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.

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