Nothing has been typical about this spring’s commencement ceremonies at Catholic colleges. Many of the ceremonies are socially distanced, outdoors, or even online. But the limitations are unlikely to dampen excitement about the distinctive achievements of the Class of 2021, who endured more than a year of COVID-19, financial struggles, and safety precautions to get to this moment.
There is also extraordinary relief about the continued vitality of Catholic higher education: every Catholic college in America survived the 2020-21 school year, and enrollment numbers at many of the most faithful Catholic colleges are looking quite good.
It’s also a welcome surprise that—according to The Cardinal Newman Society’s preliminary review of commencement speakers and honorees, with some colleges late in reporting their plans as of mid-May and others foregoing the typical celebrity pomp—there seems to be a reduced appetite for honoring public opponents of the Church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, sexuality, and other moral issues. This has been a sad trend over the past few decades at many Catholic colleges, which have largely secularized.
One major university did attempt a scandal this year, but thankfully it failed. The University of Notre Dame, which infamously honored pro-abortion President Barack Obama in 2009, attempted this year to honor current President Joe Biden, who not only stridently opposes the Church on abortion, marriage, gender, and sexuality but does so as a baptized, self-proclaimed “devout” Catholic. Notre Dame apparently wanted the scandal at a particularly terrible time to divide the Church, but the White House declined the invitation—albeit with the offer that, sometime soon, President Biden would be happy to disgrace “Our Lady’s university” by his presence.
At least a couple Jesuit colleges succeeded in demonstrating to Catholic families why students should get an education elsewhere. Boston College’s commencement speaker is author and film director John Ridley, whose columns have advocated same-sex marriage while denigrating the “false piety” of opponents—chief among them the Catholic Church. The activist for Americans for Marriage Equality proudly says he is “no moralist” on sexual activity, which seems an immediate disqualifier for honor at a Catholic college.
Marquette University in Milwaukee could find no better role model than PBS commentator David Brooks, a public advocate of same-sex marriage (“We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage.”) and for legalized abortion for the first four or five months of pregnancy. He is also currently mired in an ethical controversy, having resigned from the Aspen Institute over an apparent conflict of interest because he wrote pieces favorable to companies that funded his Aspen position.
However, most Catholic colleges this year decided instead to honor successful trustees and alumni, business leaders, and other individuals whose names don’t pop out of headlines. Few of the speakers and honorees are highly recognizable, controversial, or scandalous.
Perhaps the most high-profile commencement speakers and honorees are Church leaders, and these are concentrated especially among the faithful colleges recommended in The Newman Guide. Cardinal George Pell, the inspirational former Vatican official who was wrongfully convicted and jailed for more than a year in Australia, presided over Ave Maria University’s commencement ceremony in Ave Maria, Florida. Evangelist Bishop Robert Barron addressed students at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, featured 1991 alumnus Bishop Andrew Cozzens, and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, invited Bishop Thomas Paprocki. Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq, addressed graduates at both Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas.
Prominent Catholic laypeople were also among this year’s speakers and honorees. Famed college football coach Lou Holtz addressed graduates at Christendom College, former U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia was the honored speaker at Franciscan University, and FOCUS founder Curtis Martin spoke at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming.
It remains to be seen whether or not pandemic-related issues led many Catholic institutions to shy away from high-profile speakers or if this is the beginning of an encouraging trend that sees troublesome Catholic colleges stepping back from honoring individuals who oppose Church teaching.
It’s a welcome reminder of what sort of leaders Catholic higher education institutions should be honoring in their commencement ceremonies. A commencement speaker or honoree at a Catholic institution should be one who embodies the virtues of not just a good and successful citizen, but also what it means to be a faithful Catholic. A commencement address is the final impression a college can offer its students before bidding them farewell, and its deliverer should embody the values the institution claims to have instilled in its graduates.
For a Catholic college, that should always mean helping students along the narrow path of Christian virtue and highlighting the true, the good, and the beautiful in every aspect of life.
[Photo Credit: Bishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and a 1991 alumnus of Benedictine College, speaking to graduates at the college in Atchison, Kan., on May 15. (Supplied by authors)]