When the students, faculty, and staff of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., elected Ben Kessler as “Tommie of the Year” and student speaker for this year’s commencement, they got more than they bargained for.
Kessler, a straight-A student and ESPN Academic All American football player who plans to be a Catholic priest, shocked the crowd at his May 20 commencement by delivering an address that elicited catcalls, boos, and obscenities. The controversial content of Kessler’s speech led several professors and students to walk out of the ceremony, while other audience members chanted “Stop it! Stop it!” One graduate told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Kessler “ruined the day” and another told InsideHigherEd.com that Kessler’s words made her cry. Two days later, University of St. Thomas president Rev. Dennis Dease apologized for the remarks in a prepared statement that included an apology from Kessler for any hurt feelings he had caused.
So what did Kessler say to incite such hysteria in this mild-mannered Minnesota crowd and compel an official apology from the president of his Catholic university? Judging from the reactions, one might assume that he had rattled off racist epithets or intoned neo-Nazi chants. In fact, Kessler did something that has become nearly as controversial on many Catholic campuses today: He defended the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics.
Kessler began the contested portion of his speech by reflecting on his university’s newly instituted travel policy, which prevents unmarried and gay faculty members from sharing rooms with their sexual partners while chaperoning students on official school trips. Kessler argued that his school was right to enforce Catholic values lest the Catholic-university community be “scandalized” by unmarried partners putting their own desires ahead of the common good. He then cited contraception as another example of individuals choosing self-gratification over lasting happiness and the welfare of others, and defended the Catholic Church’s proscription against contraception. “Birth control is not good for the female, the male, nor the long-term health of the relationship,” Kessler said. “Birth control is selfish.”
As many in the audience booed and some cheered, Kessler continued in a steady voice: “We all make selfish choices. I am no different in this. We all do. You can ask my parents, you can ask my friends, you can ask my rector, who sit with you today. I also make selfish choices. I am no different in this. I am no different. Regardless of the past, regardless of what’s happened in the past, we must change for the future.”
Kessler then hailed his fellow graduates as a sign of hope and urged them to reject selfishness and find “true, lasting happiness” by following the examples of “Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., St. Thomas Aquinas [and]–dare I say it?–Jesus Christ. … I can only hope to meet each of you years from now and see that you are happy, truly happy. Truly happy because you gave, gave, gave, and gave with the end of the community in sight. Truly happy because you lived unselfishly.”
Kessler’s remarks may have been more pointed than the typical self-congratulatory commencement fare, but they hardly constitute a hate crime. Nor did they warrant a university apology. Whatever one thinks about the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception or extramarital sex, Kessler’s speech was consistent with his school’s mission statement, which reads: “Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.” True to the award that he received–which is given “to a senior who exemplifies the ideals of the university”–Kessler challenged his peers to think critically about their moral choices in a hyper-sexualized culture that mocks traditional values. He called them to question the wisdom of the world and spend their lives serving others. He reminded them that true joy is found not in sensual pleasures but in self-emptying love.
That such basic Catholic themes provoked an uproar from students who have received four years of Catholic education and the professors who have delivered that education to them says far more about the Catholic character of the University of St. Thomas than it does about Kessler. University officials there should be commended for instituting a travel policy consistent with Catholic moral teaching, but their decision to issue an official apology after a student publicly defended Catholic teaching at a university event does not bode well for their future battles over Catholic identity.
Of course, such retreats have become commonplace at Catholic schools, from Georgetown University–where a dean issued a quasi-apology to offended faculty members after Cardinal Francis Arinze defended Catholic sexual morality in his 2003 commencement speech–to the University of Notre Dame, where President Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., recently caved to faculty pressure and allowed the Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus despite his own conviction that the play opposes Catholic values. More than 15 years after the late Pope John Paul II promulgated Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a landmark apostolic constitution intended to reclaim the soul of Catholic higher education, many Catholic-university officials remain conflicted about the Catholic identity of their schools and cowed by the faculty members who reject that identity. Too often, the only views not tolerated on Catholic campuses today are those of the Catholic Church.
The only antidote to this “dictatorship of relativism,” as Pope Benedict XVI has called it, is courageous leadership from Catholic-university officials and the bishops who are charged with ensuring that universities deliver the Catholic education they promise. Instead of apologizing and appeasing, Catholic leaders should take a cue from students like Ben Kessler, who are not afraid to debate their ideas in the public square and challenge conventional wisdom when it contradicts the deepest values of their faith.
— Colleen Carroll Campbell, an NRO contributor, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.