Fr. Roger J. Landry
May 11, 2012
The recent controversy over the decision of Anna Maria College to rescind its invitation to Victoria Reggie Kennedy to give its May 19 commencement address and receive an honorary degree concerns far more than a high profile public figure and a small college in Paxton. It touches on what Catholic education is, what it honors, and what values it seeks to promote among students.
Anna Maria College officials withdrew the invitation after Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus had notified them that he thought Mrs. Kennedy was an inappropriate honoree and speaker because of her public statements in support of abortion, same-sex marriage and certain organizations opposed to fundamental Church teaching. He said in an interview that his primary difficulty was not with Mrs. Kennedy, but with the college’s choosing to honor her with a degree and the privilege of addressing its graduates. That, he believed, would “undercut the Catholic identity and mission of the school” and give the impression that someone holding and promoting positions contrary to fundamental Church teaching should nevertheless be honored and proposed as a model for graduating students.
Bishop McManus’ intervention and Anna Maria’s reluctant recission went unappreciated in many sectors. Saying the bishop was “politicizing the Church,” two fundamentally political organizations, Catholic Democrats and Faithful America, led a petition drive to try to persuade him to change course and ask the college to renew the invitation. Admirers of Mrs. Kennedy were shocked and disappointed. Some asked whether a “witch hunt” was going on. The college itself eventually decided to have two students give the commencement address and — in an unfortunate display of a lack of appreciation for the apostolicity of the Catholic faith — seniors requested that administrators ask Bishop McManus not to attend, a request he said he would honor.
Some of those opposing the decision tried to argue that Mrs. Kennedy had never taken public stands on controversial issues and that she was being treated as guilty by association with some of the positions and actions of her late husband, Senator Edward Kennedy, particularly in favor of abortion. Mrs. Kennedy, however, has indeed taken public stands against Church teaching. She wrote a 2004Washington Post op-ed defending a pro-choice position on abortion, stating with admiration, “the United States is a diverse, pluralistic society where a woman has the constitutional right to make a decision based upon her own conscience, religious beliefs and medical needs.” Likewise, in 2010, she publicly endorsed the cause of gay marriage, saying she shared her husband’s desire that gays and lesbians would have “the right to live free, to marry and to raise a family.”
Others, knowing her public stands, tried to deflect the issue by saying that whatever her positions, they did not rise to the gravity of something that would require the embarrassing withdrawal of an invitation. But this manifests that the apologists don’t take abortion and marriage as seriously as the Church does. If a prominent person were advocating a pro-choice position on slavery or on child abuse or pushing for legalization of child marriages, not only would no Catholic university — or public one for that matter — extend an invitation to address graduates and receive an honorary degree but, if one did, people would be praising a bishop who pressured the college to rescind the invitation and threatened not to attend. The whole controversy at Anna Maria College is about the importance of abortion and marriage in Catholic educational institutions. The Church believes that the deliberate choice to kill an innocent human being is an evil at least as grave as slavery and child abuse and that the institution of marriage deserves our promotion and defense at least as much as we defend the institutions of our Catholic schools and hospitals.
As institutions of higher learning, Catholic colleges and universities will occasionally invite people for debates and speeches who disagree with Church teaching in various areas, but that is something fundamentally different than honoring the people who hold those ideas. If Yeshiva University invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a debate and discussion, it might even be a sign of magnanimity, peacemaking and institutional self-confidence. But if Yeshiva were to ask him to speak to the graduates at commencement and give him an honorary degree, everyone would wonder whether it had lost its identity, not to mention marbles. Similarly, Catholic colleges and universities may learn much from those who don’t agree with the Church even on fundamental issues of faith and morals, but when there is a profound disagreement on issues of fundamental morality, those who hold them should not be honored and given a prominent platform, because these honors bring with them an implicit endorsement of the person and of the general line of the person’s ideas and work. There’s a reason why Howard University never invited — and never would have considered inviting — Strom Thurmond for an honorary doctorate. Even if in all other parts of his life he were a consummate gentleman, even if he had done many other things for many other people through public service, he would still not be invited because of the strident support of racism in his political ascent. Catholic institutions of higher learning should have as high standards with regard to potential honorees’ positions on abortion and marriage and other fundamental issues of the Catholic faith as historically black institutions have had with regard to racism.
In his fourth of five ad limina addresses to visiting U.S. bishops, Pope Benedict on Saturday spoke about Catholic colleges and universities and their need to live by the high standards of the Gospel in harmony with the faith of the Church. He spoke candidly about the harm to “ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate” that has come from “the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership,” a discord that “harms the Church’s witness” and “can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.” The pope was referring to attempts to divide and conquer the Church by trying to create alternative magisteria — whether particular Catholic universities, hospital chains, associations of female religious orders, even Catholic politicians — so as to confuse the faithful and undermine the Church’s witness to certain fundamental moral truths. The young are often the most vulnerable to this confusion. That’s why Pope Benedict said that “providing young people with a sound education in the faith represents the most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community in your country.” This sound education involves not just “passing on knowledge” but also “shaping hearts,” communicating “effectively, attractively and integrally, the richness of the Church’s faith.” The young, he said, “have a right to encounter the faith in all its beauty, its intellectual richness and its radical demands.”
Catholic colleges and universities are meant to provide a “genuinely Catholic” culture for this sound, beautiful integral education to occur. Catholic identity, he said, “entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus,” implying that in many places this is how it has been understood and promoted. Many Catholic schools and colleges, he lamented, “have failed to challenge students to reappropriate their faith” and make it their own, to discover a “harmony of faith and reason capable of guiding a life-long pursuit of knowledge and virtue.” Instead, many Catholic students go to Catholic universities and lose the faith or have it severely weakened by separating faith from life. This is because they haven’t been challenged, Pope Benedict says, to the “constant and all-embracing conversion to the fullness of truth in Christ,” to connect the “pursuit of truth” in all spheres of learning to the “pursuit of virtue,” and to bind the “intellect’s passionate desire to know and the will’s yearning for fulfillment in love.” For this to occur, however, Catholic educational institutions “must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the Redemption and the risen Lord’s dominion over all creation.”
Catholic universities and colleges ought to be distinguished by preparing students not just for life but eternal life, not just for work but for mission, not just for LSATs, MCATs, and GREs but for the eschatological final exam. The choices that a Catholic college or university makes — selecting administrators and faculty members, allocating resources, determining admissions standards, and even choosing commencement speakers — should always be in harmony with the faith and reflect these genuinely Catholic priorities.