Commencing Badly: Scandalous Speakers at Catholic Graduations

Patrick Reilly on the Identity of Church-Affiliated Colleges

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FALLS CHURCH, Virginia, MAY 30, 2003 ( A number of actively pro-abortion speakers have been invited this year to give commencement addresses at Catholic colleges and universities causing scandal and protest, not least from the Cardinal Newman Society.

Patrick Reilly, president of the society, shared with ZENIT why a college’s choice of graduation speakers is an indicator about how it understands its own Catholic identity.

Q: What is the mission of the Cardinal Newman Society? Why does the society bear this name?

Reilly: Cardinal Newman Society, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, seeks renewal of the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.

Our inspiration comes from the 19th-century convert John Henry Newman, whose writings — most notably, «Idea of a University» — explain how the union of academe with the Church is not only possible but essential to the free exploration of truth. Newman exposed the fallacy of a university education that excludes the fundamental truths of faith, as taught and explored by genuine Catholic theology.

«Ex Corde Ecclesiae» — which means «born from the heart of the Church,» referring to the first great universities sponsored by the Church — is the motto of Cardinal Newman Society.

We strive to ensure that Catholic colleges and universities conform to the guidelines of «Ex Corde Ecclesiae,» in both letter and spirit. Necessarily, this begins with prompting our Church leaders and educators to recognize where colleges and universities conflict with Catholic teaching and the nature of Catholic institutions.

Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. have made progress, and several have embraced «Ex Corde Ecclesiae.» But for the most part Cardinal Newman Society is still focused on getting Catholic educators to admit that the concerns of Catholic parents and students about false theological instruction and wayward campus culture require serious attention.

Meanwhile, programs such as our campaign to establish eucharistic adoration on campuses and our Campus Culture of Life Initiative to help colleges address concerns about pregnancy and abortion are drawing attention to simple, practical ways of living the faith institutionally.

Q: Is a pro-life and Catholic commencement speaker necessary to maintain Catholic identity on campuses?

Reilly: No, I wouldn’t go that far. A non-Catholic who has a personal conflict with Catholic teaching — a conflict that has not led to public advocacy — could give an excellent commencement address without causing scandal, although a pro-life Catholic could be more inspirational.

Our concern is that many Catholic colleges and universities are inviting and honoring commencement speakers who are publicly and often stridently in opposition to clear, fundamental Catholic teaching. Most often we protest the selection of abortion-rights advocates, not because we are obsessed with this one issue, but because for some reason Catholic educators repeatedly invite speakers who are outspokenly «pro-choice.»

Our concern is the scandal that results from a Catholic institution holding up such individuals for special recognition. It can confuse the public about the seriousness of the Church’s teaching when a Catholic institution overlooks public dissent as unimportant in the selection of commencement speakers.

And it can reinforce the confusion of many wayward Catholics, when Catholic institutions echo their claim to full communion with the Church even while diminishing the importance of certain Church teachings that may prove difficult to live out in American culture.

For example, the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, this year invited political commentator and abortion-rights advocate Chris Matthews to give its commencement address. The college’s president told a local newspaper that Matthews’ personal opposition to abortion but support for keeping it legal were consistent with Catholic teaching.

Holy Cross students and others in the community may have been led astray by such false and careless words. Yet Matthews’ invitation to be honored by a Catholic college already implied comfort with his public advocacy, and that implication can be almost as damaging as false teaching.

Q: Critics of your speaker condemnations claim the primary purpose of the commencement speaker is to inspire students. How would you respond?

Reilly: Too many Catholic educators fail to appreciate the impact of their actions on students’ spiritual development — whether in selecting commencement speakers, counseling students on moral and health issues, developing campus ministry programs, etc. Whatever the primary purpose of any action, it should not bring scandal.

But certainly it is desirable that a commencement speaker inspire students. My question is this: Are those who argue for inspiring students making the claim that the only inspirational speakers are those who have a record of strident abortion advocacy? Or are there not hundreds, even thousands of inspirational Catholics who also deserve the special honor of commencement speaker? To what are we inspiring students?

Q: What is necessary to maintain Catholic identity on Catholic college campuses? Are there any key elements?

Reilly: The elements are outlined in «Ex Corde Ecclesiae.» We offer a printed version and also have the text posted on our Web site. But in brief, Catholic identity requires not only a historical relationship with the Church but also a living inspiration that carries through every official action and policy of the college or university.

Nothing a Catholic college or university officially does, says, funds, or otherwise formally sponsors should contradict its Catholic mission.

In no way does this interfere with the free dialogue of students and faculty — when not in a formal teaching capacity — on all issues and their ability to express any viewpoint, as long as the institution’s fidelity to Catholic teaching is evident and the dialogue’s participants demonstrate respect for the truth and the common good.

I think that it is one of the under-appreciated legacies of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate that the concept of a Catholic institution — whether a Catholic college, school, hospital, social service agency, etc. — is finally being clarified in the wake of Vatican II.

At the risk of over-simplification, I would say that the Church has called Catholic institutions to a relationship in many ways similar to that of Catholic individuals: a sacramental relationship including active participation in the life of the Church and lived fidelity to the magisterium.

In recent decades, many Catholic institutions in the U.S. have sought complete autonomy from the «institutional» Church, a separation from the Body of Christ that is just as damaging to the Catholic identity of an institution as it is to the spiritual health of an individual.

Whether or not institutions that have sought greater distance from the «institutional» Church will fully embrace a more genuine relationship with the Body of Christ remains to be seen.

Q: Do you see Catholic colleges making an effort to reclaim their Catholic identity?

Reilly: I know of almost no Catholic college or university in the United States that is not making strides in the right direction. For many, the improvements are not well coordinated and fail to confront prevailing trends in American higher education that are inconsistent with the Catholic educational mission.

But after more than a decade since «Ex Corde Ecclesiae» was issued, the momentum toward renewal has not waned, as many opponents of reform had hoped it would. Instead, the
recent priest-sex scandals have only heightened concern about the culture of dissent and lack of spiritual formation among American Catholics, thereby increasing interest in the renewal of Catholic higher education.

For American Catholics looking for signs of encouragement and the potential for positive change in the Church, our efforts are exciting and tremendously uplifting.

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