Catholic Institutions of Higher Education: Some Paradoxes

This year’s graduation speakers provide a very interesting commentary on the paradoxical status of moral teaching at our religious institutions of higher learning. I am an academic; hope to continue to be one for as long as possible. And I am a religious person. I have also had the, somewhat coincidental, experience of attending Catholic institutions of higher education for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

This year, one of those institutions Boston College gave Condoleezza Rice the honor of being the commencement speaker. Students protested. Faculty protested. There was a very intelligent student-generated petition against the invitation. Adjunct professor Steve Almond resigned. Some of the arguments guiding these actions focused on Boston College’s status as a Jesuit institution, stating that Rice’s actions as National Security advisor directly conflict with “Catholic values.” Almond went so far as to state quite clearly that “Rice is a liar.” But in every case, at least some effort was made to suggest that Condoleeza Rice’s decisions in the past undermined her moral authority to provide the kind of wisdom that is supposed to be imparted from the podium during graduations.

In a wonderfully ironic twist, Rice’s speech focused on “responsibility.”

Meanwhile, at a small catholic school in St. Paul Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas, a senior chosen to address the student body declared that faculty members who wanted to share a room together on school-sponsored trips, as well as–get this–women who use “the pill” are being “selfish” and ignoring the greater good for short term pleasure. While many students and parents walked out in disgust, while still others booed and shouted insults, the dean who followed the student’s speech called it “courageous.”

Religious institutions of higher education, it would seem, are some of the last vestiges of the kind of education that trains, not only the mind, but the soul. It used to be the case that all forms of education were envisaged in these terms, but now there are only a few institutions who are openly willing to acknowledge that they stand by a certain set of moral values and that these inform their educational practices.

But how far have we come, if what we take to be the best kind of moral education is to tell a handful of people how they should conduct themselves in the bedroom, while at the same time rewarding and encouraging figureheads of the state who–at the very least–are not above reproach for having directed our country’s citizens, resources, and attention to what is quite clearly an unnecessary and extraordinarily costly war.