US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Selective outrage over Catholic university commencement speakers

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Culture

Hardly a day has gone by in recent weeks without someone being upset about who is speaking at Catholic university graduation events. We've written already about the scope of the issue and the big controversies this year, which include Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaking at Georgetown and Desmond Tutu at Gonzaga.

The Cardinal Newman Society, self-appointed watchdog of Catholic college orthodoxy, has kept close tabs on who universities invite to commencement events and are quick to criticize those who they feel are "not Catholic enough" for the job. But curiously, they don't report all the controversies.

Take for instance Fordham University, where the headline speaker at commencement will be John Brennan, the White House deputy national security advisor and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center under the Bush administration. Brennan, who will receive an honorary degree from Fordham, is linked to harsh torture policies, support of drone strikes, and other policies that seem to starkly contradict Catholic teaching. Though Brennan's specific stance on some of these policies is murky, former CIA officer Ray McGovern has done a good job laying out the case against a Catholic school honoring Brennan.

The students at Fordham have certainly not overlooked this choice and petitions--like this one and this one--have already popped up asking the university to reconsider honoring Brennan. Reading through the comments of those who signed the petition shows that the university has alienated many students and their families, who are offended that a Jesuit school would honor such a controversial figure. One person who doesn't seem to mind, however, is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who will be honored at Fordham's graduation right alongside Brennan.

Then there's Franciscan University of Steubenville, a school that prides itself on being one of the most authentically Catholic colleges in the country (and which even dropped student health coverage over its opposition to the federal health care mandate on contraception). At their commencement, Steubenville will be honoring Gen. Michael Hayden, who even more so than Brennan is tied to Bush-era torture policies. Yet according to the university, Hayden and this year's other speakers are "noted for their Catholic faith" and for "protecting the sacredness of human life." Thus far, there have been no major campaigns against inviting Hayden to speak.

The justification for the differing responses here is clear: Abortion is the number one issue for Catholics, and anyone who is pro-choice should never be invited to speak at a Catholic school. War, torture, and the potential loss of thousands of innocent lives are a much lower priority and are more subjective, as some believe Catholics can come to their own moral conclusions on these issues.

I don't mean in any way to suggest that abortion is not the most important issue, nor to suggest that Catholic universities should be encouraged to honor pro-choice politicians. But at the same time, it is important that we don't forget why the church is so against abortion in the first place--the primary teaching of our faith is respect for the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of all human life. And according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."

If our primary concern in criticizing Catholic universities for their commencement speaker choices is that some speakers fail to promote the dignity of human life, shouldn't we try to apply that principle more evenly on both sides of the political spectrum? And if we don't, what does that say about what the attacks on universities for their commencement speaker choices in really trying to accomplish?

Related reading: A Catholic perspective on torture