Commencement Season Exposes ‘Huge Divide’ in Catholic Education

The best and the worst of Catholic higher education are once again on public display, as America’s Catholic colleges announce their spring commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.

Several colleges—many of them recommended in The Newman Guide for their strong Catholic identity—have admirably chosen to honor Catholic leaders and faithful laypeople as commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. Notable speakers and awardees include:

  • Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles at The Catholic University of America (D.C.);
  • Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, and Jeannette De Melo, editor-in-chief of the National Catholic Register, at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio);
  • Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisc., at Thomas Aquinas College (Calif.);
  • Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama of Raleigh at Belmont Abbey College (N.C.);
  • Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, founder and director of WordonFire.org, at Assumption College (Mass.);
  • Mother Adela Galindo, foundress of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, at Holy Apostles (Conn.);
  • Helen Alvaré, professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, at the University of St. Thomas (Tex.);
  • Christopher Check, president of Catholic Answers, at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (N.H.);
  • Curtis Martin, founder and president of FOCUS, at Benedictine College (Kan.);
  • Joseph Pearce, senior fellow and editor of The Cardinal Newman Society’s online journal and senior editor at the Augustine Institute, at Wyoming Catholic College (Wyo.);
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at Christendom College (Va.); and
  • George Weigel, biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, at Ave Maria School of Law (Fla.).

At the same time, several other Catholic colleges have chosen to honor individuals who publicly oppose the Church’s moral teachings. This choice risks confusion and scandal—a direct contradiction to the mission of Catholic colleges. It does great harm to the unity of the Church and endangers the souls of the faithful.

In 2004, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a document requiring Catholic institutions to withhold honors and platforms from public opponents of Church teaching. “Catholics in Political Life” stipulates:

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.

“The choice of a commencement speaker or awardee is a college’s most visible action—a chance to display its true character and priorities,” said Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society. “Clearly there is a huge divide in Catholic education between those colleges that celebrate faith and fidelity, and those that seek secular prestige.”

The Cardinal Newman Society has identified the following concerns about 2018 commencement honorees, including commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. The list will be updated as honorees are announced through May.

Canisius College (N.Y.)

Canisius College will honor Dr. Norma Nowak, director of the University at Buffalo New York Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, as the undergraduate commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient on May 19.

Since 2014, Nowak has served on the Empire State Stem Cell Board, a massive funding mechanism for embryonic stem cell research. The Board recommends millions of dollars in contracts for embryonic and adult stem cell research through the New York State Stem Cell Science Program.

Carlow University (Penn.)

Despite last year’s controversy over the University of Notre Dame’s selection of dissident Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., founder and director of Homeboy Industries, for the University’s Laetare Medal, Carlow University has chosen Fr. Boyle to speak to graduates and receive an honorary degree on May 12.

The Sycamore Trust, an organization committed to enhancing Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, reported last year that Fr. Boyle has done “admirable work in Los Angeles with men and women who have been in prison and with gangs, but he has also repudiated the Church’s teaching on gay marriage as contrary to God’s will and has ridiculed the Church’s bar to the ordination of women and its withholding of Communion from Catholics married outside the Church.”

Fr. Boyle criticized the U.S. bishops in a 2010 interview for defending marriage and described opposition to same-sex marriage as “demonizing people.” He claimed Catholic teaching on male-only ordination is “shameful,” “nonsense” and not “honest.”

Fordham University (N.Y.)

Fordham University has selected Dennis Walcott, CEO of the Queens Library and former New York City schools chancellor, to deliver the commencement address and receive the University’s President’s Medal on May 19. Fordham previously bestowed an honorary degree on Walcott in 2015, and Walcott has taught in Fordham’s Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership program.

In 2011, Walcott introduced a mandatory sex-education program in New York’s public schools, including immoral teaching on abortion and artificial contraception that corrupts children as early as 6th grade. Dismissing the strong opposition from the Archdiocese of New York and others, Walcott responded, “…[W]e can’t stick our heads in the sand about this.”

