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Another commencement-speaker controversy

This one hasn't gotten the attention of the Cardinal Newman Society, but there's another Catholic campus controversy you might want to know about. Fordham University's commencement speaker this year is John O. Brennan, currently Deputy National Security Advisor to the White House. Some students and faculty at Fordham have protested, circulating petitions arguing that Brennan (who served as chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet under President George W. Bush) is tied to War on Terror policies including the use of torture in ways that clearly violate the teachings of the church and the values of a Jesuit institution.

Here's one petition; here's another. Here's a letter of protest published in the campus paper The Ram from retired CIA officer Ray McGovern.

In April 2009, Scott Horton noted that Brennan had intervened to stop the Justice Department from releasing the "torture memos" written by Bush-administration advisers John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Stephen Bradbury. "Brennan is a protege of former CIA director George Tenet," Horton wrote, "and although he expressed some reservations about waterboarding, he was a defender of other Tenet-era torture programs. Now ensconced as a senior counterterrorism advisor, he has become the principle advocate of the 'don't look back' mantra with respect to the misdeeds of the Bush years." That expression of "some reservations" makes it difficult to mount a short and sweet case against Brennan on Catholic-teaching terms. He has said that he was -- yes -- "personally...opposed" to waterboarding, as noted by the Washington Post's useful WhoRunsGov bio, but he didn't let it stop him from being part of other CIA activities that he "felt good about." The WhoRunsGov bio adds,

But Brennan has previously defended the CIA's tactics. In a 2005 interview with Jim Lehrer, Brennan called extraordinary rendition "an absolutely vital tool." Critics of the practice, which involves arresting detainees in one country and transporting them to another (often without any public notice of the arrest), charge that it is used to move suspects to countries that are willing to use torture. On CBS in November 2007, Brennan said that enhanced interrogation techniques have generated "a lot of information that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists."

Later, Brennan started making anti-torture noises -- as in this speech from September 2011, which ended, "As a people, as a nation, we cannot -- and we must not -- succumb to the temptation to set aside our laws and our values when we face threats to our security, including and especially from groups as depraved as al-Qaida. We're better than that. We're better than them. We're Americans." As Glenn Greenwald wrote (in the course of protesting Brennan's possible appointment as CIA head under Obama), Brennan has been called a "supporter" of the CIA interrogation and detention program and credited with anti-torture views. (Andrew Sullivan: "They can't both be right.")

The petitions protesting Brennan's appearance at Fordham also call attention to his support for extrajudicial killings via drones under the current adminstration. No bishops have taken up the alarm, as far as I know. Should they? Can any politician or government official ever speak at any Catholic University? Should they?

Update (5/17): I see Franciscan University of Steubenville invited Michael Hayden, CIA head under George W. Bush, to deliver its commencement speech earlier this week. Hayden's connection to the issues that were cited regarding Brennan -- defending torture and attempting to obstruct its exposure, endorsing drone strikes that could kill civilians, and overseeing broad violations of Americans' privacy and civil liberties -- is much more direct. I wonder if there were any protests from the Steubenville student body?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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This is the flip side for those of us who think that such a speaker's track record is not reflective of Catholic values. However, as much as I would be protester at his speech, I'm not sure that I think that the University should refuse him the podium. The "commencement speaker tests" have become battlegrounds that aren't usually worth our time. Protest mightlly, but let it be and go on...though I do see an important distinction betweeen a Mrs Vicki Kennedy who may not be as pro-life as the bishop would like and has accomplished much good in other spheres and a John Brennan who implemented and defended policies that allowed torture. These distinctions are worthwhile.

betweeen a Mrs Vicki Kennedy who may not be as pro-life as the bishop would like and has accomplished much good in other spheres and a John Brennan who implemented and defended policies that allowed torture. These distinctions are worthwhileDavid,Distinction without a = murderextrajurdicial killings = murder

I don't accept that equation, Bruce.

Actually, pro-choice = potential for murder (or just "killing", as not all killing = murder). I identify as "pro-life", if those un-nuanced labels have any deeper meaning after all these years, but the simplistic equation of choice = murder drives me batty. Disingenuity in debate does no one any credit, and it would be nice if we could move beyond such simplistic labels when discussing this incredibly complicated subject.

No problem. Doesnt make it wrong though.

