The poet Robert Frost once described a liberal as someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. He could have been speaking about all too many Catholic universities today, where you’d have about as much chance of hearing a commencement address delivered by a prominent Catholic who loves the traditional faith as you would Ted Nugent doing a public service announcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
For decades, Catholics have wondered why, on truth-in-advertising grounds alone, such institutions continue to be permitted to identify themselves as Catholic.
Last week, the Archdiocese of New York finally withdrew the Catholic designation from Marymount Manhattan College, which refused to rescind its invitation to New York Senator Hillary Clinton to deliver its Commencement address and receive an honorary degree. It was Senator Clinton’s support for abortion that brought down the archdiocese’s ire, though of course her entire ideology renders her completely unfit to address a Catholic institution.
The Catholic left is consistently apologetic in its interaction with the secular world, and eager to show that they share that world’s impatience and disgust with some of the Church’s teachings. Far from attracting non-Catholics to the Church, these genuflections to the world only make them wonder what the point is in belonging to a Church whose entire tradition is evidently so worthy of contempt. As one writer puts it, “I would rather belong to a Church that is 500 years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to change, than I would to a Church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up.”
What, after all, is there to be so ashamed of in being a Catholic? Why the timid deference to a secular world whose culture delights in vulgarity for its own sake, that considers itself bold and cheeky for reality television that ridicules the marital bond, and that has given us, in place of the Gothic cathedral and the Pietà, a bunch of insufferable nobodies passing off piles of junk as “art”?
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, built Western civilization as we know it. The university system, a unique contribution of the West to the world, grew out of the Church. The modern idea of international law developed from the work of Fr. Francisco de Vitoria and other sixteenth-century priest-professors in Spanish universities. No longer do historians of economic thought date the origins of the “dismal science” to Adam Smith and the eighteenth century; more and more it is sixteenth-century Catholic philosophers who are being called “the founders of modern scientific economics” (in the words of the great economist Joseph Schumpeter).
We have all heard a great deal about the Church’s alleged hostility toward science. What most people fail to realize is that historians of science have spent the past half century drastically revising this conventional wisdom, such that the mainstream view is now that the Church played an important role in the development of modern science. Some scholars, like Stanley Jaki, even say that it was certain aspects of the Christian worldview that account for the unique success of science in the Western world.
How many people know that the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was a priest, Fr. Giambattista Riccioli? Or that the man who discovered the diffraction of light, and gave the phenomenon its name, was another priest, Fr. Francesco Grimaldi? Or that to this day the American Geophysical Union honors exceptional young geophysicists with an annual medal named after yet another priest, the great seismologist Fr. J.B. Macelwane?
Likewise, how many people know that 35 craters on the moon are named after Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians, or that it was the Jesuits who spread Western science to places ranging from India and China to Ecuador and the Philippines?
Modern scholars like Brian Tierney are now saying that even the idea of individual rights, one of the distinguishing features of Western culture, can be traced back to Church lawyers of the twelfth century!
Then there is Catholic charity. Catholic charity did not simply surpass the charitable work of the ancient world, though of course it did. It totally transformed the world’s outlook on helping the poor. No longer, as in ancient Greece and Rome, was charity dispensed in order to call attention to oneself or to place others in your debt. With the Church’s emphasis on the sacredness of human life came the idea of serving the poor with a cheerful heart, expecting nothing in return.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg of what we as Westerners owe to the Catholic Church.
Now why, when you are part of a tradition as rich and extraordinary as this, would you feel it necessary to look outside that tradition for a commencement speaker – and to decide upon, of all people, Hillary Clinton? Why not instead explore and plumb the depths of this beautiful tradition, and spare your hapless students another tissue of platitudes from a liberal mediocrity who would have merited the contempt of any generation but our own?
How Marymount Manhattan’s administration would answer this question I do not know. What I do know is that the Archdiocese of New York was absolutely right to pose another question: why do you still wish to associate yourself with the Church if you are utterly contemptuous of everything she stands for?