On Saturday, May 13, Public Discourse‘s editor Ryan T. Anderson received an honorary doctorate from Franciscan University of Steubenville and delivered the commencement address. His remarks follow.
Father Sheridan, Dr. Kempton, members of the board of trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, fellow members of the great class of 2017, and the families and friends who supported you to this happy afternoon: It is a joy to share this moment with you, and an honor to address you and to become an honorary alumnus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I must say, obtaining this doctorate has been a fair bit easier than the last one. But this one means much more to me.
To stand here and receive this honor today is of much greater ultimate importance because Franciscan’s appreciation for the work I’ve done in recent years defending unpopular truths is a signal of your willingness to stand on those same principles and to continue forming generations of students in these truths. Thank you for this honor and thank you for the great work that you do.
Of course, this university has been in the business of defending unpopular truths for many years. And you, fellow graduates, are well prepared to lend your voices—and dedicate your lives—to the cause of truth. I’ve had the great pleasure of speaking on this campus every year for the past four years. Each visit has been a delight, speaking to students who actually want to learn, and want to make a difference. Franciscan University has prepared you well. And the world needs what you have received. So as we celebrate your accomplishments over the past years as students, we must also think about what comes next. What is God asking you to do?
I’ve worked for the past twelve years as, among other things, an editor. And when people want to become writers, the first piece of advice they should receive is this: Write about what you know. I think the same thing is true for speaking: speak about what you know.
So in the time we have together this afternoon I want to speak about something I know quite intimately: my own calling in life. And I hope that my sharing a few thoughts on that will be helpful as you think about your own callings.
If we have a calling in life, it is because someone has called us. God calls each of us by name to a specific path of holiness and service to others.
And yet, we live in a society that largely avoids thinking seriously about callings. We live in a society of rampant individualism and relativism, where man is the measure of all things. We hear people speak of human rights, for example, but rarely of human goods, or human nature, or nature’s Author. We hear people appeal to natural rights, but rarely to natural law, or the Natural Law-Giver.
So, the first thing to say about vocation is that it is intimately connected with truth—both metaphysical and moral truth. We have it on good authority that each of us has a calling in imitation of the Master who gave his life bearing witness to the truth. We will face this challenge everywhere our lives take us: in government service, in the marketplace, in our families, and in service to the church. And we must be prepared to defend truth as never before.
Let me say a word about how I got here. As an undergraduate, I was planning on teaching high school after graduation, coaching football and lacrosse, and helping with my school’s music program. But my undergraduate years were when President Bush issued his executive order on embryonic stem cells, when the attacks of September 11th took place, when we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts redefined marriage—making Massachusetts the first state to do so in America.
All of these events got me thinking more seriously about the importance of politics, and of political morality in particular. What did I think about the morality of human embryo destruction? About the justice of war and peace? About the consequences of redefining marriage? And how should Christians participate in these discussions?
This time at college was also the first time I had ever met Evangelicals, and daily Mass-attending Catholics. Indeed, it was the first time I met any Christian deeply committed to the faith. And so, at Princeton University of all places, I started to think seriously as a Christian. And I came to see that there’s no conflict between faith and reason. I came to understand more deeply the reasons for the hope I have.
I also came to see just how misguided secular liberal policies were on the most urgent and important questions, and how much damage—in terms of human brokenness—these policies cause. I saw that to love my neighbor required me to help defend the truth in terms that my secular classmates could engage. That the knowledge I had acquired in thinking through these questions wasn’t just for me, it wasn’t just so I could be secure in my opinions, puffed up knowing that I’m right and they’re wrong, but was to be shared—and it was to be shared precisely because it is the truth that sets us free, and makes us flourish. This was what God was calling me to do then and there.
He may be calling some of you to do the same. Franciscan is rightly famous for its top-notch nursing program and for Patrick Lee’s world-class bioethics center. In a certain sense, all of you will be engaged in nursing a wounded culture as you graduate from this place today. You will encounter the “walking wounded,” and will need to minister to them as part of what Pope Francis has described as the “field hospital” of the Church.
In my case, this meant not pursuing a career teaching high school, but living out a vocation in the public square. As my college graduation approached, I turned down a job offer from Teach for America and I took a position at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton providing research assistance to two political theorists. This was a crash course for me in political philosophy and natural law theory. I then worked for two years as an assistant editor at the journal First Things in New York City. There I learned how to write, and how to edit, and also how to think in terms of political theology.
This then prepared me to enter a PhD program in a discipline—political science—that I had never even taken one class in as an undergraduate. It prepared me to do the work I’ve done at the Heritage Foundation for the past 5 years, finding ways to reach modern secular audiences with arguments for the truth about life, marriage, religious liberty, and social justice.
I never could have planned this for myself. It was simply a matter of taking one step at a time. God sometimes gives us five, ten, and twenty-year plans. But frequently he just tells us what our next step is. And we have to be faithful in taking it. What is the next step God’s calling you to take? Are you willing to take it?
Now, why does any of this intellectual work matter? Why did you devote the last four or so years of your lives to higher education? Universities were a creation of the Church. Christians believed that all knowledge came from God, and so using both faith and reason we could seek out unified knowledge of the truth. In the Middle Ages, Christians established some of today’s most storied institutions—Oxford and Cambridge, the Universities of Paris, and Salamanca, and Bologna—all to fulfill Christ’s command that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Precisely because God is Logos, because God is Reason itself, it is good for man to develop his mind. As a being made in the image and likeness of God, man has reason to seek out the truths about God, about man, and about nature—truths that are embedded in creation, a creation that should be understood as the outgrowth of God’s designs. And in the universities established by the Church we see the flowering of theology and philosophy, science and medicine, human rights and legal theory, economics and ethics, literature and music and art. All of these disciplines were developed and deployed at the service of the truth, the truth about God and man and nature.
As free and rational beings—that’s what it means to be beings created in the image and likeness of God—we have a calling to develop our minds—to embrace the best of both Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and theology. When faced with secularist ideologies, we have the responsibility to show the world the harmony of faith and reason. When faced with modern relativism, we have the obligation to propose with the apostle Paul the more excellent way. And this only intensifies as you graduate today and enter a world that is simultaneously hungry for and resistant to your message. Franciscan has given you the tools to continue learning for a lifetime—and to share that knowledge with your neighbors, desperately in need of the truth, even when they don’t realize it.
I want to illustrate this with lessons learned from three of my teachers.
Hadley Arkes was my first, unofficial, teacher of political philosophy. A Jewish professor at Amherst College, Hadley was convinced by the natural law of the moral truths that many of us here defend. And it was the Church’s witness to these truths that led him a number of years later to be baptized into the Body of Christ. Some argue that the Church should soften her stance on so-called controversial issues. That in order to be evangelists we need to be seeker-friendly. They’re wrong. While we shouldn’t be bombastic or imprudent, it is precisely our countercultural witness to what St. Paul called the more excellent way that will bring people to Christ. By witnessing to the natural law, we can make our claims about the supernatural law—the law of Grace—all the more believable. For all law comes ultimately from the same divine guide. In a culture that is so confused about morality, and with so many people hurting from false teachings, helping people see the truth is one way of loving our neighbors.
Robby George was my next teacher. Here’s what I learned: Bad philosophy needs to be answered by good philosophy. Bad science needs to be responded to with good science—this is true with the science of embryology and the social science of marriage and the psychology of gender identity. We cannot allow the other side to depict these debates as ones that pit faith against reason, that force a choice between backward superstition against enlightened science. As C.S. Lewis taught, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” This takes work. Since our adversaries control the principal institutions of our culture, we have to work twice as hard as they do. We have to understand their arguments better than they understand those arguments themselves—so we can then explain, at the level of reason, where they’ve gone wrong. Even if your professional vocation will never bring you anywhere near these debates, you need to continue the learning that took place here at Franciscan and prepare yourselves for the discussions at the office water cooler and at Little League games, being ready to help your neighbors understand the reasons for the truth.
But you can’t stop there. Here’s where my third teacher comes in, Father Richard John Neuhaus. Neuhaus taught me that while we have to respond to bad reason with good reason, we also have to build on that reason with revelation; that while nature and natural law are foundational, grace builds on and perfects nature. And Christ came to make us perfect.
Neuhaus’s life was one of witnessing to the truth of Christ. To what he called the high adventure of Christian discipleship. For Neuhaus, friendship with Jesus was—at the end of the day—what mattered. The only way to persevere in living out the truth of the natural law is to know and love the natural lawgiver. The only way to find the courage, and the strength, and have the hope to fulfill our vocation is to rely on the grace of the one who calls us to that vocation. You leave Franciscan today and enter a society that, in many ways, is fundamentally opposed to what you have learned here. Do not allow your spiritual life to decline once you leave this supportive environment. Make the effort now, as you start your careers and families and graduate educations, to commit to a life of prayer, sacrament, and service.
Father Neuhaus was a leader in the civil rights movement. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He protested the Vietnam War. And he was an early recruit to the pro-life movement. He saw it as the logical extension of his prior activism. He hoped that his liberal friends would see it the same way. But they caved. And they abandoned him. And a life that was set on a trajectory of liberal accolades, and the applause of the elites, took a new path. Abandonment by former friends, denial of honors and prestige, scorn and ridicule, all of this may very well happen to many of you because of your witness to the truth about the dignity of the human person and the human body.
