This is the third in a three-part series discussing criteria for an appropriate speaker for Catholic commencements. In the first part, I spoke with Cardinal Newman Society news editor Adam Cassandra about its criticism of Loyola Marymount University’s decision to have former president Bill Clinton as its undergraduate commencement speaker. In the second part, Cassandra and I speak more generally about the Cardinal Newman Society’s tactics in trying to affect change in Catholic institutions.
And in this part, I speak to Stephen Privett, S.J., former president of the University of San Francisco, about his own experiences and philosophy in choosing commencement speakers.
When you were president of U.S.F., how did you think about graduation speakers?
We looked either for someone who could be an inspiring role model—so this would be somebody that had established a co-op for women in Africa or worked with poor African-American kids in Oakland and stayed with them to get through high school and college. Or we would look for someone who was an entertaining speaker, like Bill Cosby (whom we honored in 2012 and then subsequently had to take it back). We would consider the quality of the speech itself.
Those were the two major classifications that we used, and we inclined more towards the role model, someone who could speak to kids about the future that could be theirs. A high achiever, like Bill Clinton.
We also had a rule that we never gave an honorary degree to a politician while that person was in office. We would wait until after they had retired, left elected public life and would honor them then, like L.M.U. is doing with Clinton.
How do you deal with the argument that you shouldn’t honor someone who has positions contrary to any of the moral teachings of the church?
I don’t think that argument sufficiently honors the Catholic social teaching of having not just the right, but the responsibility to follow one’s conscience. These critics are never willing to acknowledge that a person who is not affiliated with the church can hold a different position in good conscience. And 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.
Also, we are not single-issue persons. Human beings are much more rich and complex than that. So when we’re picking a speaker we’re looking at the totality of a person’s life, not zeroing in on a particular issue.
And I guess you are honoring them, you’re holding them up to these students, saying these kind of people have something to say to you about taking on public service, being conscious of promoting the common good. But the message is not just honoring the person but that the person has something to say to graduates that’s valuable. It’s not like you’re handing them an Academy Award.
Today in The New York Times there was a story about Joe Biden speaking at the Vatican on cancer and his faith. I mean, come on. If the pope can invite these people, I’m hard pressed to see why a university can’t listen to these folks.
What about the argument that you can find someone just as inspiring as most commencement speakers without having to look to someone who is, for instance, not pro-life?
The assumption to these arguments is that you’re obsessed with abortion like they 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.
Boston College had Condoleezza Rice and no one said boo except the students. And she was one of the engineers of the Iraq War. These are not black-and-white decisions; these are judgment calls. And most universities have pretty good judgment. People are free to disagree, but that doesn’t mean it’s all either good or evil.
Also, the bishops have written about not honoring people who “advocate against” church teaching—the language is something like that; it’s pretty specific. I don’t think Bill Clinton is aggressively, actively opposing the teaching of the church. Politicians are asked to swim in murky waters, trying to swim upstream. It’s complicated in a pluralistic democratic society.
And you know, if you only talk to those who are in 100 percent agreement with you, you’re going to be talking to your local bishop and nobody else. I flew from Chicago to Kansas City recently, and I sat next to my first genuine Trump supporter. We were going back and forth for an hour and a half. The guy’s not dumb; he’s a business consultant, late 50s. I thought, you can just shut him out or try to understand where he’s coming from.
Are you saying there might even be a value in having a speaker who comes from a non-Catholic perspective?
I don’t think it would ever be good to have someone use that speech as a platform to attack church teaching. I think that would be totally misplaced.
But I think a countercultural voice might be better than a traditional Catholic voice. Almost everyone we looked to was pro-immigrant, pro-education for everybody.
The other argument being posed about Clinton is that given his own personal history of infidelity, he’s not a good role model.
Let he who is without sin throw the first stone. Really. I mean, a lot of this is sheer hypocrisy.
When you get to the kind of people we’re looking at for graduation speakers, these are not profligate individuals, generally.
Ultimately, what did you want your graduates to walk away with? What did you want them to get from that speech?
My hope was that they would leave with a firmer either conviction or inspiration to do more with their lives than just make money. It’s that simple. That they use their education not just for themselves but for the common good.
So a confirmation of what we had tried to communicate to them over four years of Jesuit education, somebody who would underscore what we had been telling them for four years.