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Another Questionable Commencement Speaker at Notre Dame

Friday, July 18, 2014 2:55 PM Comments (59)

The University of Notre Dame knows a thing or two about generating controversy over the selection of its commencement speakers. And no Catholic institution receives as much scrutiny for who it picks to stand on stage as does Our Lady’s university.

But at a small graduation ceremony on campus this weekend, no one so much as registered a disgruntled sigh when the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a Notre Dame program, made the highly questionable decision to invite Sen Bob Casey to address its graduates.

Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, has a very checkered record as a Catholic legislator. While he remains nominally pro-life (which is, to his credit, no small feat in an increasingly hostile Democratic caucus), his positions on issues like same-sex “marriage” and mandated employer coverage of contraception fly in the face of Catholic social teaching and leave much to be desired.

Any one of these positions makes the decision to honor Casey at Notre Dame troubling, but there’s one policy stance in particular that made the senator’s selection as ACE commencement speaker, a role that required him to address hundreds of Catholic ed teachers, administrators and advocates, so downright puzzling and ironically bizarre.

You see, Casey opposes school voucher systems, the policy that allows parents to choose where their kids go to school, giving lower-income families access to a Catholic education while also helping ensure the vitality of Catholic schools.

To be sure, a Catholic can in good conscience be opposed to school voucher programs for a number of prudential reasons. Maybe they think there’s a better way to support Catholic schools, or maybe they think vouchers come at the detriment of our public schools, as Casey does, according to his office. How a Catholic politician votes on this policy issue isn’t on the same moral planet as how they approach issues of life and human dignity.

So no, Casey is not a “bad Catholic” for opposing school vouchers.

But he was a bad choice as commencement speaker at ACE’s graduation ceremony. A horrible choice, actually.

Whether someone supports them or not, school vouchers are a critical part of the puzzle that is figuring out how to make our Catholic schools affordable and fiscally viable in an era when priests and religious, who are paid considerably less than their lay counterparts, make up only a tiny portion of Catholic educators. In fact, this is a truth that ACE, more than any other organization perhaps, knows and does something about. ACE even has an entire program, the Program for Educational Access, devoted to reforming education with vouchers and school choice at its core. To invite an elected official who actively opposes this type of reform seems, at best, like an incredible oversight.

To be sure, Casey’s remarks were thoughtful and relevant, as he shared his own experience of teaching in a Philadelphia Catholic school for a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. However, his words seem shallow and empty when you consider that he was addressing a graduating group of Catholic school teachers and principals, whose very work and ministry depends on the vouchers that Casey deems “not worth it.”

And finally, it seemed downright inappropriate for ACE’s founder Father Tim Scully, a personal friend of Casey who provided his introduction, to highlight the fact that the senator sent his children to Catholic schools, when the fact is he doesn’t support policies that would extend those same opportunities to kids from families with lower incomes.

And, unlike the 2009 university graduation, when Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, justified the decision to invite and honor President Obama by saying it would serve as an opportunity for “dialogue” about abortion, no one even acknowledged that there was a difference of opinions between Casey and ACE on an issue as critical to Catholic education as school vouchers. Instead, it went unmentioned.

Unfortunately, I can’t believe that this wrong-headed decision was the result of ignorance or incompetence on the part of ACE. The people who work for the organization are too sharp to miss something as big as this.

ACE had to have been aware of Casey’s opposition to school vouchers, and invited and honored him anyway. They held him up as a champion of Catholic education, while the fact is that he stands in the way of the service and reform that ACE is all about. It seems clear that ACE prioritized status, prestige and connections over its own integrity, and the integrity of the commencement exercises.

This is a shame, because those graduating from ACE deserved better than this. In addition to principals who had completed the Remick Leadership Program, Saturday’s ceremony marked the final hurrah for this year’s class of Service Through Teaching graduates. Those who completed this program poured their hearts and souls into their teaching assignments over the last two years, serving in some of the most under-resourced Catholic schools in the country.

To do what they did required an extraordinary amount of determination, selflessness and sheer bravery (which my brother, William, who graduated with his master of education degree this past weekend, had, while I, who didn’t even last a year in the program, did not).

Casey might have been able to relate to the challenges and triumphs that these new Catholic school teachers experienced, but it would’ve been better if ACE had invited someone who actually cared enough about these teachers and their schools to support something as important to Catholic education as school vouchers.

Filed under catholic colleges and universities, catholic education, catholic politicians, school vouchers, university of notre dame

About Jonathan Liedl

Jonathan Liedl
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Jonathan Liedl lives in St. Paul, Minn., where he is a graduate fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas. He works as the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life, a non-profit devoted to revitalizing the Church in the countryside and applying Catholic teaching to rural issues. In addition to writing and editing for the Register, he is a contributing editor of the web-journal Ethika Politika. Liedl earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame.