More than 1700 persons received degrees from Catholic University here yesterday and heard new thoughts from a commencement speaker on the traditional scholarly and philosophical preoccupation with basic moral and aesthetic values.

The colorful ceremonies, attended by 5,000 persons, were held on the east side of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, facing the university campus, and concluded just as hard rain began to fall.

In his address, James H. Billington, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here, told the graduates and their friends and families that modern society appears to have become confused about the meaning and application of both beauty and truth, as demonstrated by the prevalence of such phrases as "the beautiful people" and the "good things of life."

In reality, Billington said, beauty is to be found among things, while real goodness is to be discovered among people and human associations.

Billington, a cultural historian who has directed the center for almost 10 years, also took issue with the educational philosophy suggested by such common phrases as the academic "paper-chase" or "rat-race," possibly conducted on "the fast track."

Rather than a competitive pursuit, he said, education is a collaborative adventure, in which participants need to work with others, not against them.

After the main ceremony, the graduates of the university's Columbus School of Law, held their own gathering indoors, at which they heard from Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

In addition to Dr. Billington, honorary doctoral degrees were awarded yesterday to Sister Melinda Roper, president of the Maryknoll sisters; Sister Claudia Carlen, author and librarian of Marygrove College; Cardinal John Dearden, retired archbishop of Detroit, and Francis O. Rice, who is 93 and professor emeritus of chemistry at Catholic University.