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Graduate Commencement Address 2009
Dr. Paul Kengor
[The following is the full text of the graduate commencement address delivered by Dr. Paul Kengor on Saturday, May 9, 2009, in Christ the King Chapel]
This is truly an extraordinary honor for which I’m extremely grateful and undeserving. I thank everyone involved for this invitation: Father Terence Henry. The administration and board of trustees. Kenneth Wear and Lisa Ferguson.
I thank my friend Scott Hahn—like me, a Grove City College guy, who, like me, had been a Protestant, a Presbyterian.
And I’m also pleased to see my friend Michael Novak, who will be addressing the undergraduates later today.
I thank all of you, and your parents, for the wisdom to attend a true Catholic college, and to not waste your time studying the trivial things at secular colleges, or at watered down and unfaithful Catholic colleges, where too many young people waste their time, money, and soul. Our modern universities have become terribly, tragically secular places, and they are ruining minds and lives. I know that from personal experience. So, I thank you for adding to the faith of our culture, not subtracting from it—and for simultaneously decreasing so that He may increase, which is the opposite formula of most modern/post-modern higher education.
And I most heartily congratulate all of you here today.
A personal note before I get to the substance of my remarks.
As I said, I’m really not worthy of this honor. I was born and raised Catholic in the 1970s and 1980s, and learned absolutely nothing about the faith, from its beauty to its liberating truths. I was a miserable, uninformed, ignorant Catholic. If there were justice on this Earth—which there rarely is—God ought to hit me with a lightning bolt right now. To borrow from the five-point Calvinism that Scott Hahn and I both knew well, I was living proof of the Total Depravity of Man.
When I went to college, my experience was the precise reversal of what you all gained here. Fortunately, thanks to my fiancée, now my wife Susan, and good Protestants, I got my life in order and became a Christian in my mid-20s. I was indeed “saved”—or, at least, rescued—by Protestants. I was a wretch.
I knew so little about the Catholic faith, that when I came home to Rome, and joined the Church in April 2005—Scott and Kimberly Hahn were there—at the time of the death of Pope John Paul II, I insisted on taking RCIA classes. I was not really a revert, I was truly a convert. I could not call myself a cradle Catholic. I had not been Catholic—ever, at any point. Twenty years in the Church—nothing learned. And that’s more common than you realize. A friend of mine two weeks ago told me about his Evangelical mega-church in California, which he says is made up of a decisive majority of ex-Catholics.
So, when I tell you that I feel unworthy of this honor, believe me.
Two Figures, Two Faiths
This morning, I would like to focus on some thoughts for life that you can hopefully, perhaps, take away today. These thoughts are valuable because they come not from me but from two major, historical figures that have greatly influenced my life, faith, and professional work more than any others. My work, as a writer and scholar, includes faith and the presidency, faith and foreign policy.
On these two figures: One was a Protestant, one was a Catholic, and they worked together to take down the greatest threat to faith and freedom that humanity—and the Church—faced over the last 100 years, and arguably ever: atheistic communism. At a minimum—a conservative estimate—communism killed at least 100 million from 1917 to 1998, twice the total deaths of World War I and II combined.
After sharing an extraordinary decade together, in the 1980s, these two faithful servants were called to the Lord less than a year apart, in June 2004, and April 2005.
I’m referring to President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
On Reagan, there’s so much I could say, given the thousands of pages I’ve devoted to the man and his ideas, but I’d like to focus on two significant Reagan speeches at Catholic universities: Notre Dame and Georgetown. Both also seem particularly relevant now—and, I swear, this is a coincidence—given that our current president spoke at Georgetown last month (April) and, as did Reagan, will be giving the commencement address at Notre Dame this month (May).
Both of the Reagan speeches had major geopolitical implications, and were mainly foreign-policy pronouncements, but both also had striking statements on faith and learning—words of wisdom for young people leaving college for the larger world.
So, yes, leave it to a former Protestant to quote Reagan to a crowd of graduating Catholics!
In all seriousness, I think you’ll appreciate what Reagan had to say.
Reagan at Notre Dame: May 1981
Reagan’s Notre Dame speech came on May 17, 1981, less than two months since he was shot by a would-be assassin, and merely four days after Pope John Paul II was shot by a would-be assassin on no less than the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima.
The Holy Father would conclude that God had spared his life, as had Reagan regarding the bullet that struck him. Reagan had been told just that on Good Friday 1981 by Terence Cardinal Cooke, would hear it again, separately, privately, from Mother Teresa in June 1981, and then would exchange that same sense with Pope John Paul II himself in a private meeting they had together in June 1982. Both men believed God had saved them, particularly for the purpose of undermining atheistic Soviet communism.
Now, at Notre Dame, on this May 17, 1981, Reagan began by expressing his best wishes for a speedy recovery by John Paul II, whom Reagan had judged as early as June 1979 was the key to unraveling communism in the Soviet bloc. The speech, written by Reagan’s top speechwriter, a Catholic named Tony Dolan, then got quite dramatic. It has been rightly recognized as one of Reagan’s first presidential predictions on the demise of communism:
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism…. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
The visionary quality of the speech is evident in retrospect: though no else was making such audacious predictions at the time, those last pages were being written even as Reagan spoke. Unbeknownst to the world, communism’s grip on Eastern Europe was fading; it would not survive the decade. Even within the Soviet Union, communism had only a handful of years left: the USSR would disintegrate peacefully in 1991. At the time, Reagan’s prediction was scoffed at, dismissed as naïve or arrogant.
Yet, Reagan’s Notre Dame speech is noteworthy for several reasons aside from its bold predictions. A highly personal talk, it weaved together quotes and anecdotes, both impromptu and prewritten, establishing Reagan’s theme of a larger, higher cause and challenge to these graduates. In so doing, he drew on remarks made by Winston Churchill during the most ominous days of the Battle of Britain:“When great causes are on the move in the world,” Churchill had said, “we learn we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”
To Reagan, the obligation Americans must meet was their duty to fight expansionist, atheistic Soviet Marxism. Was America worthy of that challenge?
Reagan followed the Churchill passage with a personal story from his movie, Knute Rockne, All-American:
Now, today I hear very often, “Win one for the Gipper.”… But let’s look at the significance of that story. [Coach Knute] Rockne could have used Gipp’s dying words to win a game any time. But eight years went by following the death of George Gipp before Rock revealed those dying words, his deathbed wish.
And then he told the story at halftime to a team that was losing, and one of the only teams he had ever coached that was torn by dissension and jealousy and factionalism. The seniors on that team were about to close out their football careers without learning or experiencing any of the real values that a game has to impart. None of them had known George Gipp. They were children when he played for Notre Dame. It was to this team that Rockne told the story and so inspired them that they rose above their personal animosities. For someone they had never known, they joined together in a common cause and attained the unattainable….
But is there anything wrong with young people having an experience, feeling something so deeply, thinking of someone else to the point that they can give so completely of themselves? There will come times in the lives of all of us when we’ll be faced with causes bigger than ourselves, and they won’t be on a playing field.
To me, that “dissension and jealousy and factionalism” describes America today—its country, culture, and people. I don’t know about all of you, but as I watch the incredible, indifferent selfish destruction of unborn human life in this country, and the witting and unwitting cooperation in that human disaster, including by a literal majority of Catholic voters, I despair. I want to throw in the towel, and just walk away.
My frustration is captured, perhaps, in this verse from Romans 1:28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper.” If America chooses the Death Culture—“Give us, Barabbas”—then let America have it.
That’s how I often feel nowadays. But, as Christians, that should never be our attitude. That isn’t faith, hope, or charity.
Now, in Reagan’s time, he was speaking of the “larger cause” of defeating atheistic Soviet communism, which the Roman Catholic Church had denounced it for literally over 100 years at that point, including in the remarkable 1930s encyclical Divini Redemptoris, which labeled communism a “Satanic scourge,” among other things. A long line of Catholics, from Fulton Sheen to Pope John Paul II, took up that duty.
In your time, today, that’s not the battle that you face, of course. For you, it’s something else entirely. It is other “isms,” such as secular humanism, moral relativism, and the “Dictatorship of Relativism” that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned about in that brief window after the death of Pope John Paul II and before he became Pope Benedict XVI. Those isms are the foundation for another shared foe of both Reagan and John Paul II: the Culture of Death.
Someday, Ronald Reagan concluded in his Notre Dame commencement address, history would judge that America reached maturity by affirming “its leadership of free men and women serving selflessly a vision of man with God.” Reagan said that the time had come for Americans “to dare to show to the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values, are … rooted in the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.”
Reagan at Georgetown: October 1988
Now, it is to learn about laws “higher than our own” that ought to be the primary driving force in higher education. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our young people are attending secular universities that could give a whit about the hand-in-glove relationship between faith and reason, between faith and learning. And that brings me to a shorter point taken from Ronald Reagan’s speech at Georgetown University, given on October 1, 1988, on the occasion of the college’s bicentennial.
Much like the Notre Dame speech, he began with an exciting geopolitical forecast:
Now, we’re fast approaching a turning point in the history of this age…. And now we’re seeing a sight many believed they would never see in our lifetime: the receding of the tide of totalitarianism…. [Y]es, ladies and gentlemen, with all my heart I believe that this is the age of freedom.
Here again, though, Reagan also had something significant to say not only about foreign policy but faith—something that related intimately to the lives of these college students. President Reagan feared what happens to free, democratic societies and institutions when they scrap religious faith:
At its full flowering, freedom is the first principle of society; this society, Western society. And yet freedom cannot exist alone. And that’s why the theme for your bicentennial is so very apt: learning, faith, and freedom. Each reinforces the others, each makes the others possible. For what are they without each other? .... Tocqueville said it in 1835, and it’s as true today as it was then: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is more needed in democratic societies than in any other.”
Reagan finished with this: “Learning is a good thing, but unless it’s tempered by faith and a love of freedom, it can be very dangerous indeed.”
And that’s why all of you, whether you fully realize it or not—and I think you do—are here today: Because you chose an education that does not divorce faith from learning, nor faith and freedom from learning. You’ve chosen right.
And that brings me to the wisdom of the second figure I’d like to note: Pope John Paul II.
My “Trinity” of Readings
As a professor, I can’t help but assign some readings when I speak to college students—i.e., to give some homework. Well, within the grand treasure trove of Catholic literature, the greatest composite of intellectual grace on God’s earth, there’s so much to choose from. However, I’d like to recommend three John Paul II encyclicals. I’m partial to these three because, frankly, they helped convert me from a Protestant to a Catholic, and convinced me, as a Protestant, that the Catholics were right when they made the striking claim that the Holy Spirit speaks through the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, I’m sure all of you have read these three. My point today, though, is that that’s not enough. Read them again, absorb them, integrate them, and make them your roadmap for navigating through, traversing, and triumphing over the Dictatorship of Relativism and Culture of Death that your generation now confronts. They are smart, they are brilliant, and if you can articulate them—not just understand them, but communicate them skillfully—you will convince and bring truth and Truth Himself to the hardest of secular cynics. Pass them on to the most intellectual of doubters that you encounter.
Here’s my personal “trinity” of Pope John Paul II readings for modern life:
- Veritatis Splendor, “The Splendor of Truth.” Given August 6, 1993, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
- Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life.” Given March 25, 1995, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.
- Fides Et Ratio, “Faith and Reason.” The “two wings” of faith and reason on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth. Given September 14, 1998, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.
I’m sure you’ve learned them as rich, profound encyclicals. But they are much more than that in today’s culture. They are the armor of God. They are an answer to the killer sophistry of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and to a debate as old and naked as the Garden of Eden and as recent as the day’s headlines at the New York Times, where Faith and Reason are judged incompatible. There’s nothing more eloquent in defending the faith, truth, and human life itself, as these three encyclicals.
I will not go through all three of them, which isn’t necessary. Among them, however, the heart of the message of Veritatis Splendor is that truth is found in the Truth of Jesus Christ. The splendor of truth, or the light of truth, is found in Him, that Splendor, and that Light, as he is Truth itself. Individuals must discover that truly liberating Truth.
The salient theme in this encyclical—and an utterly crucial one for our culture today—is man’s relationship to truth and freedom, and that “freedom” does not mean license. Freedom should never mean, as noted in Galatians 5:13, mere opportunities for the flesh. With freedom—especially the kind of freedom that Christ brings—comes responsibility. Freedom must be “in obedience to the divine law.”
Freedom cannot be decoupled from faith and responsibility. America cannot survive that kind of reckless freedom. To borrow from a favorite political hymn of President Reagan, “America, the Beautiful,” the title of his very first commencement address, at little William Woods College in June 1952: confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
This is a Biblical understanding of freedom, shared by sources as diverse as America’s first president, a Protestant named George Washington, lecturing in his 1797 Farewell Address, to its 40th president, Ronald Reagan, to a modern Catholic figure like Pope John Paul II.
Where You Are Going
In Veritatis Splendor, at the start of chapter 3, John Paul II stated: “This essential bond between Truth, the Good, and Freedom, has been largely lost sight of by present-day culture. As a result, helping man to rediscover it represents nowadays one of the specific requirements of the Church’s mission for the salvation of the world. Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth,’ reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes, and where he is going.”
All of you today know from whence you’ve come. Don’t forget it in knowing where you are going. And you need to be those helpers that John Paul II challenged in that line.
John Paul II continued: “Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into gradual self-destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value…. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil.”
“This,” concluded John Paul II, we call “relativism,” and it is that moral confusion that predominates and infests individuals and their culture today.
By the way, this was precisely the message, almost verbatim, that Pope Benedict XVI took to the youth rally in Yonkers, New York before a crowd of 25,000, when he visited America last spring.
This is the seamless, harmonious message of these three encyclicals, of Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Fides Et Ratio.
Fusing light with Light
As you leave here, fill your mind with these ideas, with what is good—not evil—match the light of your eyes with the light of Truth Himself, the Lord. Don’t leave those things in your notebooks and in the answers to essay questions on your mid-terms. Take them home.
To that end, I’d like to conclude by quoting Francisco de Osuna, a 16th century Franciscan friar from the Seville region of Spain:
Observe that the light of our eyes is not sufficient even to see and know corporeal objects, for at night in the dark we cannot see them, though our eyes are open. For these two lights must join: that is, the light outside and that within our eyes must meet, so that the fusion of their beams will allow us to discern visible things. In spiritual matters, our understanding is dependent on fusing the natural light imprinted on the soul with divine, heavenly light so that in their coalescence we may glimpse what we did not know previously, singing then with David: “In your light, Lord, we see light.” Faith is the light that illumines us, and when we receive it willingly and with pious devotion, it joins with the light of our soul, and in this fusion of lights we see through the faith the heavenly things to which our soul by nature is inclined, as it always desires better things.
The Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson’s words, spoke of the law of nature and nature’s God. This passage, not un-relatedly, I would conclude, fuses the light of nature and nature’s God.
Without the light of faith, you can only get so far—that’s the message of Fides Et Ratio—and especially in the darkness and death of the modern secular culture, from the college classroom to the workplace. God’s light can penetrate the darkness, and meet you—and rescue you. It allows you to see the way, to where you are going.
As a former Protestant, I’m now convinced that this fusion explains why faithful Catholics, fully committed to the three legs of Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, seem to have a unique understanding of the threats that challenge us as a culture, people, nation, and a world. And don’t let non-faithful Catholics convince you otherwise. Hold firm.
Wherever you go from here, from this campus, you students need to continue to fuse these two lights, as you’ve done here in your studies at Franciscan. You worked hard, you studied hard, you read hard. And now, don’t stop. Through Faith and Reason, understand the Splendor of Truth, and spread and defend the Gospel of Life.
Do your part to halt the Dictatorship of Relativism, and to rise to the challenge of a cause larger than yourself. You are spirits, not animals. You have a duty in this space and time. Your higher education, at this special place, now needs to be dedicated to a noble, higher purpose. Remember it. Continue it. Don’t waste it. Help change this culture, and save this country and its souls.
God bless you, and thank you.