WASHINGTON — Amid ongoing debate over what constitutes a Catholic university, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York defended the countercultural witness of The Catholic University of America.
In a striking departure from graduation speeches designed to inspire and celebrate career goals, Cardinal Dolan focused a May 12 commencement address on core Catholic beliefs. He urged the graduates to follow “The Law of the Gift” handed down to the faithful through the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.
The cardinal serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. During a news cycle that marked President Barack Obama’s public endorsement of same-sex “marriage” and Kathleen Sebelius’ upcoming appearance during Georgetown University’s commencement, he affirmed his commitment to the defense of traditional marriage and religious freedom.
He asked the assembled crowd of students, families, faculty and alumni to ponder whether the “university’s genuine greatness comes not from pursuing what is most chic, recent or faddish, but what is most timeless, true, good and beautiful in creation and creatures … ‘that the true goal of a university is to prepare a student not only for a career, but for fullness of life here and in eternity.’”
He told his audience that Pope Benedict XVI underscored the importance of an authentic Catholic education at an ad limina meeting with a group of U.S. bishops earlier this month. During that meeting, the Pope stated that a truly Catholic university is distinguished by “ecclesial communion and solidarity” with the full scope of the Church’s educational apostolate.
Reflecting on the Holy Father’s remarks, Cardinal Dolan noted with dismay “the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership.”
Catholic and American
The commencement address made no explicit reference to the controversy sparked by the news that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, will speak at a Georgetown graduation event. On Jan. 20, Sebelius approved a federal rule mandating contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization services for health-insurance plans provided by private employers, including church-affiliated social agencies, hospitals and universities.
However, Cardinal Dolan, a CUA alumnus, suggested that the spirit of joyful celebration during the university's commencement arose, in part, from a ”grateful recognition that this … university is both Catholic and American.”
Critics of Georgetown’s decision to extend an invitation to Sebelius suggest that it is only further evidence of the Jesuit institution’s drift toward a secular template for educational excellence. During his commencement address, Cardinal Dolan challenged the notion that Catholic universities must choose between academic freedom and adherence to fundamental Catholic teaching.
“Some wonder if Pope Benedict’s description of a university is way too impractical; if a university can be really Catholic and American; if the genuine freedom a university demands can flourish on a campus whose very definition includes a loyalty to Holy Mother Church,” he noted.
He answered his rhetorical question with a brief affirmation, pointing to CUA as proof that a Catholic identity secured academic excellence.
Cardinal Dolan’s comments offered an implicit critique of Georgetown’s institutional direction. A similar judgment was expressed in an editorial published last weekend in the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., has not commented publicly on the university’s decision to honor Sebelius at a graduation event, but the Standard editorial marked an apparent shift to his strategy for addressing the controversy.
“Georgetown University has, historically speaking, religious roots,” stated the editorial. “So, too, do Harvard, Princeton and Brown. Over time, though, as has happened with these Ivy League institutions, Georgetown has undergone a secularization, due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching. Many are quite clear that they reflect the values of the secular culture of our age. Thus the selection of Secretary Sebelius for special recognition, while disappointing, is not surprising.”
‘The Law of the Gift’
But Cardinal Dolan did not limit his remarks to hot-button issues. He devoted a significant portion of his address to a reflection on the Catholic university as an intellectual community that fosters and clarifies the relationship between authentic love and the inconvenient truths banished by the forces of secularism and political correctness.
“The Holy Father mentions not only truth as being at the core of the mission of a Catholic university, but also love,” Cardinal Dolan observed, as he told students the story of a New York grandmother, Clara Almazo, who recently gave up her own life to save the life of her grandchild.
“Just a little over a month ago, Clara and her little 8-year-old grandson, Michael, were walking home from Holy Thursday Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish on Staten Island.
“As they crossed the street, a car barreled toward them, with little Michael in the crosshairs. His abuela, Grandma Clara, pushed her grandson away to safety, taking herself the whole force of the car, and was instantly killed,” the cardinal explained.
“[H]er life-giving act was made the more poignant as it came on the night before Jesus died, returning from the Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper, when he spoke of his own sacrificial death and where he gave the touching example of selfless service in washing the feet of his apostles.”
Clara’s large family “told me she was a woman of constant, heroic, selfless giving,” a witness to “The Law of the Gift,” he said.
“Greater love than this no one has, than to give one’s life for one’s friends: There’s ‘The Law of the Gift’ as defined by the Son of God himself.”
Decades ago, CUA was at the epicenter of theological dissent, with moral theologian Father Charles Curran openly challenging the authority of Pope Paul VI to judge contraception use as immoral. Over the intervening decades, a spectrum of sexual practices, from adultery and premarital sex to homosexual behavior, have been normalized, and U.S. universities have been criticized for indulging “toxic” sexual behavior among students.
Today at CUA, however, open theological dissent is a rare occurrence. Of equal importance, CUA’s new president, John Garvey, has implemented new policies that have sought to provide an integrated vision of Catholic intellectual life and culture. Single-sex dorms and a campaign to promote virtue on campus have been hallmarks of Garvey’s administration.
At CUA’s 2012 commencement exercises, Cardinal Dolan provided further context for Garvey’s efforts in an address that sought to retire a tired assertion of the sexual revolution: Christian moral taboos suppress rather than secure the human person’s full capacity for love.
The cardinal encouraged the graduates to embrace “The Law of the Gift,” quoting Blessed John Paul II: “[W]e are at our best, we are most fully alive and human, when we give away freely and sacrificially our very selves in love for another.”
“The Law of the Gift” was “exemplified in the lifelong, life-giving, faithful, intimate union of a man and woman in marriage, which then leads to the procreation of new life” and the self-sacrificing love expressed in the care and education of their children.
In comments that offered an implicit rebuke to President Obama, who confirmed his support for legal same-sex “marriage” just days before the commencement, the cardinal identified traditional marriage as the fulcrum of a life-affirming culture fostered by “The Law of the Gift.”
His remarks also served as a gentle corrective for young Americans, who are more pro-life than their elders, but also more accepting of same-sex “marriage.”
“That union — that sacred rhythm of man/woman/husband/wife/baby/mother/father — is so essential to the order of the common good that its very definition is ingrained into our interior dictionary, that its protection and flourishing is the aim of culture,” stated Cardinal Dolan.
During an interview after the commencement, Garvey expressed his appreciation for the cardinal’s emphasis on self-sacrificial love.
“What I liked about his discussion of ‘The Law of the Gift’ was that, so often, commencement addresses focus on some variation of ‘dreaming the big dream’ or ‘grab for the brass ring,’” he said. “That is standard graduation fare and (those addresses) have at their heart a modern American notion that it’s about self-fulfillment or personal acquisition.”
For his part, Garvey’s brief commencement address was on the virtue of patience.
“It’s a funky virtue to be talking about at a gradation,” he acknowledged. “But patience turns out to be a great virtue to talk about with students. I said that patience was the seedbed of virtue.
“Today, we often have a limited appreciation for the meaning of this virtue. We might say, for example, that Warren Buffett is a patient picker of stocks. But that’s a skill more than a virtue.
“Instead, we might consider St. Monica’s patience when thinking about her son,” Garvey suggested. “For her, patience means the disposition to await God’s grace. That kind of patience is what people getting out of college need to have.”