House Speaker John A. Boehner, a Republican who grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family in Ohio, is scheduled to give the commencement address Saturday at the Catholic University of America in Washington, a prestigious venue in church circles for its affiliation with the nation’s bishops.
But now Boehner is coming in for a dose of the same kind of criticism previously leveled at some Democrats — including President Barack Obama — who have been honored by Catholic universities: the accusation that his policies violate basic teachings of the Catholic Church.
More than 75 professors at Catholic University and other prominent Catholic colleges have written a pointed letter to Boehner saying that the Republican-supported budget he shepherded through the House will hurt the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable, and that he therefore has failed to uphold basic Catholic moral teachings.
“Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the church’s most ancient moral teachings,” the letter says. “From the apostles to the present, the magisterium of the church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.”
The letter writers go on to criticize Boehner’s support for a budget that cut financing for Medicare, Medicaid and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, while granting tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. They call such policies “anti-life,” a particularly biting reference because the phrase is usually applied to politicians and others who support the right to abortion.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, responded by email: “The speaker will be delivering a personal, nonpolitical message at the Catholic University of America that he hopes will speak to all members of the graduating class, regardless of their backgrounds or affiliations. He is deeply honored to have been invited by CUA to address the school’s graduating class, and is looking forward to receiving an honorary degree from the only Catholic college in our country that is chartered by Catholic bishops.”
Steel included a link to an editorial in a student newspaper on the Catholic University campus exulting that finally the senior class could “brag” that the university had nabbed the third-most-powerful U.S. politician as commencement speaker.
The choice of graduation speakers at Catholic universities has grown more fraught in recent years. The bishops advised that Catholic universities should not honor Catholics who had publicly disagreed with church teachings. But the resulting controversies so far have mostly been about more liberal-leaning Catholics who have taken positions in favor of access to abortion or gay rights, in opposition to the church.
When Obama, who is not Catholic, was invited to receive an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame in 2009, there was an outcry from politically conservative Catholics because of his support for abortion rights. A few Catholic bishops said the university should withdraw the invitation, but the university administration held firm. Protesters showed up to picket the president’s appearance.
A spokesman for Catholic University, Victor Nakas, said that the decision to invite Boehner to the university and give him an honorary degree was made by the university’s president, John Garvey, and approved by its board of trustees, which includes prominent bishops and cardinals.
As for the issues the professors raised in their letter, Nakas said, “There are diverse viewpoints on these questions not only within our university but also within the Catholic community.”
Stephen F. Schneck, one of the professors who drafted the letter, says he wanted to stake out a different approach. Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, at the Catholic University of America, noted that the letter did not call for the university to revoke the invitation to Boehner.
“We are going out of our way to say, ‘Welcome to the Catholic University,”’ Schneck said, “‘but we don’t agree with you.”’
As if to say that they are not speaking out of turn, the professors point out that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also recently issued a similar letter expressing the hierarchy’s concerns about budget cuts in programs that aid the poor.
The letter to Boehner is signed by professors at Xavier University, from which Boehner graduated, and the University of Dayton, both in Boehner’s home state of Ohio, as well as at universities like Fordham, Marquette, Notre Dame and Santa Clara.