William McGurn: “This Is a Fight for Reason”

Posted: April 30, 2012

Address to Friends and Alumni
of Thomas Aquinas College

By William McGurn

Earlier this month William McGurn, vice president for News Corporation and author of the weekly “Main Street” column in the Wall Street Journal, was the featured speaker at a reception for friends and alumni of Thomas Aquinas College in New York City. The text below is adapted from his remarks that evening.


THANK YOU, President McLean, for those kind words.

I see a lot of smiles tonight. I take it that it’s because we’re now in the Easter season — and we no longer have to abide by our Lenten mortifications.

Speaking for myself, I was absolutely faithful to my own resolution. You see, this year for Lent, I gave up giving short speeches. And of course, Lent’s now over.

In a moment, I’ll get to my topic — what Thomas Aquinas College brings to an America now in the throes of a debate over religious liberty. Before I do, I’d like to say just a few words about the communion of saints — that is to say, about those members of the Thomas Aquinas community who are with us here this evening, either in the flesh or in spirit.

The Communion of Saints
One of the former is a good friend of ours, Pip Donahoe. I had known about Thomas Aquinas College long before I met Pip. But when I met her, I came to know your college as you want your college to be known: by the example of your graduates. Your graduates are your glory … you prepare them well for the winds that lie ahead … and their witness is a leaven to our society. You ought to be proud of how your graduates represent your institution, and proud to show it. So before I continue I ask you to join me in showing your appreciation for the tremendous legacy of your hard work: the alumni of Thomas Aquinas College.

With us in spirit tonight is Tom Dillon. I cannot pretend to have known Tom as well as most of you did. But Tom and I are both Notre Dame men … we both know about the Land O’Lakes statement … but — unlike me — Tom did something about it.

The last few years of his administration, I watched from afar as Tom presided over the construction that stunning new church that beckons all who pass by your campus. After the accident in Ireland that killed him, I learned that Tom’s would be the first funeral Mass celebrated from that altar — and the words of Yeats came to me: a terribly beauty has been born.

Yeats was writing about the Irish revolution, but surely those words apply more aptly to Tom’s death. My friends, not many of us go to our Maker with the credentials that Tom Dillon carried into eternity. So please join me in a salute to a fallen leader and an inspiration for the future: Dr. Thomas Dillon.

Since those terrible days, Dr. McLean has become your fourth president. It’s tough being a college president these days. It’s tougher still when you’re the kind of president who believes that the most important things we need to teach are the things that that never change. President McLean has taken that burden upon himself — and he has done so willingly, graciously, and cheerfully. So let also us raise our glasses to a good man who is carrying out a great mission: Dr. McLean.

“The Dumb Ox”
That leaves only me. And since this is a Catholic occasion, I thought it best I begin with a confession. My confession is this: I probably should not be speaking at any event associated with the name Thomas Aquinas.

Yes, I was a philosophy student in college. Yes, I studied under Dr. Ralph McInerny, the late great Thomist on my own campus. And yes, one of the most humbling moments in my life came about three years ago, after I gave an address at Notre Dame about the witness to life — and I received a note from Ralph telling me that as he heard my words, he knew the reward that men and women hope for when they make teaching their vocation.

That was characteristically gracious of Ralph. Honesty, however, compelled me to remind Ralph that this pride must have come despite my performance in his classroom — not because of it. You see, in the spring semester of my junior year, I signed up for Ralph’s class on Aquinas. And I enjoyed it too.

Alas, when baseball season started up that year, I succumbed to an invitation from my roommate — a business major who was a very evil influence — to cut class so we could go to Chicago for a Cubs game. I didn’t think much of it: It was near the end of the semester … in my whole time at Notre Dame I had cut virtually no classes … and I thought I could do the reading and see what I had missed in the next class.

That next class came two days later. When I entered the room, it was as quiet as a Trappist monastery. People were scribbling into blue books, or looking up something in their paperback volumes of Thomas.

At first I thought this was the previous class finishing up some assignment.

After a few minutes, when no one left or entered, I took another look around the room and realized: These were my classmates. It turns out that at the class I cut, Ralph had announced he would use the last day of the school term to give us our final — instead of waiting for finals week. Not only that, he let them all know it would be an open-book exam.

Except for me, of course. I’d been at Wrigley Field when this vital information was being transmitted.

So there I was, completely unprepared, lacking even my book. You can imagine the results. I went to see Ralph afterward. Not to plead for a better grade, but just to explain the circumstances so he would not think me a complete idiot. Ralph was too polite to say it, but if there’s a link between Thomas and myself, it’s this: I’m the one who truly earned the name “the Dumb Ox.”

The Church in America
Notwithstanding this inglorious past, President McLean invited me here tonight to say a few words about the challenges we face as Catholic Americans. I’ll keep them brief, though I’m happy to answer any questions at the end.

