State, is the kind of public person who should be welcomed at such an event. I do not agree with Mr. Kerry on the issue of abortion, but as Secretary of State, he is doing the kinds of things we expect a Secretary of State to do, trying to negotiate peace in troubled regions, advocating for human rights, using the bureaucracy in Foggy Bottom to look past the crises and the headlines to underlying causes of instability. Such efforts are entirely consistent with our Catholic faith, no? It would be as bizarre to not invite him as it is offensive to me that former Secretary of State Condileeza Rice was essentially disinvited from speaking at Rutgers University because of objection to the policies she advocated.

I will note that CNS’s list of offenders also includes Loyola University of Chicago’s Graduate School and Institute of Pastoral Studies because they have chosen my colleague Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J. to deliver an address. Indeed, the latter-day Inquisitors at CNS begin their indictment of Fr. Reese precisely because he is a senior analyst at “the heterodox National Catholic Reporter.” They also twist and creatively take out of context some of Fr. Reese’s words to justify their opposition to him. Their indictment reads, in part:

His controversial statements include mocking the bishops as “only 200 votes” in the 2012 presidential election and saying the bishops should accept the HHS mandate because “contraception is a lot cheaper than live births, especially if the live births are problematic.”

Of course, these are statements of fact and entirely true. Bishops do not get extra votes at election time and contraception is cheaper than live births – which is precisely why universal health insurance is so important to anyone who is serious about wanting to reduce the number of abortions as opposed to using the issue to dump on Democrats. But, CNS, unlike its namesake, is not going to let a little thing like truth get in the way of a chance to take a shot at Fr. Reese.

It is time for the bishops to acknowledge that their statement, Catholics in Political Life, issued in 2004, brought on some of the foolishness that CNS spouts. The statement was misguided in several regards and has been misused by many. For example, although the title of the document indicates it applies to Catholics, not to non-Catholics, this document was invoked to denounce the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak at their graduation in 2009. Mr. Obama is not a Catholic and, presumably, does not believe in apostolic succession, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or a host of other things we Catholics believe and which are more central to the faith than any moral position, still less a political and legal position.

When Pope Francis said that we Catholics cannot only be “obsessed” with abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, it was widely noted that very few people ever hear a sermon on Sunday that touches on these issues. But, the perception that we Catholics are obsessed with them comes precisely from these faux-culture war battles, ginned up by groups like CNS which see the obvious fundraising potential of controversy, and garner the attention of the media. I do not think the Church is generally “obsessed” with these issues, but as long as bishops give credence to groups like CNS or Bill Donohue’s Catholic League, they have no one to blame but themselves for this public perception becoming so acute, the Holy Father felt the need to speak against it.

Is there a resolution? The Jesuit charism – finding God in all things – is the best guide I can think of to frame the identity of a Catholic university or college. That charism balances nicely the twinned vocations of a Catholic university, seeking knowledge precisely because one is seeking God. This can be stretched too far, to be sure, and turned into an excuse to baptize essentially secular ideas and enterprises: I fear that very few questions beyond the obvious ethical ones are raised about Catholic identity at our business schools. To cite a different, more precise example: In 1964, young Bill Clinton enrolled at Georgetown University. One of his teachers was so impressed by the young man, he invited Clinton to dinner and asked if he would entertain the idea of joining the Jesuits. Clinton replied that he was a Southern Baptist. The teacher later recalled, “I saw all the Jesuit traits in him – serious, political, empathetic. I just assumed he was Catholic.” Assumptions are always a bad idea at a university, Catholic or otherwise.

A modern research university should examine all things but should, in some meaningful sense, be looking for God in those things it surveys. That is Catholic identity and it requires a deeper analysis and sense of mission than merely banning graduation speakers or having single sex dorms or some of the other indicators of Catholic identity some seek. There is plenty of room in the Catholic universe for schools like Steubenville and Ave Maria University, but that is not the only model for a Catholic university. Boston College may have been on CNS’s list of schools possessed of what they term an insufficiently Catholic identity, but last week, for an article in the Tablet, I interviewed Alan Wolfe, director of BC’s Boisi Center and one of our nation’s foremost and brilliant analysts of the role of religion in public life. His comments on Catholic identity at BC seem the best way to conclude today’s article. Wolfe said:

Well, I am not a Catholic, so perhaps I am not the best person to assess the school's Catholic identity, but the place sure seems to have a lot of Catholic identifiers to me. BC has a distinctly Jesuit and Catholic presence which makes most faculty and students extremely loyal to it. Call it solidarity. People at BC love it in a way I have never witnessed at secular universities.


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