At the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts on Sunday, May 16, George Weigel told graduates that “the defense of religious freedom in your generation is going to require the skills of argument that you have acquired here at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.”
Weigel further called on Thomas More College students to be the kind of “heirs of Saint Thomas More that your education here has prepared you to be.”
After being awarded an honorary Doctorate in Higher Education by President William Fahey, Weigel delivered a stirring commencement address that threw a stark light on the challenges that face American Catholics in the future.
As the preeminent biographer of Pope John Paul II and a scholar of Eastern Europe, Dr. Weigel has written eloquently on the struggle for religious and civic freedom in the face of modern, secular ideology. Most Americans thought that struggle largely ended with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. But militantly atheist Communism was never the only threat to religious freedom, as Weigel noted in his remarks.
Certainly, we in the West can feel secure in religious freedom in the narrowest, formal sense—the right to attend Sunday services, for instance. But Weigel dismissed such a minimalist view of the rights of religious citizens: “[T]he Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is content with freedom of worship, so long as the Christian worship in question takes place behind closed doors in the American embassy compound in Riyadh.” However, the religious liberty promised by the American Bill of Rights and affirmed by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council is far more expansive in its claims, Weigel explained. “Religious conviction is community-forming, and communities formed by religious conviction must be free, as communities and not simply as individuals, to make arguments and bring influence to bear in public life. If religiously informed moral argument is banned from the American public square, then the public square has become, not only naked, but undemocratic and intolerant.”
Judged by this three-dimensional standard, things are not quite so sunny for American Christians, Weigel suggested. He noted that the decisions of activist courts and the expanding reach of federal funding and regulation over many aspects of what was once the private sector have at once sown moral confusion and threatened religious institutions.
Weigel said that religious freedom had suffered when “the Supreme Court erected a spurious ‘right to abortion’ as the right that trumps all other rights, and … legislatures decided that it was within the state’s competence to redefine marriage and to compel others to accept that redefinition through the use of coercive state power.” In the current political context, where citizens make broad and baseless claims to “rights” without responsibilities, the aggrandizement of a militantly secular federal government poses concrete threats to the liberties of Catholic citizens.
Referring to abortion and other issues of bioethics, Weigel insisted that “the conscience rights of Catholic physicians, nurses, and other health-care professionals are not second-class rights that can be trumped by other rights claims; and any state that fails to acknowledge those rights of conscience has done grave damage to religious freedom rightly understood. The same can and must be said about any state that drives the Catholic Church out of certain forms of social service because the Church refuses to concede that the state has the competence to declare as ‘marriage’ relationships that are manifestly not marriages.”
Weigel called on believers to defend their religious freedom by speaking to those outside the Church in what should be a common language—that of natural law, or the truths that are open to every human being through reason alone. It is to that tradition, Weigel noted, that Thomas Jefferson referred when he enumerated “inalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence, and to which the Rev. Martin Luther, Jr., appealed when he challenged unjust American laws enforcing segregation. “Appeals to that same natural moral law underwrite the successor to the civil-rights movement, which is the pro-life movement,” Weigel said. “And appeals to the natural moral law have underwritten U.S. international human-rights policy for the past 30 years.”
Sadly, this common moral vocabulary is breaking down today. Weigel pointed out that in October 2009, the august Washington Post “ran an editorial condemning what it termed the ‘extremist views’ of a candidate for attorney general of Virginia who had suggested that the natural moral law was still a useful guide to public policy.” If even the language of secular philosophical discourse is declared off-limits to faithful citizens, Weigel warned, it amounts to a serious assault on religious liberty.
When powerful forces try to erode the common ground of natural law discourse, and drive us from the public square, Christians must “inform them, politely but firmly, that they are mistaken, and then demonstrate why.” Weigel warned that “one of the great challenges of the younger generation of Catholics will be to rise to the defense of religious freedom in full. This defense must be both cultural, in the sense of arguments winsomely and persuasively made, and political, in that young Catholics must drive the sharp edge of truth into the sometimes hard soil of public policy.”
The commencement concluded with the traditional “charge” to graduates delivered by Thomas More College president Dr. William Fahey. In the spirit of St. Augustine’s meditations in the Confessions, Fahey called on graduates to consider the role of memory in the human soul and in culture. “To re-member, I submit, may be understood as the act of engrafting one thing to another—as branch to the vine. The self remembers and is united to an idea or to another body or to a community. When we remember someone or thing, we draw that moment through remembrance to us; or is it that we are drawn back to it?”
The question memory raises receives, sometimes, a melancholy answer, Fahey warned. “Your own monuments will be toppled, your Junior Project performances forgotten, your senior theses consigned to oblivion. You have learned a part of the truth: all earthly cities perish; all earthly membership dissolves—unless there is something unearthly about it. Sometimes, like Carthage, a community’s arteries harden and in unimaginative sloth, it chokes to death on the fat of its own opulence. Sometimes, like Athens, divisiveness and the failure of leadership leave behind only ‘the foster child of silence and slow time,’ and a cold pastoral for poets and philosophers. But you are not citizens of Carthage or Athens. No, you have traveled to Rome and not as ‘pilgrims of defeat.’”
Instead, Fahey said, “Your membership is to a different city. Let no one say of it, as with Carthage—delenda est. Let it not become in your mind cold Periclean marble. Let it live on in the actions that you will take and in the excellence for which you strive. But be mindful with Augustine of the true secret of Roma aeterna. Proud men, he tells us, pursue ‘the goods of the body or of their own minds—or sometimes both.’ And this—to say the least—does not lead to an enduring city. Be mindful of the mark of true citizenship: that you are not dominated by pride, but that you turn always from yourself to the grandeur in this world, and then the reflection of the light incarnate, and then to the Light itself.
“This is the city that nourished you: the city of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Your membership and loyalty are secured by and through those three great attributes—attributes of the city and of its Sovereign King.
“And so memories will be healed and made even more wholesome than ever because of your membership and through your re-membering. So let fear now pass. Your Junior Project performances were not for naught. They shape permanently all subsequent Junior Project’s and are absorbed into a greater memory. So it is will all your actions—the noblest of which endure because they participate in something far grander than you may have imagined.”
The mood was festive among the graduates, their families, and guests, because these students had just completed one of the nation’s most rigorous liberal arts curricula, centered on the Great Books of the West as illumined by the twin lights of reason and revelation. So the graduates had ample reason to sigh and catch their breath.
Graduate Jesse Brandow, 22, whose senior thesis addressed significance of the “Resurrection for the virtue of Hope,” said that he intends to study formal theology in graduate school. This summer, Brandow will serve as editorial intern for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, researching American higher education for its biannual book, Choosing the Right College.
Several other Thomas More College graduates and students will also serve paid internships with the guide as arranged by its editor, Thomas More College literature professor and Writer-in-Residence Dr. John Zmirak. “I’m very excited to get a foot in the door as an editor and researcher,” Brandow said. Other sites for internships completed by Thomas More students in recent years have included the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C., Zenit News, and the Vatican-based H20 News.
Graduating senior Victor Revollo, 24, pointed to the intangible, spiritual benefits of completing an education at a college where faith is intimately interwoven with campus life and learning. “I came here, actually, looking for Jesus,” the Arlington, Va. native, said. “I came from the city…I got tired of its vices.” Revollo said that his future plans entail work either in social services or law enforcement.