In a new article in Touchstone Magazine, Catholic University of America President John Garvey works out the arguments against Catholic commencement speakers and honorees who oppose Catholic teachings on key moral issues like abortion.
For more than a decade, The Cardinal Newman Society has urged Catholic colleges to select commencement speakers and honorees who reflect and embrace Catholic values. In 2009, more than 367,000 individuals signed the Society's petition asking the president of the University of Notre Dame to not honor President Barack Obama at commencement. And in 2012, the Society urged the president of Georgetown University to disinvite Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from speaking at a graduation ceremony.
In his Touchstone piece, Garvey cites the language used by Notre Dame to honor President Obama and acknowledges that Notre Dame never intended to defy Catholic teaching on abortion:
Nothing there about abortion. We might call this the problem of ambiguity. The problem of bundling was that Obama had a lot of positions, and it wasn't clear which one Notre Dame was endorsing. The problem of ambiguity is that Notre Dame made several statements (some express, some implied) in conflict with one another. How do we know which one to single out as the meaning of the honorary degree?
But Garvey argues that it is impossible for many Catholics--or even "the reasonable person"--to ignore an honoree's position on a moral issue that so obviously conflicts with the university's Catholic mission:
From that perspective, it's hard to avoid saying that [Notre Dame's choice of President Obama] made some kind of statement about abortion. ... Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, there have been about 50 million abortions in the United States. For those who share the Catholic point of view, this is killing on such a massive scale that it overwhelms every other electoral issue.
Garvey then takes on the argument that Catholic institutions should "protect and model" the kind of "free and open dialogue" that considers dissenting positions, "notwithstanding... their 'right to propagate their special faith.'" This "academic freedom" argument, Garvey writes, fails to acknowledge the special nature of a commencement address or honorary degree:
[T]he problem was not inviting the president to speak; the problem was endorsing his position by giving him an honorary degree... But the invitation to a commencement speaker comes from the president of the university, and the honorary degree is voted on by the board of trustees, so the institution stands behind it in the strongest possible way.
In 2004, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document called Catholics in Political Life which stipulated that 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."
In his article, Garvey makes a comparison between the bishops' position in Catholics in Political Life and the argument that public schools should not endorse religion.
The two cases are in fact very much alike, and it would help to settle most of our annual spring quarrels if we recognized this. When a school stages a commencement program, it is a participant in the free market of ideas. Institutions can participate in that market just as individuals can. ...
A Catholic school that follows the bishops' no-endorsement rule is like a public school that follows the First Amendment no-endorsement rule. Both are respecting norms essential to their identity, and the public positions they take are informed by those norms.
Garvey also considers the ever-prevalent controversy of Catholic colleges deciding whether or not to officially support student groups opposed to Catholic teachings. Read the rest of Garvey's article at Touchstone Magazine.
The Catholic University of America is recommended at TheNewmanGuide.com for its strong Catholic identity.
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