The Catholic Thing
What Is an "Honorary" Award? Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Each year, controversy arises about the honorary awards that universities give to individuals judged worthy to receive them on the basis of a criterion of excellence. Scenes of students or faculty sitting with backs to invited speakers abound. Yet no one can logically “honor” himself. It is something for others to do. The failure to honor what is worthy usually falls into the category of envy.

Essential to an award of honor is that it need not be granted. The award transcends justice. It is not a duty but an overflow. We might sympathize with the man who runs last in the 100-meter dash, but we give the medal to the winner. Honors have the connotation of an accomplishment that is worthy of praise.

The problem with honors arises when someone is worthy in one category of life but not in another. We may try to keep these things separate. A good artist may be a very dissolute person in other respects. This situation makes it delicate to distinguish between the reward and the life of the artist.

I bring these things up in the context of the invitation of the HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, to one of the many graduation ceremonies here at Georgetown. We are assured that hers is not an invitation to give a “formal” commencement address. We have some twenty or thirty different ceremonies, most of which have their own speaker or ceremony. This array includes colleges, institutes, programs, professional and graduate schools, no one knows what all.

The invitation to Mrs. Sebelius is pictured by the university publicity office as one of rather minor significance, in the Public Policy Institute. I am sure this comes as news to the HHS secretary. It is an honors program, an awards ceremony, not a graduation. What difference this makes is not exactly clear. Fine distinctions abound. In any case, an address is to be delivered.

Now, no one is naïve enough to think that more attention will be paid to some other speaker this year than to the HHS secretary. It is a perfect public relations or newsworthy set-up. A bureaucrat, speaking at a Catholic university, has proposed, in effect, shutting down most Catholic charitable and educational organizations unless they agree to support programs that are contrary to reason and faith.

She speaks presumably in support of her position, a position specifically rejected by the nation’s bishops as contrary to our tradition of liberty and religious autonomy. It’s man bites dog. No reporter worth his salt would miss it. “FEDERAL OFFICIAL DEFINES RELIGION IN HONORARY ADDRESS.” We can see it now.

Georgetown admires her.

The rule of thumb in these matters is: “Tell me who you honor and I will tell you what you are.” Honors do not have to be given. They mean nothing unless they are freely given. When given, they signify agreement, distinction.

A university might well invite to its halls someone to lecture who denies everything the university stands for. But this invitation would not be offered as an “honor.” Both the speaker and the audience would know the conflicting nature of the address. There might be debate, questioning, and controversy. But neither the listeners nor the speaker would think that anyone was being honored except in the sense that the invited representative really knew the matter at controversy.

An honor does not come from the side of the honoree. The latter is surprised and pleased to learn that his deeds or works have been recognized by some institution. To receive such an invitation is taken as recognition of one’s accomplishment or worth. No one invites his enemy to be honored for so skillfully undermining one’s own status or stature. One must assume that whoever invited the person to be honored found grounds for agreement or praise.

No one honors those who undermine the fundamentals of civilization. The foundation of our civilization is the Socratic “It is never right to do wrong.” In effect, this doing wrong is what the government through the HHS secretary is asking us to do.

One can hardly blame the person being honored for thinking the he is worthy of the honor to be conferred. He may be modest about it, but he knows that the award was designed to acknowledge or approve or praise his unique accomplishment. Moreover, he only accepts the honor if he thinks it is sincerely given by those who are worthy judges of excellence and worthiness.

An institution awards the HHS secretary high honors because it admires her. She has every right to think that such an offer comes to her in this spirit. If her views are radically disagreed with, she would expect not to be invited.

Tell me who you honor and I will tell you what you are.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Manfred, May 15, 2012
Thank you, Fr. Schall, for discussing with candor a contemporary event at Georgetown. To reinforce how far Georgetown overreached in giving this award, one should spend 5.19 minutes at and SEARCH: Kathleen Sebelius v. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and watch a gentleman dispatch Ms. Sebelius. Georgetown can only regret its blunder of having this former governor of Kansas and present HHS secretary within three zipcodes of its campus.
written by Walter, May 15, 2012
The same argument ("Tell me who you honor....") was put forth when, after his resignation during the child abuse scandal, Cardinal Law was given the honorary position of archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica in Rome.
written by Frank, May 15, 2012
"Tell me who you honor and I will tell you what you are."

My father passed eight years ago, two months after my mother. He was a selfless man who sacrificed much for his children. He loved us. He could also be one tough disciplinarian who had no problem applying his hand or a belt across my derriere if I got out of line as so many times I did growing up and he was the one who made sure we were in church every week. My father was the definition of tough love and as much as I hated (yes hated) his methods at the time and sneered at him, the successes I enjoy today are because of a man who had the courage to love but also not tolerate insolent and misbehaving children and assumed his role as the last, firm, and immovable impassable line of good order and discipline.
So I will offer a variation to the sentence above: "Tell me WHAT and WHO you tolerate and I will tell you what you are."
That the Sebelius invitation has not been opposed with swift and decisive action holding those who approved responsible and to account by Church leadership is glaring. Ditto for the President being allowed to speak at Notre Dame.
Jesus Christ, for all of the love He preached and forgiveness he bestowed, had one moment of Divine righteous anger and proceeded to initiate a decisive cleansing of His Father's Temple that had become infested with secular avarice.
The Church has always been and continues to be surrounded by evil and hatred but that is a far cry from being infested by same.

"Tell me WHAT and WHO you tolerate and I will tell you what you are."

Time for the leaders of the Church to apply some tough love like my father. The press, the world, and the ignorant will sneer and vent their shrill hatred and contempt. So what else is new? If Church leadership is afraid of this, perhaps they have no business being leaders in the first place. In the long term, the Church will be respected and admired. Our separated Protestant brethren will stand up, cheer and perhaps many of them (like myself) will Cross the Tiber and the Church will get closer to becoming ONE.

"Tell me WHAT and WHO you tolerate and I will tell you what you are."
written by John Yocum, May 15, 2012
Fr. Schall's comments are profound and simple. The deepest insights generally are those that, when displayed, strike us as obvious. "One must assume that whoever invited the person to be honored found grounds for agreement or praise....An institution awards the HHS secretary high honors because it admires her."
Yes, exactly. Those simple and, once expressed obvious, comments cut through the thick, sophistical and disingenuous self-defense that always seems to follow the conferral of an honorary degree or an award by a Catholic institution to someone who seems to stand undeniably at odds with Catholic truth.
written by Ray Hunkins, May 15, 2012
It must have been difficult for Fr. Schall to write this piece about his beloved Georgetown University. In doing so he sets an example of courage, a rare virtue these days. I would like to associate myself with the remarks of Frank and John above. Fr Schall asks for and deserves our prayers.
written by John McCarthy, May 17, 2012
What I so much like about Fr. Schall's essay is that, true to his Jesuit training and tradition, he makes several important distinctions, each of which further clarifies the issue, before he makes his definitive conclusion. Bravo, Fr.Schall!

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