Mollie, I agree that torture is something that the Catholic Church, from bishops through students and faculty and people in the pews, should decry. I don't think there are any circumstances that would square it with Catholic teaching.The bishops have been very vociferous on abortion and same-sex marriage since the Obama administration came into office. They were less vociferous on torture, although I'd imagine we could find instances on the USCCB website, perhaps in the form of committee reports or statements, in which they've voiced disapproval. Is either approach better or worse than the others? I guess there needs to be a certain amount of voicing in order for people to hear; but as we've seen during the Obama administration, speaking out also runs the risk, real and/or perceived, that the bishops are meddling in politics.

FYI, when I said the bishops were "less vociferous on torture", I meant to indicate specifically during the Bush administration.

If one Catholic university can allow a pro-choice POTUS to speak, I see no reason why another Catholic university cannot allow a former CIA official to speak. Conservatives criticized the first event, and now we have liberals criticizing the second event.What's good for one is good for the other.Free speech should be a non-negotiable.

Bruce and David, your comments have provoked much thought. I believe there may (and I am not claiming to be certain) exist a difference between Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Brennan, Bruce's comment notwithstanding. When a commencement speaker is selected, it is not necessarily every action of the speaker that is being symbolically honored but instead, because everyone has "sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," a speaker may reasonably be selected based on particular merits. Mrs. Kennedy, David claims, "has accomplished much good" and this accomplishment could, conceivably, be a merit worth honoring despite her pro-choice advocation. (Of course, this can only be taken so far and it may be that Mrs. Kennedy's vehement defense of abortion rights was and is beyond the pail.) However, in the case of Mr. Brennan, what exactly, besides his work in the CIA (wherein the point of contention resides), would be symbolically honored? It seems that in his case, his honor is intimately caught up in his (alleged) crime. Therein lies a serious problem of symbolism for his selection as commencement speaker, a problem that did not exist for Mrs. Kennedy. Furthermore, having someone like Mrs. Kennedy speak would not confuse anyone on the Church's position regarding abortion. Having a speaker like Mr. Brennan deliver a commencement address may send mixed messages as to the Church's stand towards "all necessary means" in the war on terror.Finally, I would like to agree with Bruce that the specific allegations of immorality leveled against Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Brennan are in my opinion, however effectively different, ideologically the same - both represent a disregard for the sanctity of life and, as Catholic teaching goes, a life is a life, whether lived in a field in Afghanistan or in a womb in America.

Erin,I think that was a very fair analysis of the argument, and I would agree with your formulation about the argument for Mrs. Kennedy speaking while Brennan's position is more complicated. One question I would ask, though, is Mrs. Kennedy really in violation of the sanctity of human life in the same way Brennan is, if she argues for the choice that someone else makes to end a human life, a choice that is by definition open-ended and may result in the preservation of human life, while Brennan actively pursued policies that definitively harmed or ended human life? While I will concede that her position and whatever she does to further it will enable others to end life, she herself is not personally responsible for that decision in the same way that Brennan is, and it just seems like the latter is arguably worse and less defensible than is her case.

I appreciate all of the commnetary, but also find it intersting that she was the speaker at another Cathoic institution without problem this year, I believe-- but if I am wrong, please correct me. Also, while I know of her general support for a pro-choice legislation, I do not know what other statements she has made about the morality of abortion. This, too, could be in grat distinction to Mr. Brennan. Or not.

she herself is not personally responsible for that decision in the same way that Brennan isDaniel,I think that is gratuitous. If she is encouraging people, which her stance certainly does, then she is just as responsible as Brennan who is also providing the encouragement for a similar action. In one way, Brennan has an 'acting to proctect innocent life' claim which Kennedy is completely missing.

