Commencement 2016: College Speakers Run the Gamut

Which Catholic colleges and universities are inviting commencement speakers and honorees who are models of faith, virtue and achievement, and who are providing a platform for and honoring those who have publicly supported views against the teachings of the Catholic faith and morality?

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Just as some Catholic colleges and universities invite commencement speakers and honorees who are models of faith, virtue and achievement, others provide a platform for and honor those who have publicly supported views against the teachings of the Catholic faith and morality.

Among the former are San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who will deliver the commencement address at Thomas Aquinas College in California; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who will speak to the graduating class at DeSales University in Pennsylvania; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who will present the commencement address at Ave Maria University in Florida; Cardinal Edwin O’Brien and professor James Hitchcock at Christendom College in Virginia; and EWTN CEO and publisher of the Register Michael Warsaw at Northeast Catholic College in New Hampshire.

Into the latter category fall the University of Notre Dame, featuring Laetare Medal recipient Vice President Joseph Biden, a baptized Catholic, and Loyola Marymount University, with commencement speaker former President Bill Clinton. Both are high-profile defenders of abortion rights, same-sex “marriage” and embryonic stem-cell research.


Model Choices

On May 7, Cardinal O’Malley will address the graduating class at Ave Maria University, and six days later, he will celebrate the baccalaureate Mass at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Ave Maria President Jim Towey said of Cardinal O’Malley in a release: “His life experiences, his close friendship with Pope Francis and his consistent advocacy for the sanctity of life, the dignity of the poor and the need for joy and mercy in the lives of Christians make him the ideal speaker in this Jubilee of Mercy the Holy Father has instituted this year.”

The same day in Warner, N.H., Northeast Catholic College will host Warsaw to deliver the commencement address.

“It is an honor to have Michael Warsaw with us this year,” President George Harne told the Register. “He has been a friend of the college for many years, and his faithful and effective leadership of EWTN is an example to everyone who is committed to advancing the mission of the Church in the world. He understands the imperative of the New Evangelization and can inspire each of us to live the Gospel wherever we are sent.”

On May 13-14, at Christendom College, Cardinal O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, will celebrate the baccalaureate Mass and receive an honorary doctorate. Church historian and author Hitchcock will be the commencement speaker.

“Dr. James Hitchcock has for decades faithfully served Christ and his Church in numerous ways, particularly as an historian,” President Timothy O’Donnell said in a release. “He is an excellent example to all of us of scholarship in the service of the faith.”

Across the river in Washington, Catholic comedian Jim Gaffigan and his wife, Jeannie, will address graduates at The Catholic University of America. The parents of five children, the Gaffigans bring family and faith to their cable sitcom, The Jim Gaffigan Show.

“I am delighted that we will be welcoming Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan to deliver this year’s commencement address to our graduates,” President John Garvey stated in an announcement. “This couple has changed the face of comedy and the entertainment industry by putting the great adventure of marriage and family life on center stage. I have no doubt that our graduates will be inspired by the Gaffigans’ commitment to their Catholic faith, which shapes both their personal and professional vocations.”

Among other Catholic University honorees will be Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, outgoing apostolic nuncio to the United States; Jesuit Father William Leahy, president of Boston College; and Alejandro Monteverde, director of the films Bella and Little Boy. At CUA on May 27, Paul Clement, former U.S. solicitor general, who argued the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case before the Supreme Court, will speak at Columbus School of Law.

St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla., will bring in Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., to deliver the May 14 commencement address. In short order, Msgr. Shea has propelled his university to be among the faithful Catholic institutions in the country.

Archbishop Cordileone will address Thomas Aquinas College graduates at the May 14 commencement.

“Nationally, Archbishop Cordileone is known for the clarity of his teaching about marriage, the family and the unborn, and the courageous witness he gives in their defense,” noted President Michael McLean in a statement about this chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. “In the Bay Area, too, he serves his flock as a faithful shepherd.”

Father George Rutler, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, will give the commencement address at The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire on May 14. A prolific author, evangelizer, pastor and host of several EWTN series, Father Rutler is already known on campus as “a spiritual father” to several students.


Appalling Picks

Then there are the scandalous choices.

On May 7, Regis College in Massachusetts will host Sister Simone Campbell as its commencement speaker. She will also be honored by the college. Sister Simone continues to advocate for women priests and has done so in venues such as Time, despite admitting the Pope’s “door is closed” on women’s ordination. She is also the executive director of Network, a Catholic organization that lobbied for the Affordable Care Act despite the U.S. bishops’ opposition.

Regis will also honor Dr. Paul Farmer, founding director of Partners in Health, which endorses and promotes contraception.

On the same day, at La Roche College in Pennsylvania, Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network, will give the commencement speech and receive honors. Save the Children promotes contraception, and as a candidate for Congress, he received a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. Seattle University has also invited Shriver for its June 12 commencement.

