Catholic commencement controversy: The perspective of a former university president

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.

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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.

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Kevin Murphy
1 year 7 months ago
Father Privett states that "we are not single-issue persons . . . zeroing in on a particular issue." Later he states that "almost everyone we looked to was pro-immigrant." Would he invite a speaker who, in good conscience, believed that all immigration should be legal? I doubt it. I also find his comment about the killing of millions in the womb as "that stuff" quite revealing, and quite disturbing. Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me.
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 7 months ago
I have to agree that I don't think the tone & phrasing of many of these responses do very much to support Fr. Privett's position (one which, I add, I am generally in agreement with). There is a kind of subtle derision or dismissiveness towards the concerns of many Catholics who are acting according to their consciences & in good faith (even as I think their tactics & rhetoric are wrong). Leave aside what Fr. Privett calls "that stuff", & focus on Bill Clinton. In an age of heightened concern about sexual violence on college campuses, couldn't one legitimately express concern over Mr. Clinton using his office to seduce a young intern into providing sexual favors? When a young student at Georgetown introduces the president of Planned Parenthood by declaring that she can be a good Catholic & be pro-choice, is it not legitimate to express concern over that? I suspect Catholic progressives would if a student stated that he or she could be both a good Catholic & a Randian libertarian. Suffice it to say, if this view of the concerns of others is representative among Catholic college administrators, there seems to be very little hope for dialogue.
William deHaas
1 year 7 months ago
What do you expect, Mr. DeCuir - glad you are not a president of a catholic university. From NCR: John Gehring writes about Notre Dame's decision to award the Laetare Medal this year to Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. Patrick Reilly at the poorly named Cardinal Newman Society is in a tizzy about this award, but what to expect from a guy who got his start doing oppo research for Republicans on the Hill and then went on to work at Heritage. Gehring, conversely, hits all the right notes. Link: http://religionnews.com/2016/05/11/in-honoring-biden-and-boehner-notre-dame-lives-up-to-pope-francis-vision/
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 7 months ago
But I agree with Fr. Privett's primary point - as well as Gehring's! Oh well.
Kevin Cronin
1 year 7 months ago
Fr Thomas Reese S.J. wrote a recent column on this subject titled, Catholic Commencement Controversies: RIP ": http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/catholic-commencement-controversies-rip. I recommend it for a fuller explanation of his points. After giving examples of individuals invited to speak at the Vatican, he ends with, "It is time to admit that the ban on giving platforms and honors to people who hold views contrary to church teaching is dead." .Of course he's not advocating speakers be invited to talk on how and why they disagree with Church teaching, but in the cases of Mr. Shriver, Former President Clinton, Vice President Clinton and others there are many aspects and activities in their life that can be an inspiration to graduates. Kevin
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 7 months ago
I'd give Fr. Reese's opinion a bit more credence if his examples included celebrating conservatives being honored, rather than receiving a letter from him denouncing their politics. His treatment of Paul Ryan's appearances at Georgetown show clearly that some disagreements with Church teaching are more acceptable than others.
Kevin Cronin
1 year 7 months ago
Whoops. Obviously, Vice President Biden.
alan macdonald
1 year 7 months ago
I don't think I will ever see in the pages of this magazine unequivocal opposition to: Homosexual marriage Abortion Female ordination. All positions of the Roman Catholic Church but the Jesuits, not so much.
William deHaas
1 year 7 months ago
Female ordination - sorry, it ain't dogma and is open for discussion. Abortion - actually, most articles posted talk about policies around this subject; an approach that is merely legal and *just say no* accomplishes little in building the kingdom of God. As Francis stresses, we need to encounter, build relatinships, and dialogue - not act as judge and jury.
Lisa Weber
1 year 7 months ago
This is a most interesting look at the question of choosing a commencement speaker by someone who has done the task. Thank you for an interesting series of interviews.
Jason Songe
1 year 7 months ago
"The assumption to these arguments is that you’re obsessed with abortion like they are." Very sad to hear a Catholic priest say these words. Which is to say that we shouldn't be obsessed with the murder of innocents. I think it's a very good thing to be obsessed with. Sad to hear a Catholic priest dismiss the compassion of pro-life advocates towards the unborn.
Jim Lein
1 year 7 months ago
If conservatives were really concerned about decreasing the number of abortions, they would end their obsession with the legalization issue and focus on the women who are financially pushed to consider abortion. We had higher rates of abortion in the 1890s and the 1930s than we do today. Back then there was no safety net for the poor. And conservatives seem bent on further pulling away the safety net, back to the those old net-free days. Following the welfare cuts of 1996, when AFDC was ended, the abortion rate for those taken off AFDC increased sharply and is now the group with the highest rate. This conservative-driven welfare cut in effect chose money (tax cuts) over babies.
Alan Yost
1 year 7 months ago
Well said, Mr. Lein.
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 7 months ago
This is really not the focus of the piece, but your comment posits a false choice. This is clear from the legal & policy regimes governing abortion in Europe, which combine (generally speaking, there are differences among countries) much, much tighter legal restrictions on abortions (mandatory waiting periods, bans on abortions usually after the first trimester - again generally speaking) with generous social benefits to support mothers & children. As Catholics, we ought to have an "all of the above approach" instead of mimicking the political wars over this issue.
William deHaas
1 year 7 months ago
Again, talk about a false positive. You are mixing up apples and oranges. You also continue the meme that Europe has one average or standard for abortion policy - this is also false. A very significant piece of this discussion and comparison is access to and availability of birth control - which almost all European countries provide - usually at no cost. Not true in the US and this is the largest factor in evaluation abortion rates. Your continued meme is the only false positive here.
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 7 months ago
I am deleting my original response to this comment, as, on reflection, I don't think using this space is appropriate to engage in extended debate on abortion policy. Suffice it to say that I think my comment is supported by folks across the spectrum, sources, etc. (i.e. Charles Camosy, Democrats for Life, K. Powers, The Atlantic articles). But I think, Mr. DeHaas, if you took a piece of your own advice below - encounter, dialogue, nuance, etc., you would be less willing to dismiss my point & concede that it reflects a broad-based & well-supported description that might advance the discussion beyond the stale & false choices our polarized political culture gives us.
Robert Koch
1 year 7 months ago
I Totally agree with the Cardinal Newman society on the issue of abortion and the eligibility to be a speaker at a Catholic University. It might be "just' one issue, but it is a gigantic issue. Its murder. On the issue of who to ask to speak at a Catholic institution the Jesuits are the order most at odds with the Catholic church.
L J
1 year 7 months ago
Excellent article! Thank you for engaging our minds! I have benefited greatly from listening to speakers who share few of my opinions, most of which I would like to think are based on Catholic scholasticism. Yet abortionists, pro-capital punishment authors, KKK defenders, anti-immigrant revilers and greedy capitalists all have something to teach me. I dont want them to be my mentors but they do have something to offer, like demonstrating why their thinking is so flawed. How do you expect to convert them if you do not partake with them? Where would Jesus have been if not with the sinners? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer
Robert Killoren
1 year 6 months ago
What would the Newman Society say about a Catholic university that invited Donald Trump to honor or speak at commencement? It seems they are more interested in promoting an ultraconservative ideology than Catholic doctrine. By the way, Catholic Social Teaching is doctrine. It is prolife about all those situations in the period between conception and natural death. To ignore it is to condemn human beings to death by starvation, illness, genocide, persecution, disease, and murder. These are just as important as abortion. (Even Paul Ryan agrees with this now. I believe he and Boehner experienced conversion during the Papal visit to the U.S. last year.) Catholic teaching is not fully supported by any political party. Either one chooses not to vote, enter a write-in vote, or vote for the lesser of two evils. Such is the reality of politics today.

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