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Catholic Commencements and Pro-Abortion Politicians | James V. Schall, S.J. | June 1, 2007 (orig. June 4, 2005)

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Editor's Note: This essay by Fr. Schall was originally published on IgnatiusInsight.com on June 4, 2005, with the title, "Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored." Since it is that time of year again and because various pro-abortion Catholic politicians have been in the news on a regular basis (including Rudy Giuliani, whose views are discussed by Fr. Schall), this essay is being republished.

The tradition of commencement speakers at colleges and universities is an age-old and laudable one. It is a mutual relationship. The school awards someone with an honorary degree because of an outstanding intellectual, social, religious, artistic, or political accomplishment.

Who is chosen to be honored makes a statement about what the school upholds. In turn, the invited speaker, in agreeing to accept, honors the school by his presence on the occasion of another class of graduating students. He is there partly to speak to them of the world he knows and upholds, partly to alert and encourage them about the importance of what they have accomplished in completing their university education and where it leads.

Obviously, we can tell much of a university by noticing over the years what and whom it honors. We seek to find men and women worthy of acknowledgment and distinguished in their lives. But these recipients in turn do not want to be honored by just anybody. An honor is an exception, a distinction. Aristotle, in his discussion of the magnanimous man, noted that he must be himself worthy of honor and know himself, in some sense, to be so worthy. This observation means that we should not accept honors from or give them to unworthy sources or for ignoble reasons.

In broad terms, this issue of whom to honor has regularly come up for Catholic universities in recent years. The latest incident concerns Loyola College in Baltimore, which chose former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani to honor at this year’s graduation ceremony. Normally, having the mayor of New York City in the city of Baltimore would be a mutually good thing. However, as the Baltimore Sun (May 19) reported, a problem did exist. The Archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal William Keeler, announced in what was described as a "strongly worded letter" that he would not appear at this ceremony because of the Giuliani’s public record on abortion.

Over recent years, Catholic colleges, in other jurisdictions, have invited politicians or other public figures known to support abortion, directly or indirectly — Giuliani himself is "personally opposed." In many cases, the local ordinary did not similarly protest. I believe Villanova University this year honored the President of Ireland who has a pro-abortion record. Indeed, some seventeen Catholic schools of higher education (out of about 250) have selected speakers who, in one way or another, have clear pro-abortion or other positions contrary to standard Catholic teachings.

Up to now, no common policy seems to exist among Catholic schools or bishops on these cases. The Vatican has had much to say on this general topic, essentially that schools billing themselves as Catholic should reflect such standards, or else why go to the trouble? On the other hand, that Cardinal Keeler would make such a definite point at this time alerts us to the fact that perhaps, with the new Pope, a different approach is being hammered out.

Spokesmen at Loyola College argued that the school was not honoring Giuliani for his abortion position but for his undeniably good work during and after the 9/11 bombings. This graduating class entered college during those tragic days. Thus, it seemed appropriate to choose Giuliani for this honor. Certainly, Giuliani does not want to be caught in this controversy. He has evidently sworn to uphold the laws that permit or promote abortion. He makes his compromise by dividing his private and public lives. Analogous issues came up, of course, during recent Clinton and Kerry elections and in various local elections or court cases.

The number of legislators and politicians who define themselves as "Catholic" but who follow the broad outlines of the Giuliani position is large, too large no doubt. But part of the reason for this phenomenon has been the confused, or what seemed to be confused, guidance from the local or Roman hierarchy. Here, the figure of Senator Edward Kennedy probably stands as an abiding monument to the pro-abortion Catholic, regularly supported by a largely Catholic electorate, over against a lack of any definitive criticism from the local ordinaries. Lacking the latter, most people assume that, in ways they know not how, it must be all right. Not a few bishops seem to realize that such silence has its high price, especially now, granted their own problems with public image due to the clergy scandals.

What is one to make of this graduation situation? Certainly, the notion that it is all right to recognize someone for a good deed or position, while ignoring in the same person a position not at all so good, presents problems. We would not, to take an extreme example, give an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts and Letters to a Nazi violinist who ran a gas chamber, even if he were the best violinist ever and was simply following orders about the gas chamber. We can vary that blatant example however we want but this, in principle, is the justification the Loyola spokesman gave for granting the degree and the grounds for the subsequent problem that Cardinal Keeler had with it.

