Our intrepid L.A. correspondent continues his exploration of Catholic commencement controversy season

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York arrives for the 65th commencement at Jesuit-run Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., May 17. Cardinal Dolan delivered the ceremony's commencement address and received an honorary degree. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

This is the second in a three-part series on the question of choosing the right speaker for Catholic college commencements. In Part I, I spoke with Cardinal Newman Society news editor Adam Cassandra about the group's criticism of Loyola Marymount University’s decision to have former president Bill Clinton as its undergraduate commencement speaker. In this part, Cassandra and I speak more generally about the Cardinal Newman Society’s tactics in trying to effect change in Catholic institutions. And in Part III, I will speak with Stephen Privett, S.J., former president of the University of San Francisco, about his own experiences and philosophy in choosing commencement speakers.

There’s a general philosophy of mission question that I guess I’ve always wondered about the Newman Society. When you call out an L.M.U. or DePaul or whomever, what’s the goal?


Well, ultimately, we’d like to see college administrators realize when they’re doing these sorts of things, the negative impact that it has, and that they would stop. If we’re talking specifically about inviting scandalous speakers, that they would stop inviting these kinds of people to campus.

And if there are controversial issues that they specifically want to have discussed on campus (getting beyond the commencement people), if the purpose of bringing in some person whom we would consider scandalous is to talk about a certain controversial issue, then come up with a different way to engage students on those kinds of issues. We’re not opposed to controversial issues that are against church teaching being discussed on campus, but it’s the way that it’s presented, it’s the way that it’s discussed that we often have a problem with.

So finding ways—it really shouldn’t be that difficult—to talk about these issues in a way that upholds the truth of the faith and doesn’t negate the truth of the faith, doesn’t lead students away from church teaching. You can foster dialogue on these sorts of things without avoiding the fact that this is what the church says, this is what we as a Catholic institution that is in line with the church believes in. There should never be any doubt about that.

But when you look at the articles the society writes, the language is often inflammatory. It’s not language that lends itself to a fair hearing. It’s more like an attack. Why take that tone if you want change? Because it seems like those institutions are trying to do the same thing you are. They’re trying to offer a good Catholic education. They may be failing in some respects, and so they need to be critiqued or challenged, but fundamentally it feels like everyone has the same goal.

I can understand what you’re saying. We would definitely hope that any administrator, any faculty member that’s at a Catholic college does, like you said, want to provide a good Catholic education and hopefully be a faithfully Catholic school.

From your point of view is their desire to do that in doubt?

You look at the history of the Cardinal Newman Society’s 20 years of reporting on these things, yeah, there’s a lot of doubt out there about certain schools and their commitment to the teachings of the church.

Let me just be clear about what you mean when you’re saying the “teachings of the church.” Cardinal Newman posted an article last week listing 10 Catholic schools that it finds have “scandalous speakers.” But in all 10 cases the doctrinal issues in question were either abortion, gay marriage or in one case women’s ordination. These are important issues, but the moral teachings of the church extend far beyond that.

We do tend to find that those issues come up a lot on college campuses. Basically when it comes to human sexuality, including abortion, those types of issues do often come up and we try to address them as much as possible.

But I’m guessing there are other speakers being invited to Catholic schools this year who are in favor of the death penalty or haven’t said the greatest things about the poor or immigration or social justice issues. But you don’t call out schools for anything except these human sexuality issues. It begins to beg the question: Is there a pattern among some U.S. Catholic schools or is the pattern that that’s all you guys look at? I feel like you guys are trying to contribute an important service to the church, and to talk to you on the phone you’re very reasonable. But to look at your website, it seems like you’re focused on a very narrow set of issues, framed in such an inflammatory way it’s hard to see how it would be an effective strategy to get the results you want. 

I understand the points that you’re trying to make. For us, we see these types of human sexuality issues as a major problem at Catholic colleges. With the culture now, you look at media reports, it’s all about bathroom bills and transgender and these types of issues that are cropping up all over Catholic campuses right now.

I can tell you we’ve put together another report about graduation ceremonies specifically for L.G.B.T.Q. students, these “lavender graduations.” So the colleges themselves specifically make this an issue, if you ever look at the websites of these gender studies departments at different Catholic colleges and other similar departments, it’s not clear if you sit there and read that that the teachings of the church are emphasized anywhere at all in these departments and programs that they offer. They read like a celebration of same-sex attraction and same-sex lifestyles. That’s the sense that anyone reading these things would get, that they’re leading students to embrace an attraction that the church says is objectively disordered and perhaps embrace engaging in a lifestyle that the church considers sinful.

So yeah, those issues do come up a lot, but it’s because the colleges are the ones that are pushing this in people’s faces and trying to bring the students around to embrace those kinds of things. So that’s partially the reason why we end up talking about it so much. It's because we gets so many emails about it from people letting us know about certain events, and the colleges pushing this out on campus and the campus newspapers reporting on it, things like that.

Here’s another way to put my question: How do you match the tone you embrace, the ways that you challenge these institutions, with the invitation to a more merciful Christianity that the current pope has been offering? Just descriptively it’s hard to see the church he’s talking about in some of these press releases.

I wouldn’t say that. Pope Francis has put out a number of very strong statements on these issues that don’t often get highlighted in the media. And I’d say they are no more inflammatory (to use your language) than anything that we’ve published. We often will point out Pope Francis’ statements when it comes to gender, gender ideology, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.

So would you have highlighted the statement he made on the plane when asked about the gay priest, “Who am I to judge?” Because that seems to be a fundamental disposition motivating him.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding in the world about what he meant by that. I could say it’s definitely the position of the church, at least from what I’ve been taught, that we as human beings can’t judge what’s in somebody’s heart.

But it’s been since the time Jesus walked the earth that his disciples have judged when things are right and wrong, what’s sin and what’s not. You had to know what sin is in order to spread the Gospel, to be able to tell people what should be avoided. The Bible itself recounts stories of the disciples going around and Jesus himself telling people what they shouldn’t be doing. The disciples can’t condemn someone to Hell and know what’s exactly in their heart, but you can definitely recognize what’s right and wrong.

But that alone would be an unusual characterization of the ministry of Jesus, that it was about him telling people what they were doing wrong.

I’m not saying in general that was his ministry, I’m just saying there are examples of that in Scripture. And when Pope Francis said that, I think the context of the question was someone who is seeking to follow Christ. If you are actively seeking to follow the faith and to follow Christ, then even if you do have same-sex attraction, you’re going to want to avoid sinful behaviors, right? Just like any of us who want to follow Christ are trying to avoid sin. But if you’re seeking to follow Christ and you are trying to avoid sin, then just because you have same-sex attraction doesn’t mean you should be condemned or anything like that.

There are whole ministries like Courage dedicated to helping people with same-sex attraction or things like that live as faithful Catholics. But you don’t see a lot of the stuff that Courage talks about being discussed on a lot of these Catholic college campuses. It’s more celebrating and embracing and promoting these attractions and lifestyles instead of leading you to Christ and embracing your identity quote-unquote as a Christian. They’re promoting this identity based on your sexual  preference.

But it’s still hard to understand how the type of language you use is an effective way of making your point, of trying to convince a Catholic school to reconsider. Or a very Christian way of proceeding.

You can bring up any issue and make that case about the tone of the way that you approach trying to effect change. You could have that argument on any number of issues. But like I said, I don’t think the tone we’re necessarily taking, it’s definitely not un-Christian. I wouldn’t go that far in any sense of the term. Say Bill Clinton, not wanting him to speak at Loyola Marymount: We obviously took a strong position, put a statement out. If you are saying some of our language might be inflammatory, say we had took all of that out, put out a different statement. Maybe you’d call it a “nice” statement—if you’re saying ours is “un-nice,” which I don’t believe that it is. But just for the sake of argument, would that make any difference in the outcome? 

You could debate that, but I don’t necessarily see a problem with the way that we frame the issues because these are serious issues and it’s seriously outrageous to us and to Catholic families across the country that these Catholic college administrators that are supposed to be looking out for the well-being of students, who families send to these institutions, would put students in these types of situations. And I guess you can give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they don’t realize how bad their actions are, but like I said we have 20 years of history here at the Cardinal Newman Society pointing these things out where at some point it’s hard to say that the administrators don’t realize the problems that are being created.

We would definitely love to work with any college; we do work with a number of colleges across the country on Catholic identity issues. We talk to college administrators, college presidents all the time about different issues. We would love for all Catholic colleges to be strongly defending and promoting the Catholic faith in every aspect of our Catholic life. That’s ultimately our goal.

Let me offer a different example of what I’m talking about. Looking at the list of speakers you’re criticizing I saw Mark Shriver, who is speaking at both Seattle University and LaRoche College. You call him out I think for dignity of human life issues. But he’s the director of the Save the Children Action Network, which is one of the oldest child welfare organizations in the country. Part of their motto is “helping children survive around the world.” So I can see Seattle U or LaRoche reading your piece and saying, “How are they not seeing the full picture? Yes, maybe when he was a Congressman Shriver took certain problematic points of view, but this network is amazing and exactly the kind of thing we’d hope our graduates to do.”

We also pointed out that his organization promotes contraception as part of the work that they do.

O.K. I get that, but the bigger picture of that organization is so clearly in line with Catholic social teaching. They’re helping the most vulnerable among us. How does that not figure in your estimation of them?

I guess your argument is kind of like saying Planned Parenthood does all these great things for women, but they also do abortions.

Is that really a parallel? Because I’m not talking about Planned Parenthood, I’m talking about an organization focused on the welfare of children and that describes itself as trying to help children to survive.

Right, but what I’m saying is this organization, they do a lot of good things, but part of their advocacy is also to promote something that’s considered a moral evil in the church. So I’m just saying it sounds like you’re saying we should just focus on all the good things and ignore the evil that they’re doing.

I’m not. To focus just on the good is in a sense the same problem. My question with an example like Mr. Shriver is, why isn’t the full picture of who he is represented? Why is the only thing that’s mentioned the negative? Put another way, why isn’t any consideration given for why Seattle or LaRoche would have him? They’re not having him because he’s in favor of contraception or because he’s a congressman, probably. They’re having him because he’s the director of this amazing network that seems very Catholic in its aspirations. 

So I’m not saying don’t criticize, I’m not saying just look at the positive. I’m asking why isn’t the broader picture of the choice represented in any way?

I would disagree that this organization is Catholic. But let’s get beyond that. Like we talked about last time, why choose to bring someone in who runs an organization that while they do good things, they also promote things considered evil by the church. There are plenty of people who run organizations very similar to this one that don’t promote moral evils and that are in line with church teaching.

I understand what you’re saying, that they could have gotten someone else. But making that argument, when the reasons why they would have chosen Mark Shriver are pretty obvious—the work that he does, the network that he represents—it’s just hard to understand how your approach could be persuasive, how it could lend itself to Seattle or LaRoche saying, “You know we really need to think about this, they’ve got a good point.” It’s more like you’re Monday morning quarterbacking. And it’s hard to see how that approach either is persuasive or means to be persuasive.

I obviously would disagree with you on that. But what the people who make these types of decisions were thinking when they invited these speakers, I can’t know for sure. But was the sending of students off with the inspiring message to bring the faith into the world part of that decision? I don’t know. If it was, and they still picked these people, it’s definitely a concern of ours and that’s why we follow these types of things and point them out.

It’s just so interesting, that comment you just made about “if their goal was to send off students with an inspiring message to bring the faith into the world”—I bet that was exactly what their goal was in choosing someone like Mark Shriver. And who knows if he’ll be a good speaker, of course. But either way it’s like you and the universities have the same goal, you just have different images of what that goal looks like.

Our thinking about an inspirational figure to send students out to bring the faith to the world—I don’t know if you saw the other report with the commencement speakers chosen that the colleges that we list in our Newman guide—but when you can present someone as a role model who there’s no doubt that they are a strong defender of the faith, that they’ve done great things for their fellow man, maybe they’ve run companies, businesses, nonprofits, and everything they do is no question aligned with the church, why wouldn’t you choose that person? Why specifically chose the one who runs an organization or a business or does some kind of advocacy that, while they may do a lot of good things, they are still publicly out there opposing church teaching or doing things that conflict with the teachings of the church.

To us it sends the message—like Bishop Rhoades of South Bend, Ind., stated in his opposition to Joe Biden at Notre Dame—you get the impression that you can be a good Catholic and publicly oppose church teaching in some way. Why try to send students off with that type of message when you don’t have to? They’re specifically choosing to invite these people, nobody’s forcing them to have these people speak on campus.

Except again, when that graduation speech is over, assuming Mr. Shriver doesn’t use it to speak about contraception (which I can’t imagine he would), I assume most students are going to walk away with thoughts about helping children who are in need or how can I help the world. Which it seems would be the same goal you guys would have—how can I be a good Catholic, a person for others in the image of Christ who tries to serve the people of God. I just wanted to ask you this strategy question because over the years I’ve seen different press releases from the Newman Society, and it’s always sort of in this same adversarial style. It’s not that I would want you to instead be nice. I think it’s great that you can be critical; I think it’s great that in our church there’s room for that.

