Catholic commencement controversies: RIP

A graduating senior cheers during the 65th commencement at Jesuit-run Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., May 17, 2015. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York delivered the ceremony's commencement address and received an honorary degree. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
A graduating senior cheers during the 65th commencement at Jesuit-run Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., May 17, 2015. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York delivered the ceremony's commencement address and received an honorary degree. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

by Thomas Reese

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With the coming of spring, Catholic colleges and universities will once again be mired in controversy over commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.

The Cardinal Newman Society will issue press releases denouncing schools that invite anyone who is even slightly tainted by views in favor of abortion or gay marriage, even if they do not speak on these topics. Bishops will mutter their displeasure that the schools, contrary to church policy, are honoring opponents of Catholic teaching and giving them a platform.

It is time to admit that these policies were foolish from the beginning and ought to be a dead letter today. Colleges and universities in good conscience can ignore these failed rules and use their own judgment in the selection of commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. If their judgment is faulty, they can certainly be criticized, but not simply because they broke an inappropriate rule.

Trying to ban certain speakers at Catholic colleges and universities was always a bad idea, on a par with the Index of Forbidden Books. Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where there is a free exchange of ideas. It is through debate and argument in an academic setting that the truth can often be revealed. Any interference from the outside is rightly seen as an infringement on academic freedom.

Worst of all, such censorship is an admission of failure. It says to the academic community that "We are not able to convince you that that the church’s position is correct, and therefore we have to keep you from hearing views opposed to the church." Rather, the church should participate in the debate and thereby develop the best arguments for its case. The school should also make sure that church teaching is clearly and respectfully presented to its students. 

Perhaps in medieval times it was possible for the church to isolate students from the rest of the world, but that has been impossible since the invention of the printing press, let alone all the methods of communication available today.

The church has a bad history of trying to suppress freedom of thought and discussion. St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught at the University of Paris, had his books burned by the bishop of Paris. The church also turned to censorship in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the tide of the Reformation. In the early 20th century, professors and writers were harassed during the Modernist crisis. Most recently, after Vatican II, clerical and religious theologians were silenced or removed from teaching positions at seminaries and universities if they did not support positions taken by the Vatican. 

Here in the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued "Catholics in Political Life" in June 2004. In it they said,

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.

As a result, Catholic colleges and universities were too often forced to rescind speaking invitations to politicians, especially liberal Democrats, who were pro-choice or in favor of gay marriage even if they were going to speak on topics like immigration reform where they were totally in sync with the bishops.

After being publicly embarrassed and attacked, it is not surprising that these same politicians were deaf to calls from the bishops for exemptions from legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Nor were many liberal politicians willing to listen to the bishops' arguments against lifting the statute of limitations on suits coming out of the sexual abuse crisis. The church lost these battles because it had made enemies of too many public officials.

The bishops and their allies were quick to accuse liberal Democrats of being anti-Catholic, when the truth in most cases was that they were really anticlerical not anti-Catholic. They hated the bishops not the faith.

Despite what individual cardinals might have said, it is clear that the Vatican never followed this practice. Popes have met with politicians of every stripe during every papacy since the Second Vatican Council. Rather than making enemies, popes were willing to work together on common projects with people with whom they had profound disagreements. St. John Paul II famously gave Communion to Tony Blair even though he was a pro-choice Episcopalian at the time.

This year we have more examples of the tolerant views of the Vatican.

First, there is the invitation from the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to Bernie Sanders to speak at a Vatican conference on Centesimus Annus. Sanders is pro-choice and supports gay marriage. He was given a platform to speak by the Vatican that was more prominent than any available at a Catholic college or university. He certainly felt honored to be invited and housed in Santa Marta, the Vatican building where the pope lives.

On Friday, it was the turn of Vice President Joe Biden to speak at the Vatican on what can be done to find a cure for cancer. He is not only Catholic, but also pro-choice and a supporter of gay marriage. If the Vatican can invite him, why can't Notre Dame?

If the Vatican with a clear conscience can invite these politicians to speak, why can’t Catholic colleges and universities?

It is time to admit that the ban on giving platforms and honors to people who hold views contrary to church teaching is dead.

Requiescat in pace.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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