Catholic College Commencement ’17: Speakers Faithful or Not?

Keynote speakers run the ‘gamut’ of faithfulness to the Church.

From left to right: The University of Notre Dame invited Vice President Mike Pence, while Thomas Aquinas College chose Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life in New York, and Franciscan University selected Ryan Anderson of The Heritage Foundation.
From left to right: The University of Notre Dame invited Vice President Mike Pence, while Thomas Aquinas College chose Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life in New York, and Franciscan University selected Ryan Anderson of The Heritage Foundation. (photo: Courtesy of the White House, Thomas Aquinas College and The Heritage Foundation)

This commencement season, Catholic colleges and universities have invited a variety of commencement speakers and honorees — ranging from individuals who are strong voices for orthodoxy to those who are proponents of views that directly contradict fundamental Church teaching.

“In our view, being selected as commencement speaker is a great honor, so we have been vetting both speakers and honorary-degree recipients,” Patrick Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, told the Register. “Most Catholic colleges are making wise choices that uphold their Catholic mission, but the scandals elsewhere are unacceptable.”

Reilly sees a problem — again — with the University of Notre Dame. The university invited Vice President Mike Pence to speak May 21. The issue is not with the nation’s second in command, who is a baptized Catholic who attends evangelical churches and is strongly pro-life, as his address to the March for Life 2017 illustrated.

Rather, as Reilly observed, “By honoring the vice president instead of President Trump, Notre Dame is affirming that its long-standing policy of welcoming the sitting U.S. president, regardless of politics, is not, in fact, a sacred obligation. But in 2009, didn’t Notre Dame tell 83 angry bishops that it had no choice but to honor pro-abortion President Obama? It’s blatant hypocrisy. Instead of upholding Catholic identity or even a morally dubious tradition, Notre Dame has again opted for secular prestige and political correctness.”

In addition, Reilly explained, Notre Dame is “honoring a dissenting Catholic priest with the Laetare Medal, intended for exemplary Catholics, after giving the award to pro-abortion Vice President Joe Biden last year. Father Gregory Boyle has done good work with Los Angeles gangs, but he has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage.”


Exemplary Choices

On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, invited Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life in New York, to give the commencement address at its May 13 ceremonies. In a statement ahead of commencement, President Michael McLean said the college is honored she will “share her words of wisdom with our students. For more than 25 years, she has been a tireless servant of mothers and their babies — a true testament to the culture of life.” He was confident she “will be a great source of inspiration for our graduating seniors and for us all.”

Mother Agnes Mary is the chairwoman of the board of directors for the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, a national organization faithful to the Holy Father and the magisterium.

The college will also welcome Father Paul Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, as the principal celebrant and homilist at the baccalaureate Mass. Father Scalia serves as episcopal vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

That same weekend, Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, prepared to host Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as its commencement speaker May 13. The cardinal was to receive an honorary degree, and, the day before, celebrate the baccalaureate Mass.

“Gerhard Cardinal Müller has been a strong, consistent voice in defense of the Church’s perennial teaching in the midst of so much confusion in our modern world,” President Timothy O’Donnell stated in the official announcement. “He is a man of God possessing great faith and hope founded upon his love for Christ and his Church.”

Christendom will also honor Mary Ellen Bork during commencement. O’Donnell called Bork, wife of the late Judge Robert Bork, “a courageous woman who has defended the faith and Church teaching in the public square by her life and witness.”

The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., chose Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, author and former special assistant and speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan, to address graduates May 13. Noonan is the recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for her commentary.

CUA President John Garvey stated in the university’s announcement, “As a columnist she is distinguished in part by open-mindedness and a sense of fair play, which are unusual things these days.”

On May 14 at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas, graduates were scheduled to hear from and honor Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, the first African-American to preside over the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Said Provost C.W. Eaker in an official release, “During a time of much uncertainty and divide, Archbishop Gregory has built bridges across ethnicities and classes and within the Catholic Church, which is vital for the success and unity of future generations. He is one of the Catholic Church’s more influential clergymen in the United States, and we are extremely blessed to welcome him as this year’s commencement speaker.”

Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, scheduled its graduation exercises May 12-13. On May 12, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh was to preside at the baccalaureate Mass and receive an honorary doctorate “for his courage and fidelity as the shepherd of the Diocese of Pittsburgh,” according to an announcement. Ryan Anderson, who holds a doctorate in political philosophy from Notre Dame, was scheduled to speak at the arts commencement ceremony and “be honored for his persuasive defense of Catholic values in the public square as well as his role as a religious-freedom expert,” noted the university.  Anderson is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of several books, including Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. He is a vocal proponent of religious liberty and traditional marriage.

