It seems that every May brings with it some controversy over the selection of the commencement speaker at one or more Catholic universities.  This year, Cardinal Sean O’Malley announced that he could not attend the commencement ceremony at Boston College because Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, was selected to receive an honorary degree and to deliver the commencement address.  Cardinal O’Malley objected to Mr. Kenny’s support for limited legalized abortion in Ireland.  The lower house of the Irish Parliament is considering legislation that would allow abortion in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.    Mr. Kenny supports the legislation.

Nearly all of the controversies about commencement speakers at Catholic colleges and universities revolve around abortion.  As Cardinal O’Malley noted in his public comments about his decision to boycott BC’s commencement, “Because the Gospel of Life is the centerpiece of the Church’s social doctrine and because we consider abortion a crime against humanity, the Catholic Bishops of the United States have asked that Catholic institutions not honor government officials or politicians who promote abortion with their laws and policies.”

But abortion was not the issue this year at St. John’s University in New York (where I am a faculty member).  Our commencement speaker was Hon. Peter King, who represents New York’s Second Congressional District in the House of Representatives.  Congressman King is pro-life.  You may recognize his name because he serves on the Homeland Security Committee in the House and chairs its Subcommittee on Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence.  He often makes an appearance in the media whenever the topic is terrorism.  He drew a lot of attention for holding Congressional hearings on the radicalization of Islam in the United States, and for suggesting publicly that over 80% of Mosques in the United States are controlled by radical Imams.

Not surprisingly, Muslim students and faculty at St. John’s were outraged by the selection of Rep. King.  An online petition was circulated asking the university to withdraw King’s invitation.  Many non-Muslim students and faculty also signed the protest petition; in total, several hundred people signed.   But the university’s administration refused to change course, claiming that Rep. King had been chosen because of his tireless work for all New Yorkers after Superstorm Sandy.  Rep. King (a Republican) did in fact take a very strong and vocal stand against GOP leaders who had blocked and delayed funding for Sandy-related relief efforts.  King was part of a coalition of local lawmakers who eventually prevailed in securing federal funding for relief and rebuilding efforts.

When it became clear that King would be the speaker, faculty members (myself included) were faced with a moral dilemma.  Should we boycott the commencement ceremony?  Should we walk out when King was granted his degree or when he approached the podium to speak?  Should we refuse to sit on the stage with Rep. King (at St. John’s the “stage party” is composed of honorees, the President, Provost, Deans, and a long list of administrators whose title usually begins with “Vice President of”; some faculty sit at the back of the stage behind the “stage party”; the remaining faculty sit on the lawn with students and families.  Some faculty members suggested we should all sit on the lawn as a sign of protest)?

I think it was a mistake to award Rep. King an honorary degree, I object very strongly to his misrepresentation of Muslims, and I disagree with him on nearly every political issue.  Nevertheless, I decided to attend Commencement as usual – and to sit on the stage.  Why?

I think that commencement is primarily about the graduating students.  Rep. King probably could not have cared less whether I—or any faculty at all—showed up at Commencement, but I hope that the students would have cared.  I wanted to honor their accomplishments and to be present for them.   In short, I concluded that presence and absence is not univocal when it comes to events such as this one.  Would my presence necessarily be an endorsement of everything that takes place?  No.  Would my absence necessarily convey the meaning that “I disapprove of this honorary degree, and I stand with Muslim students!”  Again, no.  It could also convey the meaning, “I don’t really care about students or commencement; I’d prefer to be at home reading a book rather than sitting on a stage for 150 minutes on a rainy Sunday morning.”

As I was sitting on that stage for those 150 minutes, I had what seemed like forever to think more about what it means to award an honorary degree to Rep. Peter King or anyone else for that matter.  When we honor someone or ask them to address us at commencement, are we saying that they are perfect or that we agree with everything they have ever said and done?  Obviously not.  There aren’t enough saints to go around on Commencement Day.  So then is it possible for a university to honor someone for a particular accomplishment while overlooking other actions that are unquestionably contrary to the university’s values (especially its Catholic values)?  I think so, but I must admit I’m not 100% sure.

Rep. King gave a decent speech at commencement.  He spoke of the importance of working across party lines – especially to help our neighbors after disaster strikes (as we did after Superstorm Sandy).  He spoke of the enduring importance of service.  He offered no apology for the false and malicious things he has said about Muslims in the past, but he did acknowledge the controversy saying that he thought that a mark of our country’s greatness is our ability to coexist with people who disagree strongly with us.  It was a speech worth applauding.

I think that an important thing to realize is that no one could have left that ceremony thinking “St. John’s honored that man because of the hateful things he said about Muslims.”  If that is true, why would we think that awarding a degree to Enda Kenny is likely to be interpreted as an endorsement of his position on abortion rights?  Rep. King was wrong to stir up religious animosity and hatred toward Muslims with false claims.   But that doesn’t mean he has never done anything good or worth honoring.  Politicians who favor unrestricted abortion on demand are promoting a policy that is morally wrong, but that doesn’t mean that they have never done anything good or worth honoring.  We need to make a distinction between honoring someone for work that is morally objectionable and contrary to our institutional Catholic identity, and honoring someone for work that is fully consistent with our mission and identity despite the fact that they may have done other things to which we strongly object.  The former would be wrong, but the latter might sometimes be right.

Honestly I think that St. John’s University and Boston College should have done better in their choice of commencement speakers this year.  However, both of these cases should help us to see the ambiguity involved in honoring any person, and to recognize that resolution of these matters is not as clear and easy some people think.