Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Censoring A Commencement Address

It has come to Barack Obama, and now it has come to Chris Matthews.

Not to the same degree, of course. President Obama is still scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana on May 17 despite an online petition protesting Mr. Obama's support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Nearly 65,000 individuals have signed the document, despite- or more likely because- Obama's opposition to banning same-sex marriage in California, and to enacting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, has been omitted. The Roman Catholic Church opposes gay unions as well as the aforementioned abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research. Consistency, I hear, is the hobglobin of small minds.

But I digress. In an opinion piece in the May 4 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Stephen Majewski, identified as a graduate of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and member of a Roman Catholic parish in nearby southern New Jersey, criticizes the Catholic university's invitation to Chris Matthews to deliver a commencement speech and receive an honorary doctorate next week.

Majewski makes a few legitimate points- legitimate, not justified. He writes

Although Matthews claims to be Catholic, he is a longtime enthusiastic proponent of "abortion rights" - in defiance of the clear teachings of the church. And he has displayed hostility toward those who want to protect innocent human life. In March, Matthews said on his MSNBC program, Hardball, that Kathleen Sebelius, at the time President Obama's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, might face "the terrorism of the anti-abortion people."

A Catholic university's mission, first and foremost, must be to adhere to church teachings. While the values of institutions of higher learning - such as open dialogue and inquiry - should be fostered at Catholic universities, they must be within the framework of the church's beliefs and practices. By inviting and honoring Matthews, St. Joseph's has decided that it is a university first and Catholic second.

An interesting point it is, especially as it ignores the church's antipathy toward embryonic stem-cell research and gay relationships sanctioned by the state (as reflected in the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage), less popular positions among the multitudes of students constituting the target audience of a commencement address. Or the church's passion for anti-poverty efforts and social justice (as memorialized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, here, in pdf), positions which do not offend Matthews, a Peace Corps worker in his youth.

But criticism of the university's decision is particularly curious given the nature of the talk show host's talk, a commencement address. As almost any regular viewer of either The Chris Matthews Show (Sundays, NBC) or Hardball has noticed, Matthews has some pointed advice for young people graduating from college. He repeated his ideas on last weekend's The Chris Matthews Show:

I've seen ambition in the face and I've paid attention and I've seen what works. The best thing I've learned from the ambitious folks is that old, simple advice: If you want something, don't be afraid to ask for it. If you want a job, get out there. Go to the people who can open doors for you and ask them to do it. Some people are going to say no. But if you don't face down those nos, you're never going to get to the yes that changes everything, the one that gets you through that first door.

The thing is, in life, like in school, not everyone's going to go for your act. Barack Obama lost that first race for Congress. So did President Bush. So did President Clinton. The older Bush lost two races for the Senate and Ronald Reagan lost two races for president before finally finding his way to victory. It's that old, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Another tip: Before you get the job you dream of, grab the one that'll get you through the door. I started as a capital policeman. A decade later, I had the top staff job in the Congress, administrative assistant to the speaker. And don't ever forget that person who got you through that first door. That's the person who's going to keep rooting for you, like your parents.

Ask for what you want. Consult the people who can help you. Don't give up easily. On your way up, don't forget the one who gave you the helping hand.

Probably good advice, maybe not. But neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican, Christian, Jewish, heathen, or whatever. And it is a more likely topic that Matthews will address at his commencement address at St. Joseph's University than any views he has held about reproductive freedom.

In an age of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Samuel Wurzelbacher, we expect fanaticism to come in an uneducated, borderline hysterical package. Unfortunately, sometimes it comes in a well-composed, sober column in a major American newspaper.

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