National Catholic Reporter
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Inside NCR
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

From the Editor's Desk

What a graduation season! Chris Matthews, the screaming host of “Hardball” and a master of shout TV, apparently wins the prize for being most boycotted by bishops this year (see story). He was the commencement speaker at his alma mater, Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa.

Bishops in both places refused to attend because of Matthews’ pro-choice views on abortion.

Meanwhile, at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, some graduates and faculty walked out on Republican Sen. Rick Santorum before he started his speech. Santorum was opposed for months by some on campus for not reflecting the vision of the university in his public policy stances. The school’s vision, said one faculty organizer, includes a “preferential option for the poor.” Those opposed to Santorum’s being given an honorary degree said they objected long before his recent controversial remarks about homosexuality and were concerned more about Santorum’s support of the Iraq war, advocacy of the death penalty and positions on social welfare issues.

The Santorum incident at St. Joseph’s illustrates as well as anything the difficulty in finding the perfect Catholic politician or the perfect Catholic celebrity. One probably doesn’t exist, and too often if they’re right on abortion as the church sees it, they’re off the charts on the rest of the agenda; and if they’re mostly right on the rest of the agenda, they don’t support the absolute restraints on abortion the church wants to see as public policy.

It’s a standoff. It’s been going on for a long time, and such incidents raise anew the question of whether boycotting speeches is the best way of dealing with such imperfection.

Some suggest -- the incident involving Cardinal Francis Arinze at [Georgetown University] (see story) and New York Times writer Chris Hedges at Rockford College in Illinois (see story) come to mind -- that graduation is not the time to speak of difficult issues.

How seriously can one take these exercises at which so many honorary degrees are doled out on the basis of an institution’s attraction to an alum’s financial assets? How many speakers are chosen for the attention -- however brief -- they will bring to an institution?

Whatever the ultimate purpose of graduation exercises, this year has shown us to be a rather splintered culture, whether the issue is war, politics in general or abortion policy in particular. The question is how splintered will we allow ourselves to get? How long before we find ourselves talking to a steadily diminishing circle of friends to avoid hearing the views of those with whom we disagree?

~ ~ ~

I am not a security expert, so maybe someone somewhere knows a lot more that anyone is saying. But, that caveat aside, I do have to wonder about the weapons of mass destruction that were the principal justification for the United States’ preemptive strike against Iraq.

At deadline time, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair was visiting his troops in Basra, Iraq, a British official back home was said to be telling reporters that a document Blair had used to convince the country to go to war had been doctored, making the threat from Saddam Hussein more ominous and immediate than it really was.

Here in the United States, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was telling the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations that Saddam may have destroyed the weapons of mass destruction prior to the war. (Isn’t that what we wanted him to do?) I also recall that an earlier explanation was that the WMD had been shipped to Syria.

One can only presume that if either case -- slipping weapons into Syria or destroying them before we arrived -- involved enough WMD in such form as to justify an invasion, then certainly our intelligence would have known what was going on. Some satellite, some spy plane, some international stream of information, some on-the-ground network surely would have picked up that kind of activity.

If not, then I have other questions. Principal among them is: If we are unable to determine whether shipments of weapons or destruction of weapons occurred, then how could we be certain enough that WMD existed to justify a preemptive invasion?

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003 [corrected 07/04/2003 -- see Inside NCR: From the Editor's Desk]

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