The first time I fully realized the moral stakes at a commencement was over 10 years ago. For a brief moment I was to share the stage with none other than George Bush the Elder. It was after the triumph of the first Persian Gulf war, an exercise I found myself opposing along with a paltry 10 percent of the population. My opposition to the war, ineffectual as it may have been, was known among some Saint Louis University students. The father of one of them happened to be opposing me in a handball game the week before graduation and he said: Just one favor. Don’t ruin my daughter’s graduation.
I guess he thought I might raise a gloved fist in protest or seize the microphone to say something nasty. I really hadn’t considered it, although a few of my antiwar friends thought I should not attend the ceremony and surely should not shake hands with George Bush.
As it turned out, the graduation was not ruined, and the president gave a nice talk. I always thought he was a nice guy, even courageous. It was his moral judgment I had problems with, as well as the actions that came from it.
Graduation time, it seems, has turned out these days to be a moral battleground. It has almost become a right not to listen to any ideas that challenge our cherished judgments. This is a strange situation, considering that one of the goals of a good education might be the ability and willingness to listen critically to competing ideas and arguments. Now we do not even want to be reminded of them.
Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., apparently vetoed the invitation to Chris Matthews to give the commencement address at the University of Scranton. Matthews’s stand on abortion was the problem. I could understand the dis-invitation if the worry had been that Matthews would never stop talking or shouting, but it’s not as if he were going to give an address on the virtues of abortion. Steve and Cokie Roberts (whom I have heard speak eloquently on the values of religion and family life at one graduation) ran into a similar controversy at another Catholic college.
Georgetown University, on the other hand, had its own problems with Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. He said things that people did not want to hearor at least did not expect to hear: In many parts of the world, the family is under siege. It is opposed by an anti-life mentality, as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.
A professor of theology felt compelled to leave the stage. Some students could not bear to listen to the outrage. Some Catholics later apologized for his insensitive and un-Christian remarks. Wow! Just think of the apologies that would roll if they ever invited the pope to speak at graduation.
The New York Times reporter Chris Hedges ran into a different kind of insensitivity training during his commencement address at Rockford College. After he launched into a withering critique of the Iraq war, his microphone was unplugged twice. Some tried to shout him down and told him to leave. Patriotic cheers and jeers roared. (Come to think of it, the pope might have had a difficult time there as well.)
What would St. Joseph’s University have done with the pope? Senator Rick Santorum, who spoke there, has publicly defended views on sexuality and unborn human life issues that are identical to the pope’s as well as to mainline Catholic tradition. And yet several dozen students walked out in protest of Santorum’s address. You would think that at a Catholic and Jesuit university such views might at least be heard.
In all of these cases there are qualifying circumstances. But a central theme, underlying them all, was articulated by one of the guests at the St. Joseph’s graduation. It’s their graduation day, and they should have this day free from the politics of his comments. I don’t want to interfere with their day.
One person’s interference, however, is another’s advocacy. One college’s inappropriateness is another’s ideology. I, for example, have my own list of speakers I would rather not hear at a commencement. The problem is, most of you might have a different list. And such a list might well include me.
If I say that a human fetus is more intrinsically valuable than 10 monkeys, all the animal rights people would march out. If I propose that we legislate to protect fetuses from the second trimester on, those complaining that I am selling out the first trimester will depart.
If I hold that sexual intercourse is morally appropriate only to married heterosexual monogamists, I will not only lose many gays in the audience; I will probably infuriate quite a little number of heterosexuals who believe in hooking up, or at least sleeping with someone you love.
If I suggest that the present administration in Washington is presiding over the looting of the public treasury and the systematic neglect of our working poor, there go the Republicans. Anyone left in the audience would be quickly taken care of by my insensitive evaluation of the present victory in Iraq. (One correspondent has suggested I should leave the Catholic Church and become a Muslim.)
The good news is this: if all commencement speakers would vow not to interfere, there would be few of them.
Better yet, their talks would be very short.