The Jesuit publication America Magazine posted a three-part series on its website this month about scandalous commencement honors at Catholic colleges. In parts one and two of the series, Father Jim McDermott, S.J., of America spoke with me about concerns raised by The Cardinal Newman Society regarding former President Bill Clinton being chosen to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, Calif. The interviews also touch on the broader issue of the damage done to a college’s Catholic identity — and the potential spiritual harm done to students — when Catholic colleges choose to hold up individuals as worthy of praise and emulation who publicly advocate for the murder of unborn children.
If you’ve ever wondered why so many Catholic colleges think it’s okay to honor abortion advocates at their commencement ceremonies, a former Jesuit university president recently helped shed some light on the issue.
The Jesuit publication America Magazine posted a three-part series on its website this month about scandalous commencement honors at Catholic colleges. In parts one andtwo of the series, Father Jim McDermott, S.J., of America spoke with me about concerns raised by The Cardinal Newman Society regarding former President Bill Clinton being chosen to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, Calif. The interviews also touch on the broader issue of the damage done to a college’s Catholic identity — and the potential spiritual harm done to students — when Catholic colleges choose to hold up individuals as worthy of praise and emulation who publicly advocate for the murder of unborn children.
But it is in the third article, an interview with Father Stephen Privett, S.J., former president of the University of San Francisco (USF), that we get to see a glimpse of the muddled excuses that college leaders use to explain their decisions.
At the beginning of the interview, Fr. Privett mentions USF’s 2012 commencement honor of Bill Cosby that was rescinded last September after Cosby admitted to affairs with several women, and was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting some. In the case of Cosby, USF took a principled stand, and the example speaks volumes about the moral factor in commencement honors.
Fr. Privett, however, seems to miss the significance. He speaks approvingly of LMU’s honor of Clinton, who like Cosby has admitted to extramarital affairs and has been accused of sexual assault. Clinton also spent his political career supporting the destruction of innocent human life, including protecting the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion. His Clinton Foundation continues to support abortion and contraception around the world, partnering with Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion organizations. In recent years, Clinton has publicly supported same-sex marriage and has helped lobby for it in several states.
But while Cosby is now despised in the public eye, Clinton continues to be popular. And that, it seems, is the true standard for commencement speakers for too many Catholic colleges.
Fr. Privett dismisses moral failings as “the responsibility to follow one’s conscience,” and seems especially partial to excusing college honors for politicians. Clinton’s political support for moral evils is acceptable because “in a pluralistic, democratic system, politicians work for the ‘common good’ and must negotiate all the nuances of passing legislation in order to do so. No legislation will be perfect; trade-offs and compromises have to be made.”
That, of course, is not the Church’s teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the common good “concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority. … Political authority must be exercised within the limits of the moral order and must guarantee the conditions for the exercise of freedom.”
Saint John Paul II clarified further in Evangelium Vitae, “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.”
There is legitimate compromise that limits harm and moves incrementally toward the good, but this sort of compromise is not what Clinton and other pro-abortion politicians practice. They seek greater legal access to abortion. Nevertheless, far too many Catholic colleges are eager to honor them.
As the interview progresses, Fr. Privett is asked to respond to pro-life arguments against such honors. He says: “The assumption to these arguments is that you’re obsessed with abortion like they [pro-lifers] are. For us, where a possible speaker is on abortion, gay marriage, any of that stuff, that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. We look at a person’s overall substance.”
But in fact, his evaluation seems to be based on some specific issues. He later admits, “Almost everyone we looked to was pro-immigrant, pro-education for everybody.”
Addressing the U.S. bishops’ 2004 directive to “not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” Fr. Privett falsely declares that Clinton isn’t actively opposing Church teaching. He again cites the “murky” nature of politics: “It’s complicated in a pluralistic democratic society.”
When evaluating “a person’s overall substance” to be honored, support for the barbaric killing of innocent babies made in the image and likeness of God should rise to the top as a red flag. It is a truth of the faith, taught by Christ and His Church, that every human life has dignity and deserves protection. When those who blatantly deny this truth are held up as honorable, it sends a terrible message about a college’s commitment to the pursuit and communication of truth.
That’s why 31 Catholic and pro-life leaders recently joined in a statement urging the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities “to reject the culture of death and instead stand firm in defending truth and the Catholic identity of their institutions.”
In their quest to pursue secular accolades and “academic freedom,” many Catholic colleges are abandoning their responsibility to teach that absolute truth does exist, and is known to us through Christ.
The “privileged task” of a Catholic university, as described in the apostolic constitution Ex cordeEcclesiae, is “to unite … the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” But to recognize truth is increasingly becoming “offensive” in our culture. It’s now considered “hate speech” to even acknowledge biological facts about human beings being born male and female. And the truth that life begins at conception still isn’t fully embraced. These denials of truth are supported in academic departments at Catholic colleges across the country.
Ex corde Ecclesiae emphasizes the protection of academic freedom, but always “within the confines of the truth and the common good.” Our young people are being bombarded by falsehoods, and face intense pressure to reject their faith, intellectual discourse and common sense so as not to offend others.
We need our Catholic colleges to be bold in proclaiming and defending the truth given to us by Christ,and abandon actions suggesting that those who oppose fundamental moral truths should be looked to as role models.
Adam Cassandra is the news editor at The Cardinal Newman Society. Follow him on Twitter: @adamcassandra.
"Originally published by Catholic Education Daily, an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society."