March 17, 2016 (CardinalNewmanSociety) — When it comes to awarding honorary degrees or choosing commencement speakers, honors bestowed by Catholic colleges and universities that threaten Catholic identity by giving rise to scandal can and should be avoided, representatives of faithful Catholic colleges told The Cardinal Newman Society.

Last week, the University of Notre Dame received heavy criticism when it announced that it would award its 2016 Laetare Medal to pro-abortion Vice President Joe Biden, who while publicly affirming his Catholic faith has failed to allow it to influence his policies and stances on human life issues. The honor, which is meant for those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity,” has resurrected debate surrounding the University’s previous invitation and honorary doctorate awarded to President Obama at the University’s commencement in 2009.

These types of scandals have led many to ask: Why do Catholic colleges give such honors to controversial figures, and who should they really be honoring in light of their Catholic identity?

“We look for speakers who we are to be admired, particularly for their adherence to the teachings of the Church and in the witness to the Faith that they give with their very lives,” Anne Forsyth, director of college relationships for the Newman Guide-recommended Thomas Aquinas College, told the Newman Society.

Whether for commencement or academic lectures, the College tries to ensure that it does not give a platform to anyone who might publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching, Forsyth explained. “To do so could give scandal not only to our own students but to the public at large,” she said.

The Catholic college that claims to be faithful the Church and her teaching yet invites someone who openly opposes those same teachings loses something critically important. It loses its integrity, said Jerome Richter, vice president of public affairs at the Newman Guide-recommended University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. The question should not be if a speaker is allowed to speak but rather what should Catholic colleges be looking for in a speaker.

“We must be consistent with our mission, we must be living it out, because that will send a signal to everyone,” he said. “But most importantly it will signal who we are and if we are living by our true identity.”

Don’t Ignore What the Church Has Proposed

Catholic colleges are not left on their own when it comes to interpreting the impact their decisions will have on Catholic identity. The Church and her bishops have constantly recognized this struggle and offered guideposts for how a Catholic college should act.

At the University of Mary, for example, the office of public affairs utilizes two documents when making speaker decisions: the U.S. bishops’ 2004 document, “Catholics in Political Life,” and Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Church’s apostolic constitution on higher education.

“Catholic institutions should not honor [emphasis in original] those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions,” the U.S. bishops’ document states. Ex corde Ecclesiae adds that “Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities … Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”

Both these documents propose integrity and faithful witness as the ideal means by which the Catholic college should function. Without these two principles, any Catholic college would fall into disarray and struggle to maintain its Catholic identity, Richter explained.

“This is why so many [Catholic colleges] have lost their identity to the point that they don’t even feel they need to have a crucifix in the room,” or worse, choose to ignore Church teaching when explaining critical issues to students, he said.

But one overlooked group in all of this is the parents, who have a right to expect the college to nurture their child’s faith and not expose them to scandal, Forsyth told the Newman Society.

“At the very least, parents should be confident that the college to which they send their son or daughter will do nothing to undermine the faith they have nurtured in them since birth,” she said. “Of course, a Catholic college should be doing much more than this in terms of helping to build upon what parents have begun. But at the bare minimum, it must ensure that those who are held out as models of the Faith truly are so, lest students be led astray.”

The Aftermath of Notre Dame and President Obama

The University of Notre Dame’s invitation for President Obama to speak at its 2009 commencement, during which he was also awarded an honorary degree, was very controversial, Richter recalled.

Notre Dame was in no way obliged to honor President Obama, he said. “When you are giving someone an honor, now you are approving of their opinions and their statements and their choices,” he added.

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“Notre Dame is a good university, but at the same time it has put its foot in its mouth one too many times and in too many ways. It breaks my heart,” Richter said. “It is Our Lady’s university and now a couple of these ‘run-ins’ have branded it in the wrong way.”

On Monday, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, where Notre Dame is located, slammed the University for its honor of Biden, noting that the controversial choice could “provoke scandal” and give the impression “that one can be ‘a good Catholic’ while also supporting or advocating for positions that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings.”

“We need to reflect more deeply on the meaning and significance of the bestowal of honors in relation to the Catholic identity and mission of our institutions,” he stated. “I would encourage Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges and universities to ‘raise the bar’ in considering the granting of honors. I believe a higher standard is needed.”

These events should serve as a reminder for Catholic college administrators, that they have a responsibility for the integrity of Catholic higher education, Richter noted.

The greatest desire is “that we’re always in lockstep with the Church and the Church’s teaching because we exist to serve the Church,” he said. And this isn’t just something that applies to commencement or honorary degrees, it means every speaker at every event on campus. “Any university that is serving the Church needs to show that the mission and identity of the university is thriving.” 

Reprinted with permission from The Cardinal Newman Society.


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