But none of this is new. The two-thousand-year story of the Church’s cultural and intellectual growth is a story of challenges answered. For the early Church, there were debates about who God is (and who is God). In response, the Church developed the wonderfully rich reflections of Trinitarian theology and Christology. In a sense, we have the early heresies to thank for this accomplishment. Arius’s errors gave us Athanasius’s refinements on Christology. Nestorius’s blunders gave us Cyril’s insights.
A thousand years later, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church saw renewed debates about salvation. The rending of western Christianity was an unspeakable tragedy, but it left the Church with a much richer theology of justification, ecclesiology, and soteriology.
Today’s debates are not primarily about the nature of God or the Church, but about the nature of man. John Paul II taught that the crisis of the twentieth century was a crisis of faulty humanism. Secular thinkers thought that by diminishing God, they would be elevating man. Instead, by diminishing God they debased man. The result was World Wars, totalitarian regimes, Auschwitz, and the Gulag.
Today’s debates simply extend a faulty anthropology to a new domain: Whether it be debates about abortion or assisted suicide, same-sex marriage or gender identity, they all challenge three truths right on the first page of the Bible: that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that we are created male and female, and that male and female are created for each other.
We now need to defend these truths using every discipline that can reveal the truth about man. In addition to John Paul’s Theology of the Body, we need a philosophy of the body, and a psychology of the body, and a sociology of the body.
We need you. We need philosophers and theologians. Psychiatrists and psychologists. Biologists and sociologists.
And we need artists and saints, because our defense of the truth can never be merely an intellectual exercise.
Take it from no less an intellectual giant than Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict is famous for having written profound works of theology and participated in debates with top European intellectuals. Yet he’s also famous for saying that it’s not the arguments of the intellectuals that win converts, it’s the lives of the saints and the beauty of the artists. And as he once put it, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story.”
This love story—with its beauty and holiness—starts in the home, the domestic church. If you are graduating today from Franciscan, chances are you didn’t do it on your own. You had help along the way. Someone was there to teach you to walk and talk, to read and write. Someone was there to help you to love Jesus, to take any interest at all in the type of education and formation that Franciscan provides. Someone helped with all of life’s ups and downs. Be sure to thank your mom and dad, and grandma and grandpa. And in the midst of all of your excitement today, don’t forget that tomorrow is Mother’s Day.
Your parents and grandparents took care of you as a child, and you should start now preparing to take care of them. Too many of us think it’s the government’s job to care for our aging parents and grandparents. But when scripture speaks of honoring our mother and father, it doesn’t only mean behaving ourselves when we’re kids. It also means caring for our parents as they age. Whenever possible, inviting them into our homes, rather than sending them to a nursing home. Viewing them as our responsibility, not just Social Security’s.
Sadly, this is another point on which our culture is eroding. One of the most alarming developments of the past few years has been the re-opening of the debate about assisted suicide. Alarming, but not entirely surprising. We live in the most medically advanced era of all of human history, and yet it is only now that we think physician-assisted suicide is a necessity of human dignity. This isn’t because it is medically necessary—it never has been and never will be—it’s because caring for the elderly is inconvenient. And we’re a selfish, individualistic and materialistic people. We’ve come to view the elderly and disabled as burdens, and as a result, they’re coming to view themselves that way. Patrick Lee makes a solid intellectual argument against assisted suicide—and that’s an important thing to do. Indeed, it’s indispensable. But our best way of fighting this scourge is to love and cherish and care for our elderly. To do what the Little Sisters of the Poor do when they’re not being forced to sue the federal government: showing the world what a true death with dignity looks like. This is the part of the love story that Pope Benedict is talking about. Unconditional love to the end.
Many of you found your place in that love story and the adventure of Christianity while here at Franciscan. The community here helped you to grow in your faith. As you graduate today, find ways to continue that community. Stick together. The world outside this campus is not a friendly place, especially to people who speak the truth. But it needs what you have to offer. It needs what Steubenville has given you. And you need each other.
Bear witness to the truth by living out the truth. Go to Mass. Go to confession. Join a parish. Volunteer to teach Sunday school. Get involved in your parish’s school.
Be generous in responding to God’s call in your life. Join a religious community. Get married. Stay married. Be a faithful spouse, knowing that adultery and divorce are always dangers that must be guarded against. Be generous in welcoming children, and be a devoted mother or father. Bear one another’s burdens, persevere through adversity, and let the family you create—the children you raise and the parents you care for—be your best long-term defense of life and marriage. Let the love you create and sustain—the holiness and beauty of your life—be what attracts others to Christ.
Class of 2017, Congratulations on all of your achievements these past four years, and best wishes in the years ahead. If you remember nothing else that I said today, remember this: important as academic and professional success may be, God doesn’t ask you to be successful according to worldly standards, he asks you to be faithful. The only success of ultimate importance is holiness. The only real tragedy in life is not to have been a saint.