On graduations and Catholic values Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, May. 14, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

This is the season of graduations at all levels, from pre-school through graduate schools. We congratulate graduates on their accomplishments and wish them well, especially those entering the job market in challenging economic times.

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This week’s Catholic Herald includes a special graduation section with information on Catholic school graduations in our diocese. We know that our Catholic school graduates go forth to further education, the job market, and their personal lives well-equipped to handle life’s challenges. They should have received a well-rounded education not only in academics, but in moral and spiritual values.

Quality of Catholic education

As a graduate of Catholic schools myself and as the parent of two children who attended Catholic grade schools, high schools, and colleges, I have always been impressed by the quality of education in Catholic schools. Above all, I have appreciated the Catholic values which permeate all aspects of Catholic schools.

That is why it is so important for Catholic colleges to emphasize their Catholic identity in the choice of commencement speakers and recipients of honorary degrees. It is a final opportunity for the college to show its students (as well as parents, alumni, and friends) the Catholic values it upholds, cherishes, and hopes to pass along to future generations.

President speaking at Notre Dame

There have been many comments about the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at its graduation ceremony on May 17 and to award the president an honorary degree. Notre Dame has a long history of having U.S. presidents deliver the commencement address at their graduations, so it is not unusual for the university to invite the president. I personally do not mind that the president would speak at Notre Dame with this tradition in mind. 

Although President Obama does not support all Catholic teachings, we must remember that he is not himself a Catholic. I think it would NOT be appropriate to invite a Catholic politician who did not support Catholic teachings on the life issues.

I’m sure Notre Dame wants its students to hear a variety of views. It is probably difficult to find a politician today who is 100 percent consistent on Catholic teaching. There are Catholic universities which have policies not to invite politicians as commencement speakers.

Awarding honorary degrees

However, presenting an honorary degree is another matter. Catholic colleges can award honorary degrees to anyone they choose. The honorary degree recipients should be outstanding people of excellent moral character and those whose lives exemplify Catholic values, even if they’re not Catholic.

While President Obama has shown that he supports many Catholic values, he does not have a consistent record in the pro-life arena, which many in our Church view as the most important of all values.

Back in 1989, Bishop Cletus F. O’Donnell of the Diocese of Madison objected to the awarding of an honorary degree by Madison’s Edgewood College to Kathryn Clarenbach, who was active in the abortion rights movement. 

At that time Bishop O’Donnell said, “The college retains every right to acquaint students with all sides of contemporary issues. However, there is a distinction between encouraging the expression of diverse viewpoints and implicitly endorsing them through formal actions of the institution. The granting of an honorary degree falls into the latter category. It cannot be supported by those of us responsible for expressing the official teachings and viewpoints of the Catholic Church.”

Bishop O’Donnell said, “To honor an abortion advocate sends a mixed and confusing message to those who look for Catholic education for clear expression of our values and an unambiguous commitment to them.”

Twenty years later, Bishop O’Donnell’s words still hit the mark. Let us hope the University of Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges will consider their honorary degree recipients more carefully in the future. I’m sure there are many outstanding individuals who would be deserving honorees and who follow Catholic teaching consistently.

As for this year’s Notre Dame graduation, I think many people have expressed enough outrage. Now, as Bishop Robert Morlino says in his column this week, we should let the Notre Dame graduates enjoy their day. We should pray for them and their soon-to-be-alma mater for wisdom and promotion of Catholic values in future years.

God bless all graduates!