Morality is a whole, or it is not morality at all. On the other hand, if only saints were recognized, Mother Teresa would have had more honorary degrees than she did. The guiltless one who casts the first stone is a principle from Scripture itself that needs to be balanced into this equation. The number of sinless politicians or academics (or clerics) is probably commensurate with the national average. We are in danger, unless we make the proper distinctions, of ending up with a world in which none can be honored for anything.

How do we think about these troubling matters? Let me begin briefly with a passage from Psalm 94: "Can judges who do evil be your friends? They do injustice under the cover of law; they attack the life of the just and condemn innocent blood." In context, the passage is rather striking.

In general, people expect Catholics to stand for what it is to be Catholic, or else, again, why bother? In itself, the abortion issue is not primarily a matter of faith, but a recognition of what a human being is in all its stages. In this sense, it is not just pro-abortion Catholics who should not be honored. One should never say, I think, "I am against abortion because I am a Catholic." This position makes this topic to be a matter of faith alone, even though it can also be a matter of faith.

The Catholic view rather recognizes what is quite clear from evidence, that what is killed is a human being. In this sense, the Church maintains that if you cannot recognize this very obvious truth, a truth of reason and observation, or at least take it on faith, you cannot be a Catholic. Moreover, please do not call yourself one. Politicians and academics should never allow themselves to be in the position of maintaining that this killing, whatever we call it, is all right.

The Church’s position here is acutely aware of the physical and spiritual needs of those who have abortions. It recognizes the need to provide alternatives and has developed a network for doing so. Indeed, those engaged in these works of mercy should be honored in a particular fashion.

What concerns the Church in the case of honorary degrees, I think, is the image of a person who maintains he is Catholic, who claims that he does not disagree with the Church’s positions personally, but gives reasons why laws or procedures contrary to these positions are objectively acceptable. What we should expect from Catholics is a response that seeks in every way to find alternatives to lessen or eliminate these positions through political or other action. There are in fact politicians whose record does this. Implicitly, the person who takes a position that ends up in supporting or promoting abortion announces his view that, by his own authority, the Church is wrong. Or else he insists that the Church is requiring an impossible position, which amounts to the same thing.

Honorary degrees should be given for what is honorable. They should testify to what is honorable. They should be in a context of knowing what is honorable and what is not. By giving an honorary degree a university, whether it knows it or not, teaches us what it stands for. By accepting a degree, the recipient tells us what he stands for. Honor is a subtle thing, much more subtle than monetary rewards, as Aristotle also saw. It intends to emphasize the good, true, and beautiful in a particular way, in the way that such institutions can point to the importance of these realities and their understanding of them.

The universities in the Catholic tradition are not designed to confuse us about what the truth as that truth is enlightened by reasoning and revelation. The world is full of folks who do not hold these positions. This is why the Church, as the new Pope has said, the Church is by its nature missionary. What cannot be honored are views that clearly undermine what the Church holds to be valid. Why a school would choose someone who takes a position contrary to the Church’s views, or why someone would want to be called Catholic or be honored who takes a contrary view, are rather curious issues. One possibility is that the school or the honoree thinks that the Church is wrong. The other possibility is that there is a deep-seated reluctance to cut one’s ties with the Church on the suspicion that such an act would be a final break with a tradition that claims to be true.

In either case, the question of "who is honored at commencements?" is no neutral consideration. It does reveal, in a rather obvious way, just what a school thinks it is about and just what the one honored stands for in the light of the attention focused on him by the honor. One might phrase the issue this way: "Tell me what you honor and I will tell you what you are." What we see worked out at university graduations, more than we might at first suspect, is a particular answer to this question. If in this context, the Church has its own response to such particular questions, it is in fact doing little more than proclaiming what it is, a source of truth that it too must uphold because it is true.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

On "Losing" One's Faith at University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Learning and Education | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life of the Mind | An Interview with Roger Kimball

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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