What Is an “Honorary” Award?

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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