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Issue Date:  June 16, 2006

Debate erupts over honor for Rice

Protest at Boston College graduation as Secretary of State speaks


The applause subsided. The thousands of students and family members, gathered for the May 22 graduation ceremony at the Boston College Alumni Stadium, took their seats. But 100 or more professors clustered to the left of the stage, dressed in ceremonial caps and gowns, stood silently, looking like a choir that had forgotten its cues, or a chorus in a Greek tragedy about to proclaim its lines.

Moments earlier, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice approached the podium to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address, dozens of graduates had stood and turned their backs in protest. They had been quickly overwhelmed by classmates and parents who rose en masse to give her a standing ovation. Now all were seated, except the dissenting academics. They held up signs that read, “Not in My Name.” Some wore white armbands inscribed with the message, “No war. No honorary degree.”

“Sit down! Get a job!” yelled two people in the bleachers, breaking the cavernous silence that had descended on the stadium. As Rice began to speak, some of the academics did sit down, still prominently displaying their signs. Others did not, including one high-heeled professor who stood ramrod straight, her back to the secretary for the entirety of her speech.

The professors’ stand-up was the most dramatic moment in a debate at the Jesuit university over the administration’s decision to host Rice as commencement speaker and award her an honorary degree in law. The controversy, which erupted three weeks before graduation and at the end of a year riven by debates about abortion and gay and lesbian rights , generated some protests and editorials of support from students. But the most vigorous opposition came from faculty and members of the Jesuit order. Steve Almond, an adjunct professor of English, resigned over the Rice invitation. Sr. Megan Rice, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus who is working to stop nuclear testing in Nevada, tore up her Boston College diploma in disapproval. Approximately 20 percent of the university’s faculty, 223 academics, signed an open letter of protest to college president Jesuit Fr. William Leahy and the board of trustees.

Defenders of the university’s decision to honor the secretary of state argued she was being recognized for her accomplishments as an academic and public servant. Prior to joining the administrations of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Rice taught political science and served as provost of Stanford University, where she received two teaching awards.

Honorary degree recipients ought to be “good models for the graduates” and Rice has met that qualification, Leahy said during his address at a May 8 faculty luncheon. “Given her personal life, the history she has, the way she lives her life and her service, I think she has a great message to offer us about international and public service,” he said.

But those opposed to awarding Rice a degree said she could not be regarded apart from the policies she has advocated, policies that have been condemned as immoral by Catholic leaders and the social teachings of the Catholic church.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, a 1978 Boston College graduate, invited Rice to be the school’s commencement speaker and the board of trustees approved the honorary degree.

The first murmurings of dissent came from the college department of theology, which circulated the faculty letter of protest sent to Leahy and the trustees. Written by department chairs Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach and Franciscan Fr. Kenneth Himes, the letter said Rice’s approach to international affairs is in “fundamental conflict” with the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is “inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university’s work.”

“Rice maintains that U.S. foreign policy should be based on national interest and not on what she calls the interest of an ‘illusory international community.’ This stands in disturbing contrast with the Catholic and humanistic conviction that all people are linked together in a single human family and that all nations in our interdependent world have a duty to protect ‘the common good of the entire human family,’ ” the letter said.

Hollenbach said he did not object to Rice’s speaking at the university in a forum that allowed give and take with the audience; he simply opposed giving her an award. Her involvement with the development of U.S. policy in Iraq is in “strong contradiction to fundamental positions on the morality of war that are deep within Catholic teaching. The compendium of Catholic social thought rejects the legitimacy of preventive war,” he said. “On many other grounds, the tactics, especially torture, which have accompanied the war on terror, are against Catholic social teaching.”

In his open letter of resignation to Leahy published in The Boston Globe May 12, Almond wrote that Rice has “lied to the American people knowingly, repeatedly, often extravagantly ... in an effort to justify a pathologically misguided foreign policy.” Almond said he did not question Rice’s intellectual gifts or academic accomplishments but he thought she could not be regarded as moral exemplar. “It is the content of one’s character that matters here -- the reverence for truth and knowledge that Boston College purports to champion,” he wrote.