I begin with a fact of life that has not changed much through our nation’s history: an abiding suspicion among some of our fellow citizens that our Catholic faith is, at its core, hostile to the American experiment in liberty.

In the 18th century, our Founders spoke of popery the way they spoke of George III — and that was no accident. Our colonies were rife with discriminatory laws against Catholics. How many Americans know, for example, that until the revolution Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was prohibited by law from voting or holding public office in his native Maryland because of his Catholic faith?

In the mid-19th century, immigration from Catholic countries exploded. And along with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Irish on our shores came the charge that our presence was corrupting the republic’s morals. Thomas Nast famously drew a cartoon showing Catholic bishops, directed by the Vatican, as crocodiles attacking American schoolchildren.

In the 20th century, Paul Blanshard wrote a bestseller called American Freedom and Catholic Power in which he called for a “resistance movement” to the Catholic Church. And before JFK could be elected the first Catholic president two decades later, he had first to reassure Baptist ministers that his Catholic faith would have no influence on him whatsoever as president.

Today all that has changed. We now matriculate at the leading universities … we are members of the most fashionable country clubs … we even have a majority on the Supreme Court. Now we face a new attack on our faith: that it is too Christian for a secular republic.

Think about that for a moment. In the 19th century, the problem was that our morals were too lax. Today the problem is that our morals are too strict. In other words, in scarcely a century we have gone from the Whore of Babylon to the Church of Impossibly Strict Standards.

That’s a change that tells us more about the drift and currents of American society than it does about the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church.

So what’s the answer? That depends on how you define the challenge. In the debate over religious liberty re-ignited by the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, I have heard people liken the Obama Administration’s treatment of the Church to, say, the government in Communist China.

I believe that overwrought.

Without seeking to diminish the serious threat the Obama mandate and associated developments pose to the free exercise of religion in the United States, we need to keep our perspective. In fact, one might argue that a welcome and unintended effect of the Administration’s action has been to rouse the bishops from their slumber — and perhaps to recognize that maybe we are where we are in part because many of those in leadership positions in our church have let a lot slide these past few decades.

To my mind, the more profitable way of looking at the challenge before us is this: At this moment in our history, what gifts does the Catholic Church bring to a nation founded upon the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

We of course bring the good news that Jesus Christ has conquered death, a truth illuminated by the dogmas and doctrines of our faith.

But we also bring something to those who do not share our faith. In a great historical irony that would baffle our Founders, the Catholic church represents possibly the only institution in the world that still speaks the language of the American Declaration. In other words, in a day when the foundation of the American founding is itself either obscured or contested, we Catholics hold that there are self-evident truths about man, and that they can be discovered and understood by reason.

Recently a good friend of mine, Andrew Ferguson, wrote a new introduction to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Those of you old enough to remember will recall the stir it occasioned when it was first published. Those of you wise enough to back and read it now will quickly see why this was so.

In his introduction, Andy says this about Allan Bloom:

As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism — of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone — had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.

The crisis was — is — a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another.

I do not need to explain what he means to anyone in this room. Each one of you here understands what is at stake. Each one of you worries what it all means for the future of our country.

In many ways, this is a fight for reason. In this fight, what the free society so desperately needs are citizens who have learned to think critically … who can keep their eye on the long ball … who know our world better than our world knows itself.

Advice to the Alumni
This is the world that you — the sons and daughters of Thomas Aquinas College — enter when you leave those calm and ordered halls above Santa Paula in the California hills.

I will leave you tonight with some guarantees. If you have learned what your college has intended, I can guarantee that you will be misunderstood — often deliberately, often out of ignorance. As for the leading institutions of culture that we once looked to for support, I can guarantee too that they will hold your most cherished beliefs and principles up for caricatured, ridiculed, and distorted beyond all recognition. Finally, when it comes to money, influence, and sheer numbers, I can guarantee this will be an advantage that you will never enjoy.

You know the odds. Against the considerable resources they bring to the battle, all you will have is your wits and the education you were given at Thomas Aquinas.

So when I look at what they have and look at what you have, it strikes me as so colossally unfair that all I can say to you is this:

I pity those poor bastards who go up against you. They have no idea just how outgunned they are.

Thank you.

William McGurn
Sanjay Adhikari (’18)

“When I first came here, since I am not a Catholic, I was nervous, because it’s a different culture for me, but people have been so friendly, so charitable. It is such a blessing to live in this community, where people care about you. You make strong friendships that last a lifetime.”

– Sanjay Adhikari (’18)

Kathmandu Nepal

“Thomas Aquinas College knows this — that the life of the mind involves the spiritual life as well — and that is why I have always thought of this institution as a college in the image and likeness of John Paul II.”

– George Weigel

Papal Biographer