Catholic graduates need to stand up, not 'grow up'

Editor's note: Zachary R. Dehm is a new Young Voices columnist. He is a student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, where he is working toward his Master of Theological Studies. Dehm is also a graduate web assistant in the Instructional Design and eTeaching Services department at Boston College, and he tutors at the Connors Family Learning Center.

Recently in U.S. News and World Report, Laura K. Chapin published an instruction to the class of 2014: "Grow up." She addresses students protesting their university's choice of commencement speaker or honorary doctorate recipient, arguing that based on the stature and achievement of the honoree, students ought to be respectful through engagement rather than protest. Though I suspect hers is a minority position, she provides an opportunity to explore the value of public protest in the context of Catholic higher education.

In any setting, the public honoring of a controversial figure naturally comes with a diversity of reactions. The spectrum of these reactions can be observed on most university campuses. Chapin sees student protest as a particularly immature approach. Her interest is in preserving the productive dialogue that students prepare for in higher education. She paints protest as the failure to achieve this dialogue. However, she fails to see that protest can be dialogue in its most appropriate form.

Protest can be particularly important in Catholic higher education, where ideally, our experience learning from the marginalized through encounter drives us to give voice to those same individuals.

Catholic institutions demand that we not just speak for the marginalized, but engage in relationship with them, learn from them. By meeting the individual whose voice has been silenced and undermined, the student gains an essential, empowering perspective on social issues. In a Catholic university, engagement impassions students to advocate for those not given the privilege of a public voice.

Students are also encouraged to engage with the public figures shaping the issues that involve the marginalized. This task is built into our coursework, which requires students to ask questions and instills in them the virtues of justice, mercy and service. Our task of addressing justice issues stems from Catholicism's aim to shape society according to the Gospel. Protesting is sometimes the only way to ensure the success of this task.

Addressing the concerns of the world almost always demands some sort of confrontation with those in power. It seems so simple for Chapin to demonize the protester, as the person publicly lamenting is so easily painted as unreasonable. Protestors are viewed as having abandoned any other means of dialogue instead of having exhausted them.

Students are in a difficult position. In many ways, they have a powerful voice. They are instilled with the imperative to use that voice to speak for those who are truly marginalized. Graduates have spent years being challenged, strengthening their minds so they can go out into the world and exercise the power their education affords them.

However, in the public sphere, their voices are often muted. They are young, and their opinions are devalued because of that youth. They are set to inherit the world's problems yet have very little say in how those problems are addressed here and now. While they are told their responsibility is to advocate for those in need, they are excluded in the process of shaping the policy that affects those individuals.

Between students' imperative and simultaneous low social position, sometimes it is their social responsibility to protest if only to be heard. Students must sometimes protest to be a voice for those whose voices have been silenced.

The life of my own university's 2014 commencement speaker, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a Catholic and graduate of Boston College, exemplifies much of what I have drawn out here. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, spent some time after his return from service protesting the war in Vietnam. His experience teaches students that if they are going to change the world, they must put their ideology before public scrutiny in order for those in power to hear voices for change. This may be the only way the powerful will ever have any sort of dialogue with the marginalized.

The call to speak in protest is especially pertinent when a public figure is invited to and honored at a university. The notion that students should receive anyone because of stature without protest lacks the perspective of a Catholic education. Students have an imperative to voice that an individual their university is honoring does not act with justice, service or mercy, no matter his or her success in a field.

If Chapin's concern is basic hospitality, there are plenty of ways to receive people hospitably without awarding them an honorary doctorate before they leave. Honorees may have accomplishments, and we may be called to respect their voices. But accomplishment, regardless of ideology, is not grounds enough for a university's highest honor. To say that giving this honor does not glorify an individual's ideology is simply naive. By giving the individual an honorary degree, the university gives public attention and merit to his or her position.

Because Catholic higher education calls for engagement and students have an imperative to be an advocate for the marginalized, protesting an honoree they believe is unworthy of the honor because of ideology is just short of required. Dialogue is essential, and for students shouting for the marginalized, protest may be the most effective, and perhaps only, way to engage.

[Zachary R. Dehm is currently working toward his Master of Theological Studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.]

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