Bruce,I don't see how it's even remotely arguable that Mrs. Kennedy's opinions on the abortion question are to be equated with Brennan's role in the War on Terror. Mrs. Kennedy, by openly voicing her opinions and voting based on those opinions (and encouraging others to do the same, if she has in fact done such a thing) is certainly a responsibility for any evil that results, but to compare her essentially political stance to a man who has formulated policy and given orders that directly resulted in torture and the harming of human life is just not an apt analogy. Brennan's actions can only be justified, if one wants to do that, by arguing that they were undertaken in the name of the greater good of the nation, because in and of themselves, they are not defensible actions. Her responsibility is less, yet she is treated as if it were greater, and I think it fair that if her presence at a Catholic university commencement is odious, then it's not hard to argue that Brennan's is even more so. All this is not to suggest that I think either one of them ought to be banned from an event where neither has any teaching function nor is expected to indoctrinate the youth with their objectionable positions; on the contrary, as another poster said before, freedom of speech and exposure to those with whom we may disagree with on some issues is a value that ought be upheld without fear of contamination. If the faith is so fragile in the young that it can't bear the presence of a fallible commencement speaker, things are worse than I thought in these times.

The issue isn't exactly "free speech," though, is it? If Brennan were appearing on campus as part of a symposium on law enforcement or counter-terrorism or what have you, protesting his right to be heard would more clearly be a question of free speech. (Some orthodoxy watchdogs have protested appearances of that sort, and I think that does demonstrate a lack of confidence in students' ability to bear exposure to differing viewpoints.) But when he's invited as a featured speaker, it becomes a case of sponsored speech, maybe even endorsed speech, and what's being questioned is not his right to voice his opinion but the appropriateness of his speaking in this context. Part of the issue here is that there's no clear definition of what it means to make someone a "commencement speaker," with or without an attendant honorary degree. When the invitee is an alum, as Brennan is of Fordham, the message seems to be "Here is a noteworthy graduate who can offer you new graduates wisdom on how to use the education you received here when you're out in the world." I can understand why students would object to that.

I would imagine you've heard today's news that the Georgetown is being castigated by the Archdiocese (and Cardinal, I presume) for allowing Secretary Sebelius to speak at a non-graduation event -- crossing blogs! Haven't we all got more important things to do??? A modest proposal -- have Catholic colleges do away with all graduation speakers... maybe all graduations... maybe all studies...let's gather under the trees...agh!

Daniel,I appreciate your thoughts. I think about it a little differently. Brennan has a government job and its a legitimate responsibility of the government to protect its innocent citizens. So in Brennan's case, I see his Catholic responsibility as exercising prudential judgement about how to accomplish that goal. While I agree that torture is not permitted, what is torture is subject to prudential judgement with different people legitimately drawing the line in different places. Also, Brennan might choose to go along with certain actions he finds odious because he legitimately believes doing so prevents worse actions from occurring. In short, his responsible exercise of his occupation requires him to make these decisions and quitting might not be the prudential choice.Ms. Kennedy is an entirely different story. First and foremost there is no room for prudential judgement on abortion. (Not to say there isnt in voting for a candidate) The issue is black and white. Second, she is under no requirement to say anything at all. It would be possible for her to be pro-choice in her heart and not publicly advocate that position, assuming she has. So volitionally, I see her actions as much more within her individual responsibility and control.

The issue of abortion is black and white? I'll bet that's news even to the most pro-natalist moralists...Wow... don't even attempt to go with that...

Mollie, that is well stated. A clear definition of what it means to invite a speaker would be absolutely useful for situations like this, so we could more properly know when to be outraged when someone we don't like has been asked to speak at one's alma mater. It seems to be interpreted as a statement of endorsement or sponsorship, but I wonder if it could also be looked at as an opportunity to challenge or dialogue about an issue. Maybe not, as all the graduates really want to do is be a bit inspired before they enter the cold cruel world, so maybe the dwelling on the weighty issues of a speaker's past or current moral state is asking for more than what the occasion calls for.And Bruce, I see your continued distinction between Kennedy and Brennan's moral responsibility, so I have a couple more thoughts on this. One is, the requirements of Brennan's job as a counter-terrorism official do not excuse his moral agency in committing torture (which, btw, is an objectively defined act, and not some gray area that requires a lot of prevaricating on about what it is or isn't). He may have done so out of the reasoning of the double edge effect, which to me is fine, I am not sitting in judgement of him nor would I protest if he came to my school to speak. I don't see him as a Pinochet or Saddam, and am willing to listen to him. But to still say that Kennedy, a non-state actor who advocates for "choice" and not "abortion" as somehow the morally more responsible one is just unsustainable. There may not be room for prudential judgment on abortion, but abortion and choice are not synonymous. She coerces no abortions, she performs no abortions, and her stance may be freely ignored by any pregnant mother. And as I said before, her stance is open-ended and life may in fact be preserved by the act of choice. And since she, like Brennan, has done much good work in her life, denying her a voice on a Catholic campus is uncharitable and close-minded if she isn't going to be encouraging the kids to run down to the clinic and have an abortion on her dime. I've said my piece, and moving on...

