They only speak for 30 minutes or so, but the speakers selected to deliver the commencement addresses at graduations are a significant indicator of a college or university’s values and priorities.
This is especially true of Catholic institutions of higher education, who have a smaller pool to draw from if they’re intent on elevating models of the faith as commencement speakers. Many commenters agreed that 2013 was a good year in this respect, as a number of Catholic colleges picked prominent Catholics whose private and public actions are consistent with Church teaching.
But the big picture in 2014 appears to be a bit more mixed.
The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), which keeps close tabs on Catholic colleges and universities, has identified more than 20 Catholic institutions it says have chosen speakers who publicly support abortion, contraception or same-sex "marriage" — all practices prohibited by Church teaching. The organization cited six in 2013.
Among the institutions on CNS’ "negative" list are the University of San Francisco, with past U.S. transportation secretary and congressman Norman Mineta, a co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act in 1993, set to deliver the address; the Dominican University of California, which is honoring actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a keynote speaker at a February Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas fundraiser; St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., which is featuring former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a co-sponsor of the 1993 Freedom of Choice Act during his time in Congress; and Santa Clara University in California, where the graduation stage was offered to Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian whose works have been censured by the Vatican on the grounds that they contain "erroneous and dangerous propositions."
Ten years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document on "Catholics in Political Life": "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor [USCCB emphasis] those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles," stated the document. "They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
Still, many Catholic colleges continue to invite and honor those who defy Church teaching.
At the same time, the Cardinal Newman Society says other Catholic colleges have remained fully faithful in their choices.
Examples include Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., which will have Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., as its speaker; Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., where Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, grand knight of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, will deliver the address; Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where Helen Alvaré, law professor and consultor for the Pontifical Council of the Laity will give the commencement address; and Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., which picked Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, co-founder and mother general of the Sisters of Life, for its speaker.
Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society highlighted Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, as a Catholic university that always selects "sterling" commencement speakers. This year is no different, as Michael Warsaw, the chairman of the board and CEO of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and publisher of the Register, delivered the commencement address on May 10.
Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan, a Third Order Regular and president of the university, shared why the college chose Warsaw: "Over the past 23 years, [he] has worked to promote the truth about God and man, Church and culture at EWTN."
In addition to delivering remarks at the graduation ceremony, Warsaw received an honorary doctorate in communications.
The College of St. Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire held its graduation ceremonies on May 4. Dan Burke, the executive director of the Register and the founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, gave the commencement address and received an honorary doctorate in humanities.
Another pick Reilly highlighted was Ohio Dominican University’s selection of Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and an award-winning author, who has consistently spoken out about the declining integrity of Catholic higher education at his university and across the country.
The Catholic University of America in Washington proved that high-profile Catholic role models can come from places other than academia and ecclesial institutions by picking Philip Rivers, quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, as its commencement speaker. Rivers is a prominent athlete who is very public about his faith, family and pro-life commitments.
Other notable commencement speakers are appearing at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., which will have, respectively, Peter Kreeft, a Boston College philosophy professor and prolific author, and attorney Frances Hogan. Hogan was instrumental in ensuring jobs for low-income earners in major Boston construction projects, and he is also a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and co-founder and past president of the national Women Affirming Life.
Father Miscamble’s own university, Notre Dame, selected Christopher Patten (Lord Patten of Barnes), the chancellor of the University of Oxford, as its main speaker.
Reilly says a complicating factor in the selection of solidly Catholic commencement speakers is the fact that many Catholic colleges "want to honor people doing something for social justice, AIDS and poverty," noble causes in and of themselves.
"But the sad reality is that some of these efforts get tied in with Planned Parenthood [and other organizations that promote abortion and contraception]," he observed. He said this was the case with Mark Shriver, the senior vice president of Save the Children, a charity that has pro-contraceptive goals, according to its website. Shriver is slated to give the commencement address at Loyola University of Maryland.
Reilly also said that Catholic colleges sometimes place too much significance on public prominence when selecting commencement speakers, instead of focusing on a potential speaker’s fidelity to and work on behalf of the Church.
Perhaps the College of St. Mary Magdalen’s president, George Harne, put it best when he explained why he chose Burke as the school’s speaker.
"He called us to conversion and the pursuit of holiness as our primary goals: All of us, young and old, are all called to be saints," Harne noted. "He reminded us that while building a strong Catholic culture and seeking a just political order are important, these must flow from the conversion of our hearts and lives and our complete commitment to the pursuit of sainthood."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.