The vehemence of reaction to Rice seemed to surprise Leahy. In his address at the faculty luncheon, he said he regretted that her “nomination and selection for honorary degree have become tied up in anger around our nation regarding the Bush administration and policies concerning Iraq.” Others who defended the honor said it was unfair to conflate Rice with the war in Iraq.

Her critics need to look beyond Iraq, Burns told The Boston Globe. Citing her efforts on Darfur and on AIDS in Africa, he said, “You have to look at the totality of her work on issues that are of concern to a lot of Americans.”

By mid-May, the controversy had morphed into an argument among Catholics about which church social teachings applied when. In a May 10 interview with Catholic News Service, Hollenbach said Catholic institutions should not single out abortion when it comes to taking a stand on policy issues. He noted Rice described herself as “moderately pro-choice.”

But in that same article, Jesuit Fr. Paul McNellis, a philosophy professor at Boston College, said it was wrong to frame opposition to Rice in the context of church teaching. “This is a political disagreement, not one of dogma or doctrine,” he said.

The Pilot, Boston’s diocesan weekly, agreed. In its May 12 editorial entitled “Hiding Behind the Veil,” the newspaper, which editorialized against going to war in Iraq, defended the decision to honor Rice. “Theology experts should know that, at least based on church teachings, there is no impediment to honoring a politician simply because she was part of a decision-making process that brought us to war,” the editorial said.

Not all social issues are of equal gravity in the eyes of the church, the editorial noted. “Some actions, such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia are always immoral,” but every war is not “inherently immoral.”

Rice’s views on abortion did not prohibit the university from giving her an honorary degree since “the current position of the U.S. episcopate is that institutions should not honor Catholic politicians who support abortion. Rice, we note, is not Catholic,” The Pilot wrote. (The U.S. Catholic bishops do not make this distinction in their statement “Catholics in Political Life,” which prohibits Catholic institutions from honoring “those who act in defiance of our faith and moral principles.”)

John McDargh, an associate professor of theology, said faculty reaction intensified in response to the administration’s defense of its decision and The Pilot’s editorial, which he called “a most dishonorable and theologically bankrupt document.”

Rice was one of four to receive an honorary degree from Boston College during the May commencement ceremony. The other honorees were Kenneth Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services and a 1968 Boston College graduate; Haitian Pierre Imbert, director of the Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants; and Sacred Heart Sr. Elizabeth S. White, an English professor who taught at Boston College and the College of the Sacred Heart. Sharing the podium with the secretary of state were church dignitaries including Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

The secretary delivered a traditional commencement speech peppered with humor tailored for the Boston College community and containing only one veiled reference to the war in Iraq. Aside from the protesting professors, expressions of dissent that morning were fleeting. Midway though the talk, two demonstrators unfurled an enormous banner: “BC honors lies and tortures.” They were quickly whisked away by Boston police. Later, a plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read, “Your war brings dishonor.” The messages seemed lost on a crowd that listened attentively and applauded often as Rice urged graduates to assume the responsibilities that come with education.

Outside the stadium, past the metal detectors and the bomb squad truck and the police barricades, approximately 200 protesters had gathered. They were peace activists, veterans, members of Catholic groups, and parents of soldiers in Iraq. Some chanted, “Shame! Shame!” Two wore orange jump suits like those seen on Guantánamo detainees.

Among the demonstrators was Carlos Arredondo, father of Alex, a 21-year-old Marine who was killed in Iraq Aug. 24, 2005. When the Marines came to Arredondo’s house to inform him of his child’s death, the grief-stricken father set the Marine van on fire, stepped into the vehicle and was burned over a quarter of his body. Arredondo, who described himself as a practicing Catholic, said he was “amazed” to learn Boston College was honoring Rice with a degree. He came to the protest, he said, because he wanted to tell people to “wake up. Please wake up.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006

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