Mollie: Here's how I look at the situation at Fordham University.Commencement addresses are a genre unto themselves. As a commencement speaker, John O. Brennan will almost certainly honor the occasion and the genre of the commencement speech.In other words, he will probably not throw aside all conventional standards for commencement addresses and stand up there and deliver a lecture about his views on drones or any other controversial topics.For this reason, I think that he should be allowed to speak at the Fordham University commencement, as scheduled.

"A modest proposal have Catholic colleges do away with all graduation speakers maybe all graduations maybe all studieslets gather under the treesagh!"Maybe potential graduation speakers will make that choice for Catholic schools. With all of the garbage that seems to surround anyone who has an opinion on anything that doesn't match what the local theocons of the moment consider orthodox or "prudential," any speak of her/his salt might just say: who needs this s**t?

Right on, David Pasinski! About the only moral virtue I have practiced with any consistency is that of avoiding commencement exercises. With only a few exceptions, I have resisted all attempts to coerce me into sitting through commencement addresses.Commencement addresses are intrinsically evil. they are offenses against Natural Law. Listening to them, much less giving them, is formally cooperating in evil. Indeed, giving them ought to be a crime punishable by confinement in stocks.

but abortion and choice are not synonymousDavid and Daniel,I guess I'm thick but I think 'choice' is the choice to have an abortion. Otherwise there is no 'choice' and the mother must carry the child to term. So what part of 'choice' do you think I'm missing?That said, I see no part of making a premeditated decision to end a fetus' nascent life which is gray? Unlike torture, this is a decision in which we all might be intimately involved. Perhaps that makes us all more willing to obfuscate.

Bernatd, I think you have to lighten up.Fr.Maftin's address to the Wharton MBA's last year was terrific!Of course all the hazzari here on various speakers shows you've got a point to make.

As an aside, at the top of the website I have been asked my opinion as to whether brides should wear strapless wedding dresses.I'm agin it. It detracts from the santity of the marriage and will most likely lead to an unwillingness to procreate.Unless, of course, there are 2 brides involved, then prudential judgement is required.Back to commencement and other speakers now ......

Bruce,Abortion and choice are in fact not synonymous. One does not necessarily mean the other. Choice is by definition the freedom to choose one or another of several options. One may choose to wear a blue shirt, or maybe the red one. The fact that the choice between the two exists does not predetermine the outcome. Just to make myself perfectly clear, Bruce, you can choose life or choose abortion, but again, the outcome is not pre-determined by the choice itself. And the gray area I spoke of? How about the complication that the mother's life would be endangered by the pregnancy? You are free to argue that abortion is still intrinsically wrong in that scenario, all I'm saying is when you introduce real life complications that go beyond general denunciations of abortion and choice, people don't always find the question to be so black and white as a handbook of moral theology would have it be, that's all.

"About the only moral virtue I have practiced with any consistency is that of avoiding commencement exercises."This made me laugh out loud - very good, Bernard!

There's more to come. The nation's biggest Catholic university, DePaul, is inviting the world's greatest ant expert to speak at commencement. E. O. Wilson is better known for his strong views on population control, the destructive forces of religion, and humanity's impact on the earth, none of which, as far as I know, resemble teachings of Catholic Church authorities. There is a distinct possibility he might be illuminating, educational, and entertaining in contrast to speakers who rehash the same old stuff that typifies the genre Bernard D. mentions. Critics are up in arms conflating DePaul and Wilson, although I am sure both strongly object to the idea.

E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology was a life-changing book for me. Now I'm waiting for my husband to finish reading The Social Conquest of Earth so I can read it. (He said it's one of the best books he's ever read.) hope no "impassioned dissenter" throws ice water on the great genius at DePaul.

I never read it, but I'm sure some of you have... Newman's "The Idea of a University." Any light in ther for this controversy?

Are there any controversies at the present time over commencement speakers at non-Catholic universities in the United States, or were there any in recent years?