On May 7, in New Orleans, Xavier University of Louisiana will hear and honor Dr. Helene Gayle, McKinsey Social Initiative’s CEO. Until July 2015 she was president and CEO of Care (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), during which time she urged a Senate committee to overturn the Mexico City Policy on abortion, as Care promotes and distributes contraception in the countries it serves.

Gonzaga University Law School in Washington will feature Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson as commencement speaker for its May 7 exercise. Ferguson joined other attorneys general in 2014 to support same-sex “marriage” and urge the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize the same. “We’ve been fighting every step of the way for marriage equality here in Washington and across the country,” Ferguson said.

He also filed a “friend of the court” brief in October asking the Supreme Court to strike down parts of a Texas law limiting access to abortions.

In Los Angeles that same day, Loyola Marymount will welcome Clinton as the commencement speaker, despite Clinton’s record of pushing for the abortion drug RU-486, rescinding the Mexico City Policy, vetoing the ban on partial-birth abortion, allowing fetal-tissue research in aborted babies, supporting same-sex “marriage” and requesting the Defense of Marriage Act that he signed into law be struck down.

A week later, on May 15, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana will honor Biden, together with former House Speaker John Boehner, with the prestigious Laetare Medal. The university states the “medal has been awarded annually at Notre Dame to a Catholic ‘whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.’”

Biden has said he accepts personally what the Church teaches on life, yet he strongly supports Roe v. Wade and abortion, publicly backs same-sex “marriage” and supported funding for embryonic stem-cell research while in the Senate.

Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Bishop Kevin Rhoades has said it is wrong to honor any “pro-choice” public official with the Laetare Medal, and he questioned “the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage. The Church has continually urged public officials, especially Catholics, of the grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that supports or facilitates abortion or that undermines the authentic meaning of marriage. I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.”

“My principal concern about this whole matter is scandal,” he added.

DePaul University will honor Marty Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at its commencement exercises. He and the commission are major supporters of same-sex “marriage” and strongly condemned and wrote against recent religious-liberty laws in Mississippi and North Carolina to protect the right to uphold Catholic teaching on sexuality.

Similarly, on May 22, Merrimack College in Massachusetts gives a platform to commencement speaker Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who supports both same-sex “marriage” and abortion.

The day before, St. Mary’s College of California takes the same road with Tom Torlakson as commencement speaker. As superintendent of California’s public-school system, he has publicly opposed the state’s Proposition 8, supported same-sex “marriage” and called the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling a “historic victory.”

And some schools also believe it necessary to single out particular graduates.

The Cardinal Newman Society reports that eight Catholic colleges will hold “lavender” graduations — to celebrate and honor students with same-sex attraction or who identify as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer”: Georgetown University; Loyola Marymount University, St. Mary’s College and Santa Clara University in California; College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y.; DePaul University in Chicago; Seattle University; and the University of San Francisco.


Another Downslide

An increase in faithful Catholic speakers has occurred in the last decade, until 2013.

“We saw a significant decline [in questionable choices] until the last three years,” said Patrick Reilly, founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which monitors Catholic college and university commencement speakers. But “for the last few years, we’ve seen something of an uptick in scandalous speakers.”

Reilly can only guess at the reasons why, but he thinks “there’s a false narrative going on at many Catholic campuses that there is more openness from the Vatican to dissent. And that has been affecting these Catholic colleges in many ways.”

Colleges are returning to their past mistakes, he said, and they “are flouting the public statements of their bishops,” including “Catholics in Political Life” (2004), which states: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Reilly pointed out, “So it’s even more scandalous when the college publicly flouts doing what the bishops told them not to do.”

At the same time, he applauds the schools that are honoring cardinals, bishops and laity faithful in the Church. “While many of the commencement speakers have done some wonderful and admirable things in their lives, it’s disturbing that more Catholic colleges don’t look first to exemplary Catholics, including our clergy and our bishops, as heroes to be held up as models to our students.”

The same goes for the businessmen some colleges have opted to invite as their speakers. Reilly said, “If you want a businessman, there are great examples, such as Tim Busch, Frank Hanna and Tom Monaghan … people who can be held up as real examples for their students. I don’t want to disparage their choices, but it does raise real questions about: What is their criteria? And why doesn’t their criteria lead them more often to exemplary Catholics?”

In all instances, Reilly assessed, “It’s all about the choice and who these college leaders consider to be their heroes.”


Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.


Notable Commencement Speakers

Assumption College — Carolyn Woo, president-CEO of Catholic Relief Services

Belmont Abbey College — Bishop Emeritus Victor Galeone of St. Augustine, Fla.

Benedictine College — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York

Boston College — Ernest Moniz, U.S. secretary of energy

University of Dallas — Journalist John Allen

DeSales University — Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB

Dominican House of Studies (Washington) — Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles

Franciscan University of Steubenville — Laura Meeks, president of Eastern Gateway College

Loyola University (New Orleans) — Harry Connick Jr.

Marymount University (Arlington, Va.) — Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington

Sacred Heart University — Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras

Wyoming Catholic College — Sister Regina Marie Gorman, vicar general of the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles