College Commencements 2008

Register contributing editor Tom McFeely takes a look at what kinds of commencement speakers Catholic colleges and universities are inviting to campus this year.

MANASSAS, Va. — Cardinal Newman Society president Patrick Reilly says that in terms of Catholic identity, marked improvement is apparent in this year’s roster of commencement speakers.

Very few of the 2008 speakers at Catholic colleges pose a problem in terms of conferring honor on prominent individuals who publicly support abortion or oppose other key Church teachings.

Said Reilly, “We’re seeing that the large majority of them are not a concern, and in fact a number of them are particularly exciting.”

In the earlier part of this decade, about 20 Catholic colleges were cited by the Cardinal Newman Society for inviting commencement speakers who publicly promoted abortion or other moral positions like same-sex “marriage” that are at odds with Catholic teaching.

But in their June 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life,” the U.S. bishops specifically stated that such speakers are not compatible with the identity of an authentically Catholic institution.

“The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” the document states, using bold letters to highlight the bishops’ point. “They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Not Invited

In a May 12 article titled “The Politics of Commencement Speakers,” The Boston Globe noted that Catholic colleges had shied away this year from inviting three prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry — to speak at Catholic ceremonies.

Instead, the trio of pro-abortion Democrats will be making commencement appearances at non-Catholic institutions.

“I think that Catholic administrators at Catholic colleges are much more attentive to the selection process than they may have been in the past, and there is a growing awareness that these types of invitations are related to Catholic identity and mission,” Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Mass., the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ education committee, told the Globe.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston praised the changing attitude.

“I think there’s a concerted effort to use the moment of naming people who reinforce the Catholic identity of our institutions, and I’m pleased by that,” the cardinal told the Globe.

Cardinal O’Malley was awarded an honorary doctorate at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., May 10 and addressed graduates. Ralph McInerny, professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame, delivered the commencement address.

At Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D., State Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry, D-Watertown, was disinvited as commencement speaker and replaced at the May 10 event by Bishop Paul Swain of Sioux Falls, S.D.

Berry said her invitation was revoked because of her pro-abortion views, Associated Press reported May 12.

“I was told I was not welcome to speak because I do not share the Catholic Church’s position on the proper role of government in decisions about reproduction,” she said.

Problem Speakers

However, some colleges are still ignoring the bishops’ wishes on commencement speakers. Reilly pointed to New York Gov. David Paterson’s May 10 appearance as commencement speaker at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., as one of the few cases this year where an openly pro-abortion politician was invited.

Paterson has a 100% rating from NARAL for his pro-abortion voting record.

The media office of the College of Saint Rose did not return several calls from the Register requesting comment about Paterson’s selection as commencement speaker.

Reilly also criticized the selection of U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton, who ruled in 2004 that the federal ban on partial-birth abortion was unconstitutional, as this year’s commencement speaker at Santa Clara University’s School of Law.

Donald Polden, dean of the law school, said the judge’s decision in that case had nothing to do with the selection of Hamilton. He said Hamilton, who is a graduate of the law school, is being honored “for her service to the law school and our students over many years” and for her record as an “outstanding community and public servant.”

Said Polden, “We would not intentionally select somebody to be our commencement speaker that had publicly and vigorously taken positions that were antagonistic to the Catholic Church.”

But according to Reilly, college leaders need to ask themselves why it’s necessary to spark controversy by their choices of commencement speakers.

“What goes into your thinking that causes you to deliberately invite, of all the wonderful people in this country, as your commencement speaker a judge who overturned the ban on partial-birth abortion or a governor who is vocally in support of abortion rights?” Reilly said. “When you look at it that way, there’s absolutely no excuse for these people to be making these decisions.”

Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.

2008 Commencement Speakers & Honorees

Although the Cardinal Newman Society finds improvement in the commencement speakers at Catholic colleges and universities this year, the group still finds problematic speakers appearing at some. Here is some of what it has found:

Mount Mercy College (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), May 17, commencement speaker: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Lt. Governor of Maryland. Townsend is a vocal advocate of abortion rights and was endorsed by NARAL and Emily’s List. In her book, Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way, she takes the Catholic Church to task for its strong positions on abortion.

Regis College (Weston, Mass.), May 18, commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient: State Rep. Lida Harkins (D-Needham). Harkins has supported abortion rights, including public funding for abortions, and opposed a two-parent consent law for minors seeking abortions. She supports same-sex “marriage” and was a key leader in the defeat of a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

St. Ambrose University (Davenport, Iowa), May 11, honorary degree recipient: Margaret Tinsman, former Iowa state senator. Tinsman advocates abortion rights and in 2006 received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Planned Parenthood’s state action committee known as “The Freedom Fund.” In 2004, Tinsman voted against the Unborn Victims Act, which would have acknowledged unborn children as victims of violent crime against pregnant women. Tinsman has opposed legislation to supply women with information on abortion alternatives, to prevent human cloning, and to require a 24-hour waiting period before having an abortion.

St. Edward’s University (Austin, Texas), May 3, commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient: Cokie Roberts, political commentator for ABC News and senior news analyst for National Public Radio. Roberts has publicly attacked Pope Benedict XVI as “really lacking in the theological virtue of charity.” In her syndicated column with husband, Steve Roberts, she has espoused abortion rights and ridiculed pro-lifers as “extremists.” They have argued that the authority of the Catholic bishops has been significantly weakened, in part because of their teaching on homosexuality and contraception: “It’s as if they are asking to be ignored.”

Santa Clara University School of Law (Santa Clara, Calif.), May 17, commencement speaker: Judge Phyllis Hamilton, U.S. judge for the Northern District of California, San Francisco. In 2004, Hamilton struck down a federal ban on partial-birth abortion as unconstitutional, claiming “the act poses an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose an abortion.” In contrast to a similar case in New York that same year, Hamilton prevented Justice Department attorneys from presenting as evidence the medical records of women who had partial-birth abortions, key to the government’s argument that the procedure is unnecessary. Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said that “Hamilton’s deep personal hostility to the law has been evident throughout the judicial proceedings.”

University of Notre Dame Graduate School (Notre Dame, Ind.), May 17, commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient: Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of the University of California-San Diego. Fox is an architect and leader of one of the nation’s foremost initiatives in embryonic stem-cell research, the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which will open its $115 million facility at the university by 2010. Its research is partly funded by California’s $3 billion grant program for embryonic stem-cell research, independent of ethical restrictions that President Bush has tied to federal funding.

Source: The Cardinal Newman Society (