Debates About Commencement Speakers & Student Groups Reveal a Double Standard

This is the time of year when we begin to argue about commencement speakers. Every spring Catholic colleges attract attention for inviting (or disinviting) speakers whose messages are at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church. This matter of honoring commencement speakers is a lot like another issue we wrestle with throughout the academic year—giving official recognition to student groups. Both issues touch on an institution’s expression of its own identity. I’d like to offer some thoughts relevant to this year’s inevitable round of debates.

In spring 2012 there was a flap over Georgetown University’s choice of Kathleen Sebelius to speak at the commencement of its Public Policy Institute. The Department of Health and Human Services, which Sebelius heads, had just announced that it would force Catholic colleges and universities to cover surgical sterilizations and prescription contraceptives, including some that may cause early-stage abortions, in the healthcare plans they offer to students and employees. The archbishop of Washington protested the invitation of Sebelius, as did some 27,000 people who signed a petition.

It was like the dispute in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Obama to give its commencement speech and awarded him an honorary degree. Let me focus my attention on that one, because the facts are better known. The president is a strong supporter of abortion. As a state senator in Illinois, he opposed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, intended to prevent the killing of infants who survived an abortion attempt. As a presidential candidate, he criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. He wasn’t in office as president for three days before he lifted restrictions on government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad.

Giving the president an honorary degree seemed to be a tacit endorsement of these views by the university. Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, disowned this meaning in his speech to the graduates. When he introduced Obama he said, “We are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose [the president’s] policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.” But that did little to still the controversy. Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne–South Bend decided not to attend the graduation rather than suggest his approval of the president’s policies, and 82 other bishops joined him in condemning Notre Dame for its action.

Who was in the right there?

Continue reading. . . .
(with responses by Russell D. Moore, Patrick Henry Reardon, Hunter Baker, and Gregory L. Jao)

This article is from the upcoming May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone.