Friday, August 3, 2018
There is a movement underway at a number of Catholic universities that seeks to have these institutions revoke the honorary degrees that they conferred upon Theodore (“Call me Uncle Ted”) McCarrick, the now disgraced Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C., and former member of the College of Cardinals. Last week Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College, ordered him to refrain from exercising his priestly ministry in public, and instructed him to live a life of “prayer and penance.” This followed on the heels of the Archdiocese of New York’s finding that allegations that McCarrick abused a 16 year old altar boy in 1971 and 1972 to be “credible and substantiated” (see here and here). Since then, a host of allegations have surfaced (some, apparently, having been known and shared among church-insiders for years) that McCarrick was not only a priestly figure who molested teenagers, but a man of power who led a life of dissipation, frequently inviting seminarians and young priests to parties at his beach house on the Jersey shore, where they were also invited to share his bed (see here; Rod Dreher’s reporting has been especially good, see here, here and here).
In light of these developments, Fordham University and the Catholic University of America (see here and here) have rescinded the honorary degrees they once gleefully bestowed upon McCarrick. This is in keeping with a trend among American universities in the wake of the #MeToo movement which has seen Sewanee and Fordham revoke the honorary degrees they conferred upon Charlie Rose (see here and here), and over twenty institutions rescind the degrees they awarded to Bill Cosby (see here).
The University of Notre Dame was among those schools that decided to disassociate itself from Bill Cosby. In announcing the move (see here), Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C. assured the Notre Dame community that “[w]hile certainly troubled by serious, public accusations made by multiple women against [Cosby], the University elected to wait until due process had been afforded the accused, and a verdict delivered, before rescinding the honor.”
In response to the revelations concerning McCarrick, some Notre Dame alumni questioned whether the former cardinal’s degree (here) would likewise be revoked (see here). Father Jenkins issued a statement (here) explaining that while the University finds the “alleged actions reprehensible” it “recognizes that McCarrick maintains his innocence and that a final decision in the case will come only after a canonical trial in Rome.”
But the decision to revoke Bill Cosby’s degree and the decision to forego rescinding McCarrick’s degree (at least for the time being) both raise an important question: Why should the University rescind these public honors in the first place? After all, we were told by no less an authority than Father Jenkins that bestowing such a degree does not constitute a statement of approval of all that the person has done or said. Indeed, in defending his decision to honor President Obama in 2009, Father Jenkins insisted (here) that the award of an honorary degree “has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy.“ Instead, the honorary degree bestowed on Mr. Obama reflected “the University’s expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President.”
But by the same logic McCarrick should continue to be an honorary Domer. The University had no knowledge of McCarrick’s perverse conduct when it bestowed the degree (presumably), and now the degree continues to reflect the University’s respect for the leader of a great diocese and the office of bishop.
Many in the Notre Dame community found Father Jenkins’ defense of his decision to honor Mr. Obama wanting, but some explanation was surely necessary given Mr. Obama’s well-known public support for the abortion license through all nine months of pregnancy and beyond (i.e. in the Illinois legislature he rejected measures that would have mandated care for children that survive abortion). Indeed, Mr. Obama’s stance on abortion was not nuanced. His preferred policy plainly contradicted the Church’s teaching regarding the inviolability of unborn human life and the need for the law “to preserve each person’s rights and to protect the weakest” (see here). Even if Father Jenkins did not fully appreciate the depth of Mr. Obama’s commitment to preserving and expanding the legal right to kill unborn children in the womb (a highly dubious suggestion given Father Jenkins’ eminent intelligence), he must have recognized this during the subsequent eight years during which Mr. Obama zealously sought to advance that policy at home and abroad.
So now, if I understand this correctly, the standard that Notre Dame employs in deciding to revoke an honorary degree that the University now thinks was wrongfully conferred is the conviction of the degree-recipient in a court of law (or similar tribunal) for serious crimes, provided that due process has been observed? And that subsequent conduct in support of an “unspeakable crime” (here) that harms the innocent and undermines the common good isn’t grounds for revoking an honorary degree, but discovery of past sinful conduct that harms the innocent and undermines the common good may be grounds for revoking an honorary degree?
Isn’t it marvelous how this standard can justify the revocation of the Cosby honorary degree, leave the door open to revoking the McCarrick honorary degree (while virtue signaling the University’s disapproval of pederasty), and avoid apologizing for a degree that should never have been given in the first place! And isn’t it remarkable that this standard would appear to align perfectly with how Notre Dame perceives its appeal to the preferred donor class!
The lesson being learned in all this – in the conferring and in the taking away of honorary degrees – is a lesson that is as true for institutions as it is for individuals: One is known by the company one keeps.