Putting an End to Catholic Commencement Controversies

Spring is here, with pomp and circumstance. It is also the season of controversies over the choice of commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients at America’s Catholic colleges. Will the annual conflicts ever end?

Perhaps there is a way. And it would be none too soon.

More than a decade after the University of Notre Dame venerated President Barack Obama at its commencement ceremony, sparking a public outcry from 83 bishops, Notre Dame could soon honor President Biden – a dissenting Catholic who is stridently opposed to the Church on abortion, gender ideology, and religious freedom. The university claims a tradition of inviting sitting U.S. presidents to deliver commencement addresses. But alumni are urging the school not to repeat the 2009 fiasco.

It’s not just a problem at Notre Dame, of course. Many Catholic colleges have persisted in violating the U.S. bishops’ policy forbidding Catholic organizations from giving “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. . .awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

My organization, The Cardinal Newman Society, has been even more vocal than the bishops in decrying these honors. Nevertheless, there has been little progress toward resolving disagreements between the Church and academia over academic freedom and whether such public honors constitute scandal.

Perhaps there is a way of bypassing these disputes – at least temporarily. For the good of their students and of the Church, Catholic college leaders need to put a halt to the commencement controversies. We Catholics face increasingly strident attacks on our morals and religious freedom. We need unity within the Church, not division. College leaders can set the example by voluntarily honoring only the best exemplars of moral virtue, regardless of whether they claim the freedom to do otherwise.

So, some concrete suggestions.

First, do no harm.

Over the last three decades, I’ve communicated with many bishops and college leaders about commencement controversies in Catholic education, and there are two general perspectives.

One supports a Catholic college’s interests in honoring anyone who, in their view, has done important things for society or for the college – a donor, perhaps, or a public official – despite the individual’s advocacy for immoral practices, policies, or actions that the Church clearly condemns. Proponents argue that the speaker or awardee might have valuable things to teach graduating students about leadership and habits of success. To demand conformity to Catholic morals would be too scrupulous and would exclude too many people, the argument goes.

The opposing perspective regards such honors and speaking platforms as potentially scandalous, because they appear to condone evil and could influence young people to disregard moral principles. Scandal is a grave sin and directly conflicts with the teaching mission of Catholic education.

Then-Vice President Biden speaks to graduates of Miami Dade College (2014)

Such is the conflict. College leaders bristle at the charge of scandal and do not wish to appear backward and narrow in the eyes of the world. Critics, therefore, doubt the colleges’ fidelity and concern for the souls of students. And the commencement controversies go on.

But what if the question of what constitutes scandal could be set aside long enough for the Church and college leaders to agree on a positive approach to addressing the moral crisis among young people today? Many of them are confused, lured by society’s promise of sexual liberty and bullied by ideologues. They come to Catholic colleges poorly catechized and without well-developed habits of reason and virtue.

Such conditions today call for extraordinary clarity from Catholic educators. Even if – for the sake of argument – there are conditions under which a Catholic college might responsibly honor a public opponent of the Church’s moral teaching, under the assumption that young adults are capable of standing firm in their faith, surely we can agree that now is a very dangerous time to do so. The moral confusion of most students renders them less capable of nuance.

The last things young people today need from Catholic educators are morally compromised heroes and ambiguous values. Instead, the commencement ceremony should shine a light for students.

Second, embrace truth.

Some academics will find this to be anti-intellectual. They will cite “academic freedom” – not in the classical sense of giving professors the needed space to teach and explore truth according to the methods of their disciplines, but as absolute liberty to say and do virtually anything, even what offends traditional or Christian propriety (but never, of course, any element of “woke-ism”). This principle has been distorted and has turned most colleges from centers of truth and learning into arenas of ideology, relativism, and sophistry.

A proper Catholic understanding of academic freedom is not moral relativism. It proposes freedom as a means to truth – respectful dialogue that aids discovery – and holds firmly and confidently to truths already known, including the teachings of Christ and His Church. It recognizes the institutional freedom to uphold Catholic identity, distinct from the identity of the secular academy.

Third, choose rightly.

The age-old dispute between the Church and colleges over academic freedom would seem yet another obstacle to ending commencement speaker controversies – but perhaps it could be bypassed. College leaders might acknowledge that an award ceremony or commencement address is not an academic exercise. There is no dialogue. Rarely is the subject matter of great intellectual importance. Academic freedom should have little bearing on choosing commencement celebrities.

Instead, it would speak well of Catholic colleges to take the high road and honor moral, intellectual, and spiritual leaders – whether or not they think they ought to have the freedom to do otherwise. Choosing a commencement speaker or honorary degree recipient is in fact a free choice, and nothing prevents colleges from choosing the very best exemplars.

The commencement controversies at Catholic colleges have gone on far too long. Even aside from disagreements on academic freedom and scandal, the current moral confusion among young people requires unambiguous signals from Catholic educators – especially those who truly desire good formation of young adults and unity in the Church.


Patrick Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.