What are the chances that Pope John Paul II could receive an honorary degree from Georgetown University? Not much, apparently— if, that is, you were to ask the 70-odd faculty members of that eminent institution who protested the May 17 commencement address of Francis Cardinal Arinze. The worthy Nigerian prelate, whose personal piety, intellectual rigor, and good cheer have prompted many to place him on the short list of papabili, must be scratching his head about what really goes on at America’s oldest Catholic university.
Mind you, he said nothing that has not been said a hundred times or more by the Holy Father himself. He first enjoined his audience to place their faith at the center rather than the periphery of their lives. He then reminded the gathering about the moral imperative to defend the family against the ideological assaults of contemporary nihilism. Finally, noting the university’s particular debt of gratitude to the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he urged his listeners to bear heroic witness to Jesus Christ and the eternal truths of His Church.
The cardinal’s address, which barely extends to three typewritten pages, was too much for some of those in attendance. The headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tells the tale: “Cardinal’s Anti-Gay Comment Sparks Protest.” Had Cardinal Arinze suggested that homosexuals be burned at the stake? That they be cast into outer darkness, there to dwell amid weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Here, in its entirety, is the passage that prompted the headline: “In many parts of the world, the family is under siege. It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce.”
The first thing to note about these three sentences is that they are statements of fact. The second is that their accuracy does not depend on doctrinal belief. Their truth is acknowledged not only by orthodox Roman Catholics, but also (for very different reasons) by those who despise the traditional family as an artificial, sexually repressive social construct.
Even so, one professor of (what else?) theology left the speakers’ platform in dudgeon as the cardinal spoke. Other faculty and students (the number is unclear) also walked out, and on the next day 70 professors cosigned a letter to the dean of the college of arts and sciences protesting Cardinal Arinze’s remarks. The dean was quoted as being “deeply concerned”— not about her colleagues’ behavior but about their injured feelings. Accordingly, she set aside special office hours (something akin to grief counseling, one supposes) to meet with outraged members of the Georgetown community.
What’s wrong with this picture? A prominent cardinal delivers a commencement address reiterating a prominent Catholic teaching to the graduating class of a prominent Catholic university. There is nothing remarkable in that. Seventy faculty members protest the speech. Alas, nothing remarkable in that either: On any given day, at least that many professors at almost any Catholic university can be counted on to disdain Church teaching on a wide variety of subjects. The obvious question, of course, is why they choose to remain at an institution that advertises itself as Catholic. But let that pass.
The more interesting question is why a major officer of a Catholic university feels it necessary to apologize when a prince of the Church reaffirms Catholic teaching on campus. Every opinion is warmly welcomed at Georgetown, it would seem, except orthodox Catholicism. Like many of its sister institutions, Georgetown worked overtime during the 1990s to avoid the implications of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican’s instruction on the duties of a Catholic university. Now that Cardinal Arinze has seen the results of those efforts firsthand, perhaps he may wish to counsel Georgetown on how to become more reliably Catholic.
Better yet, perhaps parents who pay $35,000 annually, hoping that their children will receive an authentic Catholic formation, ought to inquire more closely about what they’re getting for their money at Georgetown. If they persist, who knows, perhaps a “deeply concerned” dean might hold office hours to hear them out—and to explain why Cardinal Arinze’s Catholicism is deemed by so many to be so offensive.