Like that piece about the 10 colleges, the way it’s set up as “Catholic Commencements Scandals Dishonor the Class of 2016.” That’s not language that’s inviting some sort of reasoned conversation. It’s more like a slap in the face.

We would say that in inviting these people as role models and honorees to campus that that’s somewhat of a slap in the face to students and families, who expect a Catholic school to be strong defenders of the faith and the Church.

Part III – The Perspective of a Former Catholic College President

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William deHaas
2 years 8 months ago
This is sad - wonder why he is a *former* president. The Cardinal Newman Society is an oxymoronic name. It is so far from what Cdl. Newman himself wrote, believed, and lived that it becomes ridiculous. The Society sets itself up as judge and jury and contorts the word, orthodox, until it looks like a pretzel. You can put the Society, EWTN, Becker Fund, Church Militant, and other right wing groups in one basket. Creating scapegoats is what it does best....in fact, take the USCCB 2004 document on catholics in political life - the society warps what even the USCCB says in this document. From another blog: Newman was someone who often pushed boundaries, who emphasized the preeminence of conscience, and who was not shy to speak up when he disagreed with the leaders of the church, though he did so humbly and usually with charity. He understood that a well-formed conscience was paramount, which was why I think he understood a liberal arts education to be so important. To form the conscience requires careful study and the development of critical thought. He did not understand education to be about being told the truth and then being told to conform to it. He understood education, rather, to be about cultivating a love for truth and searching for it together in conversation with multiple academic disciplines. This included for him transformational conversation with, but not slavish adherence to, the theological traditions of the church. There is within the church room for divergent opinion and expression. Newman would have fully embraced Pope Pius XII's statement that “The church is a living body, and it would lack an element of its life if the free expression of opinion was lacking.” Education, to borrow Newman's motto from his cardinal coat-of-arms, is about 'heart speaking unto heart.' The founding president of my university was very much influenced by the educational principles articulated in The Idea of a University, and the influence of Newman continues to be found in the university's mission statement. It was because of Newman’s influence on his own ideas that our founding president named a residence hall after Newman, and the permanent place of Newman on our campus should continue to remind us of the meaning and purpose of a university education, one structured primarily upon cultivating a love of truth. It should also remind us of who Newman really was – not a watchdog on the hunt for heresy, but a complex and nuanced thinker and seeker of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Kevin Cronin
2 years 8 months ago
This just in. It's been reported that many of the male and female graduates of LMU - in violation of specific Church teaching - practice artificial birth control. I say nullify those diplomas and commence further investigation. Kevin
Lisa Weber
2 years 8 months ago
The Cardinal Newman Society has not looked much at what Jesus taught. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He defended the woman caught in adultery and said he did not condemn her. The only thing he said about virgins was in a parable where he said some virgins were wise and some virgins were foolish. Essentially, Jesus made the issue of sexuality private. The church has numerous teachings about sexuality but they are not based in the teachings of Jesus. In the case of contraception, Humanae Vitae is so widely disregarded by Catholics that, in the USA, Catholics use contraception of the same types and with the same frequency as the general population. It sounds to me like the Cardinal Newman Society is trying to pressure Catholic universities into adopting its own narrow view of Catholicism. My way of summing that up is that they are afraid of losing their "holier than thou" credentials.
Michael Malak
2 years 8 months ago
If it's consistent in its beliefs the Newman Society ought to take the Vatican, and Pope Francis, to task for inviting U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to speak at the Vatican about cancer research on April 29th, after which he met with Francis, himself. Similarly, Francis, as well as other Popes, has met with world leaders, scientists, artists, and others the Society would not approve of as speakers at Catholic commencement ceremonies.
Mike Escril
2 years 8 months ago
Maybe, but those events were NOT honorariums and honored events.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 8 months ago
I presume Jim McDermott conducted this interview also even though Kevin Clarke is shown as the author above. At any rate kudos to each or both of them as I really have not seen anyone from the Cardinal Newman Society, speak in such measured terms. Always nice to see an attempt at dialogue. One of the great failures of the Cardinal Newman Society, it seems to me, is not to condemn one of their most prolific spokesman, Congressman Henry Hyde since he had a twenty year sexual affair with a married woman. Not only is he not condemned but he is still feted by them. Can you ask Cassandra why not? Or are they proving the point that they are more interested in Dogma than ethics. Or if one spouts the dogma then the ethics can be excused.


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