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Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Own Catholic Graduation

Pretty much exactly eight years ago, give or take a week or so, I received my doctorate from Catholic University of America, and graduated for the very last time. It was my third graduation ceremony--yes, I had previously walked for both my bachelors and masters degrees; as anyone who reads this site could probably guess, I'm often a sucker for big, ritualistic, community-wide events--and my favorite of the three. For one thing, it was held outside on the steps of Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is on the campus of Catholic University of America, where I went to graduate school. It was a beautiful, warm spring day; there was green and flowers and just enough clouds on the sky to provide regular shade for all of us in our chairs. For another thing, I just loved the pomp of it all: the individual degrees awarded in separate morning ceremonies, and then the march across campus with us all in our robes, with some of us going up to the top of the steps, for our hooding. I loved that Melissa was there, and my parents made it out, and that my advisor made it back from a foreign trip in time to be there. And, last but not at all least, I loved the commencement address.

No, I'm not kidding--I'm the sort of person who listens to commencement addresses. I don't necessarily remember them, but I do remember this one. It had been an interesting six years for me, a Mormon graduate student at CUA*, and listening to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then the Archbishop of the Washington Diocese, was an appropriate way to wrap it up.

I'm thinking about this, as you might imagine, because of President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame's commencement today. I'll read through his speech with some interest later, perhaps tonight or tomorrow. I'm curious as to what he'll say, or not say. Will he mention the controversy that has attended his speech? Will he talk about abortion at all? My old CUA advisor, Steve Schneck, himself a Notre Dame graduate, has expressed hopes for the speech, hopes in regards to the extending of a "common ground" approach towards abortion reduction, an approach he sees reflected in official Vatican statements, rather than the scorched-earth approach favored by many American Catholics who have fallen in love with the culture wars. As for myself, well, not being Catholic, and more specifically as one who does not embrace the particular theological assumptions which drive much Catholic opposition to abortion, my own discontent with abortion rights is a much murkier thing, one which, despite my clear desire to see the practice made rare and even formally deterred as much as possible, perhaps nonetheless includes too many caveats and qualifications to really be of any use. Part of me wishes I could exercise the same sort of angry, contemptuous condemnation towards abortion that this post demonstrates. But for better or worse, that's not what I learned at CUA.

What did I learn? Well, too many things to list here, that's for certain. But one thing I did learn at that specifically Catholic place, and which I'd like to believe has stayed with me, with a minimum of doubts and obfuscation, is what Cardinal McCarrick reminded us all of at one pleasant afternoon in May, eight years ago: that we were, and are (all of us who live here in the United States, everyone who is able to obtain a college education at a good university) astonishingly blessed people, and hence have a moral obligation to remember those who are not so blessed. As McCarrick concluded his address (which is worth reading in full): "[W]e are all so very conscious that as you set out from this university you have so challenging an opportunity in today’s world. Make the most of it. Change the world. Don’t forget the poor. Don’t forget that what you do affects every corner of this globe. Don’t forget that perhaps the greatest lesson you have learned at The Catholic University of America is that God watches us and loves us and reaches out into our lives to make a difference so that you and I may make a difference too." I don't know if that's the sort of religious point that President Obama would ever be inclined to make, and I don't know if those sniffing for further fuel to continue their cultural conflicts would ever stop to listen long enough to hear such words if they were there, and maybe even give the president credit for voicing them if he did. But those were the words I heard, and I stood there, decked out in my dark robes and burdened by about $30,000 in debt, I believed every one of them. Still do. I hope those graduating from Notre Dame today can take away something similar to what I did; if they do, they can consider themselves blessed too.

*My favorite relevant anecdote from those years: once, for some reason that I don't remember, I needed to get a copy of my original application to the graduate program there. I looked over the typed-up, official version that they had on file, and I noticed that in the space asking about religion, where I had painstakingly written out, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)," there appeared simply "Protestant." Now, I mentioned this to my advisor, and he just laughed. "You have to understand, Russell, that to us Catholics, everybody's Protestant."

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