Mount St. Mary’s University Urged to Rescind Commencement Honors Invitation

The Cardinal Newman Society is shocked and dismayed to learn that Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.—an institution recommended in our Newman Guide for its faithful Catholic identity—plans to honor Mark Shriver as its 2019 commencement speaker and award him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

The Newman Society has expressed our deep concern to Mount President Dr. Timothy Trainor, noting the possibility of scandal and the apparent violation of the U.S. bishops’ policy against such honors in the statement, “Catholics in Political Life.” We have urged that the University reconsider and rescind its invitation and stand strong in its Catholic identity, as it has done so well in recent years.

Nevertheless, President Trainor has responded that the honors will occur on May 11. We have therefore shared our concerns with Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Bishop Emeritus Paul Loverde of Arlington, who sit on the Mount’s board of trustees. We will also continue to express these concerns publicly, with our members, and with others in the Mount community.

The Newman Society urges all faithful Catholics to pray for a change of heart at Mount St. Mary’s University and the avoidance of scandal, which contradicts and undermines the purpose of Catholic education.

Cooperation in Abortion

The Mount’s press release notes that Mark Shriver is CEO of Save the Children Action Network and vice president for advocacy at Save the Children, and he will speak about “leading an ethical purpose-driven life.” Save the Children promotes “family planning” in coordination with the pro-abortion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and sponsors “sexuality education” that is directly opposed to Catholic moral teaching on sexuality, marriage, and the dignity of human life.

Shriver was a pro-abortion rights politician who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1995 to 2003 and failed a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002. Shriver garnered a 100 percent rating by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. In a 2002 Washington Post interview, Shriver stated, “Women’s issues are critically important and I will continue to fight for a women’s right to choose; family planning funds; maternal and child health funding and education for girls both here and abroad.”

Aside from these failings, Shriver has done good and admirable work which the Mount wishes to recognize and honor. But Shriver’s public actions and positions cannot simply be ignored, especially as they are fully integrated with his work at Save the Children and his public notoriety. Mount St. Mary’s would cause scandal by honoring Mr. Shriver, both among the Mount’s students and in the general public.

Apparent Violation of Bishops’ Policy

In honoring Mr. Shriver, the Mount would seem to violate the U.S. bishops’ policy in “Catholics in Political Life,” which reads:

“It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified. If those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the action are fully aware of the objective evil of what they do, they are guilty of grave sin and thereby separate themselves from God’s grace. This is the constant and received teaching of the Church. It is, as well, the conviction of many other people of good will.

“To make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong. This is the point most recently highlighted in official Catholic teaching. The legal system as such can be said to cooperate in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection except the law. In the United States of America, abortion on demand has been made a constitutional right by a decision of the Supreme Court. Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.

“…The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” [Emphasis added.]

Further information on Church teaching related to Catholic honors and platforms can be found in this report on the Newman Society’s website.

Pivotal Moment for Mount St. Mary’s

What should we make of this? Tragically, we see cases like this too often at Jesuit and other Catholic colleges. Commencement honors are a public display of a University’s priorities. We would hope that a Catholic university that is committed to the truth of Catholic teaching would strongly prefer to invite good role models who conform to Catholic moral teaching.

Often when we raise concerns about honors and speaking platforms at Catholic colleges, there is an understandable reaction against restricting academic freedom. While we note that a commencement ceremony is not an academic forum open to dialogue, rarely is a commencement address an academic lecture, and never is an honorary degree an academic exercise; nevertheless, we appreciate the concern for freedom. We respond with this question: given the opportunity to choose a speaker and honoree that reflects upon the college, why would a Catholic institution ever freely and knowingly choose someone whose public actions and statements are in conflict with Catholic teaching on grave moral issues, thereby risking scandal and diminishing the character of the institution? What is Catholic education, if it chooses knowingly to confuse its students and the public on the Church’s clear moral teachings? It is not Catholic education.

The Mount would do well to remember its deep Catholic roots: it was founded in 1808 by French missionary Father John DuBois, a refugee of religious persecution, and sits on land once frequented by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint and founder of the Sisters of Charity.

Today the Mount includes a University, a seminary, and the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the oldest American replica of the shrine in France. The Newman Society has been proud to highlight the Mount’s strong core curriculum, abundance of spiritual life opportunities, competitive Division I athletics with team chaplains for every sport, and wholesome student life activities.

It was at Mount St. Mary’s that the Newman Society’s former Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education was housed for several years. It was led by Monsignor Stuart Swetland, former vice president for Catholic identity and mission, and strongly supported by Dr. Thomas Powell, former president of the University. The Center studied and promoted best practices for colleges to strengthen their Catholic identity.

We hope and pray that the University continues to be a model Catholic university by rescinding its commencement honor invitation to Mr. Shriver. We pray that the deep Catholic heritage of the Mount will be remembered, protected, and promoted.

The fact is that every Catholic college today faces a strong pull from the culture to compromise Catholic identity and secularize. Only those Catholic colleges that are intentional about remaining faithful to their Catholic mission will be able to avoid the temptation of compromise and hypocrisy.

A final note on The Newman Guide: Our recommendations in The Newman Guide are not written in stone, and we reevaluate every college in the Guide before every new edition is published at The Newman Society’s first priorities are to serve the needs of Catholic families and to promote the authentic mission of Catholic education, wherever and however it may be provided to our precious young people, who deserve genuine Catholic formation.

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