The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington has invited Speaker of the House John Boehner to deliver a commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Anyone with functioning brain cells can remember the flack created upon a similar invitation by the University of Notre Dame to President Barack Obama. Put simply, inviting political celebrities to graduation ceremonies at Catholic institutions almost always opens up the political divisions in Catholic America. Thankfully, those reacting to this latest invitation have the good sense and maturity in the Catholic faith to welcome the Speaker rather than call for the withdrawal of the invitation. Unlike the spasm of close-minded censure against the president, Speaker Boehner’s visit has been greeted as an expression of Catholic freedom of thought.
Academics with Catholic ties have written to the speaker, himself a Catholic:
“It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.” This is an obvious left-handed (pun intended!) compliment because the writers clearly place the recent legislative record of Speaker Boehner at variance with the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Opposing voices have entered the fray, notably Fr. Robert A. Sirico, head of the Acton Institute dedicated to the study of “Free Market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes.” Fr. Sirico writes for the National Review Online and repeats the classic premise for Cafeteria Catholics: the principle of subsidiarity states that social justice legislation is not a proper agent of public attention to poverty and material need.
This blanket statement is flawed because the principle of subsidiarity requires that the injustice is already being addressed at local levels. In other words, Catholic teaching does not allow subsidiarity to be an excuse to do nothing at all. In the United States, the federal government has taken a major role in initiating social programs that were not in force at local levels and these actions have long been strongly supported by the church, especially since the Great Depression.
In contrast with generalizing of Cafeteria Catholics on the right, the CUA letter to Speaker Boehner lists specific items he has voted for that are at variance with USCCB statements criticizing the Ryan Budget and other radical cuts in the social welfare safety net. To escape this challenge to debate, the speaker’s office issued a statement that his speech will be “a personal, nonpolitical message” that he hopes “will speak to all members of the graduating class, regardless of their backgrounds or affiliations.”
As an academic who has attended countless commencement ceremonies, I think that the speaker may well accomplish this non-political messaging. However, institutions will never escape the conflicts generated by inviting political figures to graduations. I remember at Brooklyn College the time we spent in debate to reverse a previous decision to revoke an Honorary Degree to the then Bishop Francis Mugavero. The faculty senate debate involved Catholic bans on active homosexual activity contrasted with the bishop’s role in creating the Campaign for Human Developement. Of another sort is the heated controversy at the City University of New York (CUNY) about a similar flip-flop on an award to playwright Tony Kushner, this time all about his criticism of the State of Israel. Sadly, the Catholic League has supported the denial of the degree, adding charges of anti-Catholicism.
In my experience, virtually every person who has accomplished something noteworthy in their life has also offended someone else with differing values. When it comes to a graduation speaker, therefore, it is relatively easy to use guilt by association to call for censure as frequently does the Cardinal Newman Society. Such closing of minds at our universities should be reversed in favor of the dialog promoted in this case at CUA. Sentiment from the Catholic America, moreover, prefers that speaker deliver a few good lines addressed to the graduates and keep them brief so the family can celebrate the event apolitically.