For House Speaker Boehner’s Catholic charity scrutinized at commencement address

May 14, 2011

Katy Jamison strode toward her graduation from Catholic University on Saturday wearing the requisite black robe and mortar board — plus a neon green message to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

“Where’s the compassion, Mr. Boehner?” said the 8-by-10-inch sign pinned to her chest.

Jamison, 26, said Boehner, the keynote speaker at Catholic’s graduation and recipient of an honorary law doctorate, had cut too much in the federal budget aimed at protecting the poor. Doing so defied the Catholic church’s teachings, she said, and will hurt the people she hopes to help with her newly minted master’s degree in social work.

“His policies reflect different values than the values of social work professionals, which are to help people who are poor, vulnerable and repressed,” Jamison said.

Jamison and about 30 other students, all graduate students in social work, were part of a small, quiet protest against the House speaker. There were no jeers or chants. Several protest organizers said they didn’t want to detract from the ceremony. While there was no outward protest from the faculty, many did not join the students in their standing ovation to Boehner’s sometimes teary speech.

A letter signed by 83 students and sent to university president John Garvey on Thursday said Boehner was an inappropriate keynote speaker because the fiscal 2012 budget resolution that he had championed severely cut funding for food assistance, programs for low-income children and help for the homeless.

“Does the Catholic University administration really believe that Speaker Boehner is the example of Catholic leadership we should aspire to follow as we make our way into the world?” the letter said.

Another letter to Boehner signed by 83 Catholic University professors and academics from Boston College, Fordham University and other Catholic schools said the speaker had ignored his moral obligation to make protecting the poor a priority. The letter called his legislative record of helping the poor “among the worst in Congress.”

Speaking from the eastern steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Boehner urged the more than 1,500 graduates to cultivate humility, patience and faith. He choked up and dabbed his eyes while recalling how his high school football coach had called on the morning he became House speaker to tell him “you can do it” and how his parents often told him, “If you do the right thing for the right reason, good things will happen.”

Boehner, who attended Catholic high school and Jesuit Xavier University, a Catholic college in Cincinnati, made no mention of politics. He came close only when recounting that when asked recently by a high school student what he prayed for before White House meetings with President Obama, he had told the student, “I always ask God for the courage and wisdom to do His will, not mine.”

Before telling the graduates, “All right, off you go,” Boehner drew laughs and applause when he said, “So there you have it — humility, patience and faith and, as always, a few tears from me.”

Garvey said he invited Boehner to give the keynote address because of his support for Catholic education.

“He’s been a good leader for his party,” Garvey said in an interview following the ceremony. “He’s himself a good Catholic, and he represents the church well.”

Boehner was unavailable after the address, and a university spokeswoman said he had to hurry off to catch a flight. Asked about the protest, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Boehner was “deeply honored” to deliver the graduation address. “He hopes it spoke to all members of the graduating class, regardless of their backgrounds or affiliations,” Steel said.

Students who did not protest Boehner said they were impressed that their relatively small school attracted the House speaker, regardless of whether they agreed with his politics.

“He kept [his speech] focused on the faith and on us,” said Ryan Soccio, 21, of Rhode Island, who received his bachelor’s degree in politics. “He kept it anti-political, which I thought was a good idea.”

shaverk@washpost.com

Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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