Despite this, Fordham chooses Walcott for its most prominent honor as commencement speaker. Fordham lauds Walcott’s leadership of the public schools, and President Fr. Joseph McShane praises Walcott’s “integrity, his commitment to teaching and learning… in the best traditions of Jesuit education.”

Fordham has also chosen to present an honorary degree to actress Patricia Clarkson, a public advocate for abortion and same-sex marriage. Clarkson has been a member of the Board of Advocates for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, for which she participated in a pro-abortion protest at the 2004 Republican Convention, joined Gloria Steinem in promoting the film Vera Drake about a woman who illegally performs abortions, and appeared in Glamour magazine to model shirts designed for PPFA. In 2008, Clarkson protested Mormon supporters of Proposition 8, which was backed by the Catholic bishops and briefly preserved legal marriage between a man and a woman in California. She later called for same-sex marriage and ridiculed the “small-mindedness” of Christians who oppose it during a keynote speech for the Human Rights Coalition.

Meanwhile, at Fordham’s law school diploma ceremony on May 22, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will speak and receive an honorary degree. The NAACP Fund advocates same-sex marriage. In addition, Ifill publicly opposed religious exemptions from the Obama administration’s mandate that employers cover birth control and sterilization in employee health plans. She publicly praised Dr. Ken Edelin, a vocal advocate for abortion who also performed abortions, as “a powerful voice and advocate for civil rights.”

Georgetown University (D.C.)

Georgetown University School of Law has chosen District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, an advocate for legal abortion and same-sex marriage, to speak at the commencement ceremony on May 20.

Norton has long advocated and voted for legal abortion. She co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act and the Women’s Health Protection Act to prevent states from banning abortion prior to viability of the child outside the womb. Just last October, Norton blasted the Trump administration for refusing to facilitate an abortion for an unaccompanied, undocumented minor in U.S. custody; Norton claimed that the girl had a “constitutional right” to end her “unwanted pregnancy.”

Norton also has been a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage, even hosting a celebration when it was made legal in the District of Columbia. And just last month, she publicly opposed a bill that would provide religious freedom protections for those who support traditional marriage.

Loyola University Chicago (Ill.)

Loyola University Chicago has chosen Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, a Vatican-reprimanded activist and dissident, to receive an honorary degree and speak to graduates of the Graduate School and Institute of Pastoral Studies on May 8.

Sr. Campbell has publicly dissented from Catholic teaching with her advocacy for “women-priests” and has claimed that the Vatican “doesn’t know how to deal with strong women.” “I’m optimistic that women will be able to serve as priests one day. But it will happen through practice. First we need to change the system,” she wrote for Time in 2015. Even though male ordination is not a changeable teaching in the Church, Sr. Campbell encouraged women to dissent and continue to challenge Church teaching. “Pope Francis said that the ‘door is closed’ on the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood […] Women need to keep knocking on this closed door and eventually the change will come,” she wrote in another Time article.

Sr. Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby organization that was part of a Vatican review in 2010 and lobbied to undermine the U.S. bishops’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act because of abortion funding. She undermined the bishops’ efforts in 2009 to ensure pro-life protections in Obamacare by pressing for a bill that the U.S. bishops opposed and then advocated a bill that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops dubbed the “Planned Parenthood Economic Stimulus Plan,” because it funded Planned Parenthood and mandated abortion funding in state medical assistance programs.

Although she claims to be pro-life, Sr. Campbell has avoided supporting a ban on abortion. But in 2016, she finally came out with it: “From my perspective, I don’t think it’s a good policy to outlaw abortion.”

Loyola Chicago also has selected Beverly Malone, CEO of the National League for Nursing, as commencement speaker for Loyola’s School of Nursing.

Formerly director of the Royal College of Nursing, the U.K.’s largest professional union of nurses, Malone advocated for greater access to the “morning after pill” and over-the-counter emergency contraception. “We need, as a society, to say goodbye to narrow outdated stereotypes of sexual health services as something furtive and shameful or as a kind of emergency service for the sexually reckless,” Malone stated. “Sexual health services should be about providing care wherever it’s needed. That’s why nurses are well placed to make a positive impact in modernising (sic) sexual health services. They can help provide safe and effective emergency contraception and also give young people the skills to access reliable contraception for the future.”

