Last week, another religious philanthropist from Michigan drew a spotlight on the conservative-leaning university: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And her appearance here animated an ongoing debate about whether there is any good way for Catholic institutions to invite speakers to campus from the world of American politics, at a time when neither political party is perfectly aligned with Catholic teaching, and there is little breathing room in the political discourse for anyone else.
Perhaps it was inevitable that even in an environment as welcoming of DeVos’s policies as this, there would be opposition to the university honoring her by inviting her to speak on campus. Though the Church has clear views on a number of matters—such as its opposition to all forms of abortion—others, such as whether the death penalty is ever warranted, are a bit more muddled.
As Miriel Reneau, the valedictorian of the 2009 graduating class at Ave Maria, told me, “there is a trend to equate faithful Catholicism with allegiance to the Republican Party in its current form—which is complicated—that I am convinced is a very misguided trend, and ignores key parts of Catholic social teaching.” Those who opposed the secretary’s appearance on campus, for the most part, were not upset because of her vocal support of elementary and secondary school-choice, as many who protest DeVos are, but they were concerned about how her policy moves affect the poor and downtrodden, as Catholic social teaching requires. They also expressed unease about what she represents as a member of an administration whose leader, in their view, could be perceived as having a shaky foundation in sexual ethics.
There are unclear areas in what Catholicism recommends—for example, the Church holds that members should care for the poor, but what that means in practice is debated—that make it hard to associate the religion with one party exclusively. But the rigidity of polarized American politics isn’t accommodating of a cafeteria-line approach to political positions: There’s no taking a little from one party, a little from another, and a little from a third. It’s all or nothing. That often means that if someone picks a side in one policy, he or she will be criticized for aligning with the broader agenda of that side.
Richard Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame who writes about freedom of speech and religion, put it like this: “It’s going to be a rare politician [who is] going to line up with the catechism on all fronts.” So, predictably, when a political figure is invited to speak at a Catholic event, it is going to be divisive. “It’s almost always going to be true given American politics and the way our parties divide up,” he said.
This has been true for many of the leading Catholic institutions that have sought to honor various political figures over the past decade. When Barack Obama was slated to deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009—as many presidents have done in the past—students and members of the Catholic community protested. They did so again when John Boehner and Joe Biden were awarded the prestigious Laetare Medal, which recognizes Catholics for “outstanding service to the Catholic church and society.” Last year, a group of students walked out as Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address at the university. One way or another—whether it was more liberal Catholics protesting Republicans, or more conservative Catholics protesting Democrats—the Church’s moral and social teachings could be used to justify opposing the speaker.