By PETER MAURICE
Now that spring is here, the thoughts of Catholic university presidents turn once more to commencement speakers. If past predicts future, the values of the City of Man will again prevail. Christian fortitude and a life lived in conformity to the so-called non-negotiables will not always outweigh the desire for secular prestige.
When a Sebelius, a Pelosi, or a Biden addresses the graduates at Politically Correct Catholic U and collects the honorary degree, demoralized Catholics wonder: Don’t the bishops have authority to stop the scandal?
Acceptance of two straightforward principles could guard these institutions from bartering their souls, and those of their students, so cheaply. The first is from the great Catholic novelist François Mauriac. In The Son of Man, the Nobel laureate offered a simple formula that could well serve the selection committees: “We cannot approve…publicly in the name of Caesar what the Lord condemns, disapproves, or curses. . . .”
Clear enough, no? Sadly, many Catholic universities say, in effect: “Yes we can.”
When Notre Dame rendered unto Obama a pulpit and an honorary degree — despite his backing of extreme anti-life measures — the university spokesperson explained that “almost any speaker is going to cause a little bit of controversy. . . . If it’s a Democrat, we hear from the right. If it’s a Republican, we hear from the left.” And if it’s a Satanist . . . well, it’s all so complicated. Rejection of Mauriac’s truism inevitably begets such confusion.
In this fog of “nuance,” performing the duty of office can seem almost ill-mannered. When Raymond Cardinal Burke cited canon law to show that “pro-choice” pols cannot receive Communion, let alone be honored by Catholic institutions, he was “legalistic,” “pre-Vatican II,” “more Catholic than the Pope.”
A similar arsenal of epithets hailed down on the venerable head of Francis Cardinal Arinze at Georgetown in 2003. His crime? Reiterating, in front of impressionable youth, their Church’s teaching against abortion, homosexual practice, pornography, and other threats to family life.
Rather than rending their garments and throwing dust into the air like their biblical counterparts, educators walked off stage and organized a petition — signed by 70 faculty members. The dean of Arts and Sciences, whose job it was to put the lid back on, could not bring herself to defend the cardinal on the grounds that he spoke the truth; she invoked, instead, the pluralist creed of academe, tolerance of “many different voices.”
Conformity and cowardice are the rule, fortitude (a cardinal virtue) is the exception, whether in Tudor England, revolutionary France, the USSR, or the modern campus. We remember and honor the dangerous virtue, courage — in part because it is so rare.
Think of Attila’s Huns massed outside the walls of Rome; and of the Pontiff who sent this “Scourge of God” back over the Alps, to die in Hungary. We remember this Pope as Leo the Great. Had he shared the pastoral sensitivity of most presidents of our Catholic universities, would he have handed over the keys to the Eternal City in order to facilitate dialogue?
The second principle lacks Mauriac’s moral urgency, but may have equal utility for those who serve on selection committees. It was formulated by P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. Bertie is a comic creation, a frequenter of men’s clubs and English country houses, whose productive day starts with the afternoon cocktail; he is averse to exertion, be it physical or moral.
On more than one occasion, however, he displays a saving sense of the absurd. “The Bertie principle” is encapsulated in The Code of the Woosters, where Bertie confronts the aspiring dictator Sir Roderick Spode. He warns Spode that his political ambitions may be scuttled by his other passion — designing undergarments for “Eulalie Soeurs,” a lingerie emporium. Lest there be any confusion in Spode’s mind, Bertie explains the self-canceling nature of these two passions: “You can’t be a successful dictator and design women’s underclothing. One or the other. Not both. . . .” Thereafter, Bertie need only whisper “Eulalie” to subdue Spode’s dictatorial yearnings.
If only Catholic administrators shared the courage of Mauriac — or Bertie Wooster’s sense of the absurd. One can imagine the vice-president’s bewilderment on hearing the Bertie Principle from the lips of a university spokesman. “Please, Joe, one may advertise his devotion to the rosary, or promote the killing of babies. Not both. You really must choose.”
Well, we should pray that this happy imagining becomes reality. But unless recent precedents no longer apply, the selection committees will continue to favor dialogue and tolerance and teachable moments; in a word, Bidens over Burkes — now that spring is here.
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(Peter Maurice has written for Gilbert magazine.)