David Pasinski ==I haven't read the relevant parts of "The Idea of A University" since 1948, but somewhere in there Newman defends the university as a place where scholars with different opinions battle it out, with each side defending its own views and criticizing its opponent's. That way the best idea wins. (Interestingly, Newman links academic freedom with religious freedom -- he sees them as inter-dependent. Would that the bishops realized that.) Suppression of unpopular ideas , of course, would ruin the project. This is essentially the idea of the university which was invented in the middle ages. Some historians the invention of this institution was the greatest medieval contribution to Western culture.True, in the middle ages a theology or philosophy professor could be censured by his bishop, and even be accused of heresy and his teachings then condemned as heretical. True, in some cases he would be turned over to civil authority and burned at the stake. But the theologians had the right to appeal to the pope himself in person, unlike what happens to theologians these days. See Sr. Johnson. She wasn't even told her opinions were being investigated.Ironically, as I never cease mentioning, I was required to read Newman in a secular college, while in many Catholic colleges of that time the notion of opposite sides battling it out was scorned. The old "falsity has no rights" stuff. No doubt there are others on this blog who remember those times. The supreme irony is that these days the American "Cardinal Newman Society" claims to be be defending Newman's theory of the university. Sheesh.

If there is cause for conservative concerns, it should not be one more speaker passing through for an hour and soon forgotten by all except maybe some graduates. It is the implied fragility of highly educated Catholic intellects and the assumed vulnerability of Catholic teachings if faced with non-agreement. The evident fear of the results of exposing Catholic people and positions to those who may disagree, in a world in which most disagree and most Catholics live, is debilitating. One nearby secular university captures in its motto the power that drove those early universities Ann O describes: "The truth will free you." Well-tested truth survives. An ironic consequence of current activities is the widespread publicizing of scandal by episcopal attempts to avoid it. What used to be ignored as "a small college in Massachusetts" has become world-famous as Catholic Anna Maria in Paxton, where Vicky Kennedy and Bishop McManus were disinvited from commencement because the bishop judged her moral stature inadequate for the proposed event. Refined thinking from the USCCB on prerequisites for university speakers could be a small but useful contribution to evangelizing efforts.

Jack, is it fair to infer from your comments that you'd support Brennan speaking at Fordham, because the truth should be tested? I'm not trying to ask a "gotcha" question - I'd really like to know if you'd agree that's a logical conclusion from your position.FWIW - the ancient art of oratory died somewhere around the proliferation of televisions in the 1950s. If I were the president of a college, I'd seriously consider ducking the possibility of controversy by just scrapping the commencement address. The ceremonies are too long already, and nobody really wants to sit through the speech. Would the college be diminished very much if nobody talked?(On the other hand, I suppose that someone could make an argument that the need to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression is a good reason to retain the commencement address. Too bad the graduates and their families have to be subjected to it, though, in order to make that point :-)).

Jim P. -- If you can't get Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Vicky Kennedy, Brennan will do. Consider the purpose of the occasion -- commencement. One speaker is not why the crowd is there. The truth-testing you mention goes on year round. One more speech may be one more piece of data to examine in trying to understand the world in which we live and into which the graduates are proceeding. Brennan could be illuminating. A university invitation to a speaker is not an imprimatur. It is an offer to listen in the hope of hearing something of potential interest. Commencement addresses as a class are not known for their stimulating effects, but that is not a binding requirement. Bailing out because it might be difficult for some is hardly a commendable solution for educational authorities. Given their positions, they are ones to whom we might look with hope of finding a bit better-than-average understanding of and commitment to some time-honored principles. Your conclusion seems to allow for the possibility of that view.

I just updated the post to note that Franciscan University of Steubenville (the subject of another recent blog post, as it happens) invited Michael Hayden, CIA head under George W. Bush, to give its commencement speech. (Thanks to Morning's Minion for the heads-up.) To put it briefly, If Brennan is bad, Hayden is worse.

I live in Ohio. Rest assured there won't be much protest at Franciscan University. If Action Francais were around they wouldn't be uncomfortable offering Charles Maurras an honorary degree.

On Michael Hayden, head of the CIA under Bush, being invited to speak at Franciscan University of Steubenville--too late to fret, since that very President Bush spoke several years ago at Saint Vincent College. The worst has already happened.

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