In July 2005, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children decried Malone’s support for abortion and push to have nurses more involved in committing abortions. In January 2006, Malone heralded a court decision that allowed nurses to continue giving young girls abortion advice without their parents’ knowledge.

In addition to Malone and Campbell, Loyola Chicago will honor Julia Stasch, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences. Stasch is a longtime abortion advocate; in 1993, it was reported that she co-founded the Women’s Issues Network (WIN) and promoted support for the abortion pill RU-486 with Christie Hefner of Playboy Enterprises. “Reproductive choice is central to a woman’s economic life,” Stasch said.

As president of the MacArthur Foundation, Stasch oversees millions of dollars of funding for advocates of population control, abortion, and artificial contraception, including nearly $7.2 million for Planned Parenthood and nearly $3.6 million for the pro-abortion lobby Ipas over the last decade.

Sacred Heart University (Conn.)

After Sacred Heart University’s first choice for commencement speaker stepped down—NBC journalist Tom Brokaw is embroiled in sexual assault allegations—he was replaced by Linda McMahon. She is director of the Small Business Administration, a former candidate for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut, and former CEO of the WWE wrestling entertainment company. Even before she was selected for the commencement address, McMahon had been chosen to receive an honorary degree at the ceremony on May 13.

While running for the Senate in 2012, McMahon publicly supported abortion and same-sex marriage, promising to support repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. When her abortion stance was questioned, she declared unequivocally, “I am a pro-choice candidate, that has not wavered.”

Saint John’s University (Minn.)

Saint John’s University has selected Denis McDonough, former White House Chief of Staff to pro-abortion President Barack Obama, as commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient on May 13. Before becoming chief of staff, McDonough was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, John Podesta’s leftist lobbying group that was exposed in leaked emails to have attempted to undermine the Catholic Church. McDonough wrote an article arguing against excommunication for pro-abortion politicians, and in another one, he argued that Catholic bishops should not oppose legal abortion. He has since labeled Obama “our most Catholic of presidents,” despite his strident support of abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, the HHS contraception mandate, and transgender policies.

Saint Michael’s College (Vt.)

Saint Michael’s College has chosen New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree on May 13. Landrieu is a public supporter of same-sex marriage, and in 2015 he publicly rejected a proposed law to protect religious organizations that defend traditional marriage. In 2016, Landrieu was honored by Lambda Legal for being “the first mayor of a major Louisiana city to support the rights of same-sex couples to marry” and for opposing religious freedom protections.

St. Norbert College (Wisc.)

St. Norbert College has chosen Dr. John Raymond, Sr., president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree on May 13. Raymond is a public advocate for human embryonic stem cell research using tissue obtained from abortions, and he personally oversees embryonic stem cell research at his College. Last year, Raymond testified before a Wisconsin Senate committee to oppose and help defeat a proposed ban on research using fetal body parts obtained from abortions after 2016; he even publicly praised his own institution’s “groundbreaking work” with human embryonic cells. (This contradicted his earlier testimony to a Wisconsin Assembly committee that his College was not actually engaged in fetal tissue research.) The Wisconsin Catholic Conference and pro-life groups strongly backed the legislation. In 2016, Raymond wrote a letter to The Washington Post, publicly defending the use of fetal tissue in research. In 2010, he lobbied Congress to pass the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act to support embryonic stem cell research.

Seattle University (Wash.)

Sally Jewell, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and former CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), will be Seattle University’s undergraduate commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree on June 17. Although Jewell was instrumental in the push for same-sex marriage in Seattle University’s home state, University President Father Stephen Sundborg, S.J., says she “exemplif[ies] the values of our institution.” While CEO of REI, Jewell publicly and personally endorsed a Washington State referendum to legalize same-sex marriage.

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