It's commencement controversy season! Part I: Bill Clinton and the Cardinal Newman Society

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton applaud during the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps national service program on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 12, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Over the last month Loyola Marymount University (where I live) has faced repeated criticism for its decision to have former president Bill Clinton as its undergraduate commencement speaker.

Some of that criticism has come from a local group dedicated to “strengthening L.M.U.’s Catholic identity.” But far more has been leveled by the Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization that aims to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education.”


For over 20 years the Cardinal Newman Society has positioned itself as a watchdog on Catholic education, promoting institutions that it finds faithful to church teaching and criticizing others on issues ranging from guest lecturers, percentage of Catholic faculty or L.G.B.T.Q. organizations on campus. Their language tends toward denunciation, its critiques are often peppered with words like “disgrace,” “scandal” and “outrage.” In 2004 the society took out a full-page ad in USA Today attacking Georgetown, Notre Dame and Boston College for allowing “The Vagina Monologues” on campus. It described the play as “an obscenities-drenched production that defiles students.”

In 2009 the Newman Society’s president Patrick Reilly likewise argued on National Public Radio that while President Obama’s “commitment to social justice ought to be applauded,” Notre Dame inviting him to campus was like inviting Adolf Hitler or a member of the Klu Klux Klan and just “honoring them for things that you think they’ve done well.”

“You can’t separate an honor for an individual from their very public actions,” he explained. “President Obama in his first hundred days is more identified with his support for abortion rights than he is for any social justice issues.”

In addition to criticizing choices made by Catholic institutions, the organization has at times organized campaigns to have speakers disinvited, faculty or staff fired and schools’ Catholic charters revoked. Joe Feuerherd, writing in 2009 in The National Catholic Reporter, described the society as having “McCarthyite tactics and fundamentalist agenda.”

Personally, I’ve always wondered about both the Cardinal Newman Society and this question of what makes for a good commencement speaker at a Catholic school, of what and who a commencement speaker should be. So when the society began writing repeated articles denouncing the Clinton decision—“President Clinton’s record is one of scandal, immorality and support for the destruction of innocent human life,” they wrote—and included L.M.U. on its list of Catholic universities which are “dishonoring [the] Class of 2016,” I thought I’d reach out to them to try to understand better where they’re coming from.

In this first of a three-part series, I talk with the Newman Society’s news editor Adam Cassandra about the group’s take on Clinton and commencement speakers. In Part II Mr. Cassandra and I will talk more generally about the often-incendiary approach the group takes and how or whether that approach serves the church.

And in Part III I will talk with Stephen Privett, S.J., former president of the University of San Francisco, about his own experiences and philosophy in choosing commencement speakers. (I reached out to Loyola Marymount as well. They declined to comment.)

One of your main arguments about L.M.U. inviting Bill Clinton is that some of the positions he holds, or that Hillary Clinton holds, are not in keeping with the moral teachings of the church. But doesn’t every politician probably have some positions that aren’t going to be a perfect fit with church teaching?

Adam Casssandra: Nobody’s perfect, that’s for sure, but there are certainly plenty of people that don’t make a public career opposing the moral teachings of the church.

But would you say politicians should be generally excluded as a category?

Not necessarily.

Because it seems like a Republican might be pro-life, but their positions on immigration or health care or the death penalty might not be so great.

I understand what you’re saying but at the same time, I don’t think you can necessarily equate somebody’s position on immigration with their position on the dignity of human life, in terms of the level of the issues that we’re dealing with. Further the bishops have been pretty clear that Catholic institutions shouldn’t honor anyone who acts in defiance of our fundamental moral principles, especially when it comes to teachings on the dignity of human life.

I get that, but it seems like this is the challenge. If you’re talking about a public figure, who is not a bishop, it seems like it would be very hard to find someone that’s perfectly in line with the full scope of moral teachings of the Catholic Church.

A broader point here is what is the purpose of having these honors and these speakers for a Catholic college. We have a different mission than a secular institution and shouldn’t be trying to emulate everything that a secular institution does.

I think in general people would view a commencement speaker as some kind of figure that’s inspirational, providing one last lesson to the students and summing up their educational experience and what they need to be looking forward to in their future careers and other pursuits beyond the college experience. But if you’re going to pick a speaker for that purpose, if you’re going to have a commencement speaker at all for that kind of purpose, why would you have anyone there who could potentially cause scandal for the university or give students an impression about the world that does not align with the values and mission of the institution?

And further, you could extend that to other speakers of the institution: Anytime you’re bringing in a guest speaker to provide some kind of educational lecture or address to students, shouldn’t they be held to the same standards as anyone else that’s brought in as a teacher of students?

It’s interesting though, when you’re talking about what a graduation speaker should be, a lot of what you say seems to fit Bill Clinton. He is someone with some positions that are not in keeping with the moral teaching of the church. But I think a lot of people would argue both as president and since, he’s also tried to a lot of good for people in need, for people on the margins. And even as he’s had a life with some huge mistakes in it, that gives him a lot of experience from which to speak. I mean, if anyone might have a life lesson to offer students as they’re going out into this crazy world, you could argue that it would be someone like Bill Clinton.

Yet his foundation continues to oppose church teaching around the world and he’s in the midst of a presidential campaign where he’s actively promoting his wife, who also is a fierce opponent of what the church teaches regarding the dignity of human life, marriage, etc.

But it’s not like in bringing him the school is endorsing those positions, is it? No one’s going to anticipate students walking away saying, “I guess the church (or L.M.U.) is okay with abortion or infidelity.”

This isn’t an argument original to me, but I saw this recently: To your point, what if, say, a Catholic university invited Bill Cosby to be the commencement speaker? Would not the entire conversation be about how the university is supporting sexual abuse by having Bill Cosby come speak? (Someone else way smarter than me wrote a whole article about this in Catholic World Report.)

Even people who do bad things do some good in their lives. I’ll grant you that. But the mission of the church and the mission of a Catholic university is to try to get students to become saints, right? To go to heaven? So presenting someone who has had problems not only in the past, but still today is actively countering the message and the teachings of the church, I don’t see how that makes really sense as a wise decision for the university.

But would you expect that he’d come to campus and talk about abortion? I would not.

Probably not. But sometimes it’s not what they actually say during these speeches that is the problem. I grant you that he might say a bunch of wonderful things. But the university, choosing to honor this person and present this person as a role model, that’s the real issue. It’s going against the mission of the university in many ways to prop up people who are active opponents of church teaching around the world. 

I mean, to some extent I can understand the position you’re offering, but I know for a fact that there have to be any number of people who are faithful Catholics who could be presented as a commencement speaker for any university that could be just as inspiring as Bill Clinton.

One of the other things from your statement that I’m really wondering about—there’s a couple of places where you condemn the choice of Clinton because of his past marital infidelity. It seemed like a very severe line for a Catholic organization to take. Whether he should be speaker or not, the Christian position seems more about forgiveness and an acknowledgement that we all make some pretty big mistakes. What led to the Newman Society’s decision to make this argument?

Well, it’s pretty well known that in Mr. Clinton’s history, besides what we know of, admitting the adultery with Monica Lewinsky, numerous other people have come forward, accusing him of not only infidelity but sexual assault. And to us, I think it’s just one more thing about his character that shows that he’s not necessarily a great role model for students graduating from a Catholic university.

I’m a little surprised to see you comparing his past to that of Bill Cosby, though. Do you really think that’s a fair parallel?

I’m not connecting the two, necessarily, I’m just speaking to your argument about whether having Bill Clinton means anything about the university supporting necessarily abortion or infidelity or anything like that. I’m just saying in terms of the media focus and the conversation, if you had someone like a Bill Cosby speaking at a Catholic college that would surely be the conversation that would go on in the media, about his failings and his bad example and not about any of the good things that he’s done during his life.

You’re not going to see any mainstream media outrage about Bill Clinton speaking at a Catholic college because he’s favored in the media, and people tend to have a positive opinion of him for whatever their reasons might be. Whereas Bill Cosby, even though he may have done many tremendous things during his life and career, he’s in disfavor with the media and in public opinion. So even though as far as I know right now he’s just been accused of things, I don’t think he’s been charged, but regardless, that was just the point I was trying to make, about the public reaction.

I assume the university argues that bringing in Mr. Clinton is no way an endorsement; his nephew, as you probably know, is one of this year’s L.M.U. graduates.

We’re following these types of things all the time where some sort of controversial speaker is invited and the universities always say it’s not an endorsement or this is a free speech issue or an academic freedom issue. To us, it’s a mission issue for the university. What is the mission of a Catholic university? If you invite a hundred notable pro-abortion speakers in a row to your university and keep saying their speeches aren’t an endorsement and this is just some kind of free speech or academic freedom issue, how long can you keep issuing these kinds of disclaimers and expect people to take them seriously? When at the same time, you’re not necessarily promoting and defending the faith in public in any other area.

O.K. Although in the case of L.M.U. and other California Catholic schools, there’s some pretty recent history surrounding pro-life issues. Three years ago L.M.U. found out their health insurance could be used by employees to help pay for abortions. The administration decided to remove that option, which was not a popular decision in some quarters. (And then the state of California forced them to keep it anyway.) So it’s not like the school doesn’t have a recent track record of trying to protect and promote respect for human life.

As recent as a month or two ago, one of the professors at L.M.U. wrote about how the school’s Catholic identity is going to be gone within a generation, and we reported that a number of faculty basically are saying they are being retaliated against or feel uncomfortable at the university because they’re faithful Catholics.

When the Cardinal Newman Society writes stories like these, do you ever reach out to the administrations for comment or even just to get a sense of where they’re coming from?

Yes, and most of the time none of them respond. I won’t speculate on why they don’t, but probably 95 percent of the time we never get responses on these types of things. And I will say for this particular issue we saw the announcement on the evening of April 14 and wrote our statement the next morning. But the L.M.U. statement already had quotes from their president on their position regarding choosing Bill Clinton, so we did not reach out to L.M.U. for that particular statement.

You said a moment ago that the mission of a Catholic school is to make students into saints. In terms of bringing a speaker like Bill Clinton, are you saying you think it does harm to students? Don’t they have the ability to discern for themselves what is worthy of respect and what isn’t, what’s in keeping with the church and what isn’t?

It certainly has the potential to do harm. When you’re giving somebody an open-ended opportunity to lecture, you can’t necessarily control what they’re going to say. But even if he never says anything that’s controversial, the university is still holding this person up as someone deserving of an honor. We see especially a commencement address opportunity as an honor of that person.

I’m just not sure I’ve ever heard anyone put the argument in that way.

If you look at “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” it’s pretty clear that every action of the university should be in accordance with its Catholic identity. And the document talks about the role of the university as part of an evangelizing arm, and their responsibilities in promoting the truth with an eye toward the teachings of the church.

It’s definitely the stronger case in K-12 about the role of the Catholic education informing students to get into heaven, not informing them for college prep and careers. But at the university level as well, one of the responsibilities of the Catholic university and college is to assist the church in spreading the Gospel.

Although forming college students is a different sort of a mission than K-12?

There are definitely differences, but that [mission] is not something you hear too much about.

Here’s what I mean: people in Catholic higher education argue all the time that having non-Catholic teachers and speakers can be an important part of forming their students for the world they’re going to live in, that it’s exposing them to lots of potentially very valuable things, most of which you wouldn’t necessarily worry about with K-12.

But even non-Catholic speakers or faculty are supposed to respect the teaching of the church, not blatantly promote dissent.

But you could drive a tractor-trailer through the gap between just being a non-Catholic teaching at a Catholic school and “promoting dissent”?

It’s certainly our position that when it comes to church teaching, students should be taught what the opposing arguments are and how to refute them. But there shouldn’t be a doubt left that abortion is in any way O.K., for example. It’s a truth of science that life begins at conception. It’s a truth of the faith that human life has dignity from the moment of conception. With those kinds of fundamental truths, if they’re opposed or presented in a way that leads students to think that it’s O.K. to not believe those things, then the university is not fulfilling its mission.

And you’d argue that on some level having a speaker like Mr. Clinton who is pro-choice, whose wife is pro-choice, does that? Because it seems like a 21 year old can make the distinction between saying, “This guy is a former president and that’s interesting and I want to hear from him,” and, “This guy is pro-choice so the university is pro-choice” or “I should be pro-choice.” It’s that process of discernment, isn’t it? Aren’t we hoping that by the time they graduate our students are able to do that?

Yeah, we would hope that, but what we’re talking about is the responsibility of the university in this regard, not hoping that the student can discern these things. We certainly hope that they do, but why put them in that position to doubt truths of the faith?

I would say in addition to that, yes, a Catholic university should be exploring questions, teaching students to ask questions, exposing students to different points of view, etc. But they also have a fundamental mission that is different than a secular college that may do those same things. At a secular college they’re promoting all this open dialogue and “O.K., we’re leaving it up to you to figure all this out.” In our case we know that there are truths, that there is truth in the world. The question of is there truth could be debated at any secular college in the country, but from a Catholic perspective, we can say there is truth. There is truth revealed by God.

We can talk about morality and what is immoral. And we can certainly consider the arguments against those things, but like I said, at the end of the day it shouldn’t be left lingering that the possibility that things that are true in terms of church teaching are not true.

It just bumps for me because it seems like there’s so much value in having such a person come. Whether it’s Bill Clinton or someone like him, say President Obama, who would hold some similar positions, it’s hard not to see it as a huge missed opportunity for students not to be able to hear from them.

Well, look what happened at Notre Dame with Mr. Obama, they had all these bishops come out against him speaking there because again it was another scandalous betrayal of the mission of the university. And honoring this person who was so opposed to church teaching on the dignity of human life. I think he was still against same sex marriage at the time.

If you look at what the L.M.U. president said about Bill Clinton, about him being a great statesman, his commitment to improving the lives of other people, “inspire graduates to seek lives of meaning, purpose and global impact”—if those are the reasons specifically that they’re choosing them, I feel like you could find any number of speakers with those types of attributes who aren’t actively going around opposing church teaching or promoting candidates for president who oppose church teaching.

So again it goes to the point of what’s the point of having these people come speak? What is the message you’re trying to convey to the students with this last university-sponsored lecture?

Tomorrow: Part II – Outrage as a Strategy for Change

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Greger Hatt
2 years 8 months ago
Would be interesting to hear your take on why there seems to be such a lot of hate, resentment and simplification in USA catholicism. Sure, European catholicism certainly has its issues, but the aggressiveness and judgemental trigger-happyinses of the Newman society and its likes really seem astounding.
Mike Escril
2 years 8 months ago
I'll bet if it was a Catholic who said that blacks needed to be shipped back to Africa or that segregation was better for our society, your tune would change fast.
Kevin Cronin
2 years 8 months ago
It seems the only commencement speakers acceptable to a segment of our fellow church members are priests, bishops and nuns. And I'm not so sure nuns would be acceptable. Kevin
Mike Escril
2 years 8 months ago
Acceptable Speakers: Henry Hyde, Bob Dornan, Jerehmiah Denton, Chris Smith, etc.
Lisa Weber
2 years 8 months ago
These acceptable speakers you mention are not exactly household names.
Kevin Cronin
2 years 8 months ago
FYI Henry Hyde died in 2007! Kevin
Mike Escril
2 years 8 months ago
I gave those as examples; Denton passed, too.
Stuart Bintner
2 years 8 months ago
A serious question might be: "Which is a greater threat to the integrity of the Catholic universities of the United States, Bill Clinton or the Cardinal Newman Society?
Mike Escril
2 years 8 months ago
That's a serious question ? The CNS is pro-Catholic. You think a sleazebag like Clinton or any liberal Democrtat who are viciously anti-Catholic are suitable to speak or be invited to a Catholic institution ? They are the ENEMIES of the Catholic Church and Catholics and I am tired of the bishops and these schools paper ing over their anti-Catholic bigotry.
Mike Escril
2 years 8 months ago
Yeah, these anti-Catholic liberals who attack Catholic institutions should be honored.
Lisa Weber
2 years 8 months ago
The Cardinal Newman Society sounds like a group that assumes Catholics are willing to give up their right to think for themselves. This society probably does more damage to the church than the people they attack.
Michael Malak
2 years 8 months ago
Taking the Cardinal Newman Society's logic to its inescapable conclusion there ought to be only Catholics at Catholic colleges and universities, including faculty, staff, and students, lest the unbelievers, or faltering, tempt Catholics who are weak-minded, too poorly grounded in their faith, or unduly impressionable, to stray. Banning the internet, television, and newspapers on Catholic campuses would help, too, along with textbooks authored by those who hold divergent views from the orthodoxy the Society deems fitting and proper, in its discretion. The Cardinal Newman Society might consider engaging the world, as Pope Francis urges, instead of drawing the curtains, in a very Holy Office way. The Society's self-righteousness is a waste of intelligence, their own, and ours. It's sad because there is so much more afoot than whether President Clinton gets 45 minutes, live, with a crowd of college graduates on a campus dominated by a church. It must think we’re fools.


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