By Jan Niklas Wolfe
The overwhelming majority of American catholic colleges won't be honoring public figures that flout church teaching at this year's commencement exercises, according to the Cardinal Newman Society, the conservative Catholic watchdog group. Of the hundreds of men and women who will be awarded honorary degrees by the nation's 225 Catholic universities this month, the Society labels only 6 as dissenters on key moral issues (abortion, as always, seems to be the biggie), down from 24 in 2006 and 13 in 2007, according to the Boston Globe.
As the Globe's Michael Paulson points out, pro-choice catholic politicians are the most obvious snubs. Rudy Giuliani, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy, all regulars on the commencement speaker circuit, will not be addressing a catholic college's graduating class this year.
Many catholic schools, particularly the smaller, more conservative institutions, seem to have genuinely taken to heart the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops advice from 2004 that "the Catholic community and the institutions which are a part of our family of faith should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
For schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College, which have large, politically diverse student bodies and faculties, as well as the prestige to lure big names if they want to, the move away from politicians as speakers may also be borne at least in part from a desire to avoid partisan rancor that detracts from the communal nature of commencement. Boston College, in particular, has drawn ire from all directions over its choice in partisan honorees in the past. Extending invitations to socially liberal honorees like Warren B. Rudman (1992) and Janet Reno (1997) has been panned by more conservative voices within the church, while attempts to honor Bush administration officials like Condoleezza Rice (2006) and Michael Mukasey (Law School, 2008) have angered pacifist Jesuits on campus and the more left-leaning lay faculty. It's not surprising that this year the school opted for the very non-controversial historian David McCullough.
But regardless of what is causing this shift in commencement line-ups, whether it is a genuine desire on the part of colleges to assert their catholic identity or simply an attempt to avoid unnecessary infighting, the trend itself is a self-destructive one.
Commencement ought to be a time for an accomplished figure to offer wisdom to those about to begin their professional lives. One issue that, if polled, many young graduates of these top schools would like to hear more about is how to best lead a multicultural coalition of people without abandoning their own religious principles. Civic leaders like Giuliani, Pelosi, Kerry, and Kennedy are particularly well suited to speak about these difficulties. Rather than being turned away as commencement speakers at religious institutions, they should be highly coveted for the unique advice they can offer.
Whether these politicians should be awarded honorary degrees after giving their addresses is a more thorny issue. Many American Catholics are understandably concerned that honoring Catholics pols supportive of legalized abortion could be interpreted as indifference to a firm position of the church. The Pope's most recent advice to Catholic colleges that they "must be unwavering in their commitment to Catholic teaching in everything they do" makes it fairly obvious where the Vatican stands on the issue.
But catholic colleges have interpreted the Pope's advice loosely in the past (particularly on the issue of academic freedom), and they ought to do the same when it comes to awarding honorary degrees. Not honoring these politicians on the grounds that one position they've taken over the years contradicts church doctrine sends the message to young graduates that, if they plan to run for office, they'll only be worthy of honor if they do so on an uncompromised Catholic platform. This is an unrealistic expectation, of course, particularly in a time when conforming to one of two political parties, neither of which aligns well with the Vatican, is a necessity.
Instead of vetting commencement speakers by comparing their platform against a checklist of church doctrines, university presidents ought to holistically assess each potential speaker's character. Pelosi, Kerry, and co. may not be perfect Catholics, or perfect politicians, but their commitment to service and hard work alone ought to qualify them for role model status.
Some brilliant and admirable names are receiving honorary degrees at catholic colleges this month. But the lack of affection for civic leaders is troubling. The Catholic Church needs more than just humanitarian leaders. It also needs representation in our politic process and ambassadors to the rest of the electorate. Unfortunately, the Catholics that have taken upon themselves this responsibility are not getting the respect they deserve.
Jan Niklas Wolfe is a writer based in Boston, MA. He is a graduate of Boston College.