Here we go again. Another spring, another round of dubiously distinguished commencement speakers and honorees at Catholic colleges.
“It happens every year,” says Patrick J. Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, which annually lists the offending campuses on its website, cardinalnewmansociety.org. “We usually have about 20 speakers that we protest.”
Colleges and speakers on this year's list of 19 include, for example:
• The Dominican University of California in San Rafael, whose guest speaker May 15 was U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, an outspoken abortion-rights activist;
• Regis College in Weston, Mass., which on May 16 honored former U.S. surgeon-general David Satcher, who, serving under President Bill Clinton, opposed a ban on partial-birth abortion and oversaw the placement of ads promoting condom use; and
• The College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., where on May 8 Libby Pataki, wife of pro-abortion N.Y. Gov. George Pataki and herself an abortion-rights advocate, spoke and was awarded an honorary degree.
• At Boston College Law School, graduates heard from U.S. Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger May 24. Dellinger has been associated with NARAL Pro-Choice America and, under President Clinton, drafted five executive orders that nullified President George H.W. Bush's pro-life policies.
“It is certainly disappointing that Boston College has chosen a commencement speaker whose views so radically conflict with the Church's teaching,” says Ryan Connors, a Boston College undergraduate who has written for the Register. “Boston College cannot honor someone who stands so opposed to the faith of the Church and at the same time remain faithful to its Catholic identity and mission.”
This year, as in past years, most of the speakers and honorees espouse pro-abortion views — but some have additional credentials on their respective resumés.
For example, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who broke California state law by issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples, was the University of San Francisco's commencement speaker May 22.
“Coming right after the Church has engaged in a major battle over the issue of gay marriage, cases like this strike me as a direct affront to the bishops,” says Reilly. “Most people throughout the country know Newsom only for that issue.”
Many Catholic parents use the Newman Society list as an indicator of which schools not to send their children to.
J. Fraser Field, executive officer of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center, an Internet resource library for Catholics at catholiceducation. org, finds the Newman Society list a “simple barometer of authenticity in Catholic institutions.”
“The list is a very simple way of exposing the frauds,” adds Field. “But it's more than that. The society is pointing out the hypocrisy, and holding people's feet to the fire, in order to call these colleges back to their Catholic identity, their integrity.”
In fact, all Catholic colleges are called to be faithful. The Vatican's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, requires that “any official action or commitment of the university is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”
Says Field, “There is something fundamentally dishonest and hypocritical about an institution calling itself Catholic, but not — in even these simplest ways — being responsible to what that means.”
Besides publishing offending colleges online, the Newman Society contacts the presidents of colleges on the list and notifies the bishops who are local to those colleges.
“If a bishop privately or publicly expresses concern about a commencement speaker, the level of concern rises significantly,” explains Reilly. “These colleges are going to be much more concerned about a bishop expressing reservations. “
Reilly points to Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Bishop John D'Arcy, who declined the offer of an honorary degree from the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne when he learned that Dr. Nancy Snyderman, a TV journalist who holds pro-abortion views, was the scheduled commencement speaker. The school subsequently rescinded its invitation to Snyder-man.
Bishop D'arcy explained that he held the University of Saint Francis in high regard but felt compelled to act. “A bishop is bound to preach the truth, not only in words, but also by his actions,” he said in a statement released April 28. “The Church's position on unborn life is well known, and the Church's position is my position. It is my obligation to all the faithful and especially to the young graduates to make sure there is no confusion on this matter.”
This was just one of the more highly visible signs that the Cardinal Newman Society's watchfulness is making a difference, according to Reilly. “I think that the schools are much more attentive to these concerns now,” he says. “A few years ago, they didn't give it a second thought.”
Reilly adds that a number of colleges have begun privately contacting the society to inquire about prospective speakers and honor-ees — before the invitations go out. “They are clearly concerned about being embarrassed,” he says, not to mention mindful of dropping alumni donations and student applications.
Those are fine motivators to think “outside the box” of placing high-profile names ahead of strong Catholic voices when it comes time to plan commencement ceremonies at Catholic colleges. But, says Reilly: “We hope our list is also reaching their conscience.”
Mary Ann Sullivan writes from New Durham, New Hampshire.