Cardinal Francis Arinze, viewed by some as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, drew criticism from some College students and faculty for a remark about homosexuals made at the College commencement ceremony on May 17.

Nearly 70 faculty members signed a letter of protest that was submitted after the ceremonies to College Dean Jane McAuliffe on ay 21.

The College’s commencement ceremony honored Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, with an honorary degree. Arinze served as Archbishop of Onitsha, Nigeria, until he was called to the Vatican in 1984.

At the College’s graduation ceremony, the cardinal decried the situation of the modern family. “In many parts of the world, the family is under siege,” he said. “It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.”

The remarks prompted a handful of graduates to exit the ceremony and theology professor Theresa Sanders left the stage during the cardinal’s speech. Students and faculty expressed concern that the remarks, which might have been suitable at a lecture, were inappropriate for a commencement ceremony.

“It was insensitive,” Danielle Decerbo (COL ’03), one of the students who left the ceremony during the cardinal’s address, said. “The cardinal has his right to believe whatever he wants, but I thought he should have tried to include all kinds of people instead of being heavy-handed and insensitive. I didn’t expect things to be that way at my graduation. I was crying because I was offended and not because I was happy.”

The faculty petition did not request an apology, history professor Tommaso Astarita said.

“This letter did not request any specific step on the dean’s part, it mostly expressed our concern that the speech was not the most suitable for commencement,” he said.

In response to the controversy created by the remarks, McAuliffe held an open meeting on May 23 to address faculty and student concerns.

“I am deeply concerned that students, parents and faculty found parts of the commencement address upsetting to them. I’m sure that Cardinal Arinze did not intend to hurt any of his audience but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” McAuliffe said in an e-mail to the College faculty.

On May 29, McAuliffe sent a letter to College graduates and their parents regarding the discussions held in response to the address.

“I held these discussions because many members of our community found some of the remarks of our speaker, Francis Cardinal Arinze, to be exclusionary and hurtful. This concerns me greatly for, truly, the last thing I would want is for anyone in our community to feel marginalized or rejected,” she said. “Our Georgetown College commencement has always been a moment to celebrate the strength and cohesion of our richly diverse community.”

McAuliffe’s letter also quoted the University Ethos Statement and the University Mission Statement, citing the need for “inclusion and community support.”

Other students agreed that the speech may have been inappropriate, but did not leave. “I felt his speech was out of context for a graduation address,” Alex Sanjenis (COL ’03) said. “He started off well by saying that all of our material successes are empty without religion, but I empathize that many were uncomfortable having morality preached to them.”

McAuliffe said that she invited Arinze with the expectation that he would speak about Christian-Muslim relations. “Since for some years I sat on an inter-religious dialogue commission with the cardinal, I expected inter-religious relations to form the substance of his remarks at commencement and was very surprised that it was not the topic,” McAuliffe said in the e-mail.

Arinze had spoken at Georgetown about Christian-Muslim relations once before – in 1997 at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

The cardinal told the over 800 graduates of the College to lead lives where religion played a significant role. “Allow serious religion to lead you to everlasting joy,” he said. “Religion is not something marginal, optional or peripheral.”

Arinze’s Nigerian homeland has been war-torn by fighting between Christians and Muslims and the Cardinal has long spoken out against religiously motivated violence.

“In life we have religious plurality, and that is a fact .. Religion is proposed, not imposed. True religion teaches not rivalry, violence and conflict, but respect and harmony,” he said, while noting the distinction between pluralism and relativism. “This is not to teach relativism, that it does not matter to what faith you belong.”

Arinze has worked to broaden the worldwide appeal of the Catholic Church. “To be Catholic is by definition to be universal,” he said.

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