The Commencement Speech That Could: Mary Eberstadt at Seton Hall

Published May 19, 2014

National Review Online

In a twist on this year’s story of commencement speakers being disinvited or browbeaten into withdrawal, respected public intellectual Mary Eberstadt, received an honorary degree and delivered a commencement address at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., earlier today, despite opposition to both the honor and the invitation by some faculty. (Eberstadt is a colleague of mine at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.)

Known for creative forays into topics like the roots of secularization, the state of our culture, and the fallout of the sexual revolution, Eberstadt’s work is followed with interest by Catholics within the hierarchy and beyond. How curious, then, that a number of Seton Hall faculty members objected to her selection on the grounds that Eberstadt’s beliefs “are not in alignment with the values of Seton Hall as a Catholic University.” In particular, protesting faculty cited a single one of Eberstadt’s articles, “The Child Fat Problem,” for expressing views that single parents might find offensive. Yet in her book, Home Alone America: Why Today’s Kids Are Overmedicated, Overweight, And More Troubled Than Ever Before,Eberstadt explains repeatedly that she is pointing to broad social trends, rather than condemning any individual parent’s choices, all in an attempt to set a more humane social standard for the nurturing of children.

Eberstadt’s readers, who tend to think of her as an intrepid defender of traditional Christian thinking, both Catholic and otherwise, will be surprised, perhaps even shocked, to see an attempt to exclude her from a Catholic university on grounds that her beliefs are out of alignment with the Church’s values. Consider her booksHow the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of SecularizationAdam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, and The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism if you doubt the compatibility of her perspective with Catholic values.

According to the school paper, the Setonian, the move to condemn Eberstadt’s honor and invitation began with an e-mail sent out by the College of Arts and Sciences chaiman pro tem and signed by six other faculty members. The Setonianindicates that the matter was to be taken up by the faculty senate. The results of any faculty votes have not been made public.

I asked Eberstadt for a copy of her commencement address. To my eyes, it makes a serious effort to articulate a Catholic perspective through the particular lens of the new Pope Francis, while also acknowledging and expressing respect for those with different beliefs. Gently, but firmly and effectively, Eberstadt sets forth a synthetic approach to the culture of life consistent with Church teaching (and for that matter, other ethical teaching).

At a couple of points Eberstadt indirectly addresses the controversy over her invitation, particularly when she says: “An insidious new intolerance now snakes its way into classrooms, boardrooms, newsrooms, and other places vital to the exercise of free speech. This new intolerance says we must have diversity in all things — except arguments and ideas. It says we must all march in ideological lockstep — or feel the snakebite, and be taken by ambulance from the public square.”

In the event, Eberstadt’s address went off without a hitch, meeting with prolonged applause. There were hearty congratulations from many faculty members as well. Seton Hall as a whole came through this controversy with flying colors, although the same cannot be said for some members of the Arts and Sciences faculty. It’s notable that Seton Hall’s administration refused to bow to those opposed to the Eberstadt invitation. As important, Eberstadt, to her credit, did not back out of her talk.

Freedom of speech and diversity of thought on America’s college campuses won a round today. More important, the Eberstadt incident sets a model for how these controversies ought to be handled. Don’t capitulate. Don’t give the hecklers a veto.

That’s the way to handle it, even when the road is rough. Thankfully, today at Seton Hall, a determined speaker and school stuck to their guns, and an ill-advised protest fizzled.

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