On May 13, Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, invited commencement speaker Father Robert Sirico, president of The Acton Institute, while on May 20, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, will feature Dale Ahlquist, co-founder and president of the American Chesterton Society and EWTN series host, as its commencement speaker.


Problematic Choices

For its May 20 commencement, Santa Clara University School of Law California invited Leon Panetta, a longtime politician who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Santa Clara Law Dean Lisa Kloppenberg said in the school’s release, “His career exemplifies our university’s Jesuit ethos of putting one’s talents to work in service to others. At every turn, he has endeavored to create a more just, humane and sustainable world.”  But as White House chief of staff, he defended Clinton’s veto of a bill to ban partial-birth abortions. He also voted in favor of pro-abortion legislation as a California congressman from 1977 to 1993 and in 1990 co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act.

In Omaha, Nebraska, for its May 13 ceremonies, Creighton University chose physician Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, an international organization that serves the poor in developing nations.

On its website, the group details that while obstetrician/gynecologists and midwives in Haiti “ensure … high-quality care for pregnancy, childbirth and related complications … staff members have offered free condoms and contraception for more than 15 years.” Farmer’s organization also states, “We believe that access to reproductive health is a human-rights issue and includes access to contraception, safe abortion and post-abortion care.”

On May 20 the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, New York, will honor and hear from Maria Vullo, superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, who pushed the state’s mandate of contraceptive and abortion coverage. Strong advocates of abortion and same-sex “marriage” are the picks of several other schools, including Villanova University, which, on May 19, welcomes former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to speak, and Xavier University in New Orleans, which will honor and have as keynote speaker pro-abortion Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana. National Right to Life shows him as voting against the position of life.

On May 18, the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Education honors its commencement speaker, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. On May 20, the university honors Catholic-raised Regina Benjamin, surgeon general under the last president, who backed the administration’s position on reproductive issues. Also, the USF Law School speaker is Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, who brought 15 felony charges against David Daleiden for exposing Planned Parenthood’s selling of aborted baby parts.  The Los Angeles Times called the attorney general’s action “disturbingly aggressive.” Planned Parenthood has applauded Becerra as “a longtime champion for women’s reproductive rights and health.”

For its May 22 commencement exercises, Boston College’s pick is U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania. Although proclaiming himself pro-life, he has, as stated on his website, “continue[d] to support Title X funding for family planning and contraception, including funds that go to Planned Parenthood, because these programs reduce unintended pregnancies and, as a result, reduce the number of abortions.” In addition, he is a proponent of same-sex “marriage.” Reilly told the Register that “Boston College seems determined to defy the bishops’ 2004 policy against honoring opponents of Catholic teaching.”


Overall Outlook

Despite the negatives, Reilly said, “It’s great to see many colleges honoring bishops from the United States and the Vatican.” He added, “I am also particularly happy to see that Franciscan University is honoring Ryan Anderson of The Heritage Foundation, who has done extraordinary work defending marriage and the family. Our Church and culture desperately need faithful Catholic colleges to be forming brilliant laymen like Dr. Anderson.”


Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.



More Commencement Speakers


  • Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, May 13 — award-winning author Clare Vanderpool, noted children’s author whose books have won the Newbery Medal
  • St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, May 13 — Stuart Parker, president and CEO of USAA, a company serving military families with a range of insurance, banking, investment products, financial advice and planning, and services designed to help them meet their financial needs. He is one of several financial executives colleges have chosen to give commencement addresses.
  • Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, May 14 — Richard P. Miller, president and CEO of Virtua, South Jersey’s largest health care provider, and a member of Mount St. Mary’s University’s board of trustees.
  • DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, Illinois, has invited attorney Paulette Brown as commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient on May 14. As American Bar Association president she issued a rule “tightening prohibitions against attorney ‘discrimination’ on the basis of ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation,’ which poses a serious threat to the religious freedom of Christian attorneys,” according to the Cardinal Newman Society.
  • Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, May 15 — Global investment expert Matthew W. Wright ’8, the founder and president of Disciplina Group
  • St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, May 20 — Carolyn Woo, former president and CEO of Catholic Relief Service. An honorary degree will be given to Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles.
  • St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, May 20 — Anne Burke, Illinois Supreme Court justice, founder of the Special Olympics, a Dame of Malta and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People
  • Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana, May 20 — Alumnus Skip Holt, son of former college and NFL football coach Lou Holtz, assistant to his father at Notre Dame and South Carolina, and current head coach at Louisiana Tech
  • University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, May 20 — Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York
  • Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, May 21— France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation and formerly NASA chief scientist.
  • University of San Diego has four speakers, among them, on May 27, for graduates, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy; and on May 28, alumnus Chris Carr, executive vice president of Starbucks, an organization which has not been Christian-friendly.
  • University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, during April 29 ceremonies had Bishop Bernard Hebda, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as its commencement speaker.