Commentary

Brent Bozell: Conviction, Courage and Catholic Identity

L. Brent Bozell III
By L. Brent Bozell III | May 18, 2015 | 10:42 AM EDT

 

[Editor’s Note: On Sunday, May 17, 2015, L. Brent Bozell III gave the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Dallas. Bozell, who earned a degree in history from Dallas, went on to become the founder and president of the Media Research Center, the parent organization of CNSNews.com.]

Bishop Farrell; President Keefe; members of the Board of Trustees; distinguished faculty members and university staff; parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins of the graduates; graduates of the Braniff Graduate School and the School of Ministry; and, most especially, the Class of 2015 of the University of Dallas.

So you think I don’t know what you’ve been up to these past four years.

As a fellow graduate I feel somewhat like the Confessor telling the sinner there is nothing he's not heard before. In my case it's probably worse. There's probably nothing you've done that I didn't do, and we both know that's not necessarily a good thing.

We too were rebellious. We too studied Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine—but some of us lived Animal House. I recall that day in Lynch Hall when I'd decided to make one of my rather infrequent visits to Art History class, taught by the fabled and equally kind Professor Lyle Novinsky. On this day, however, he had the unmitigated gall to take the rolls. I recoiled in horror. I just knew something terrible was about to happen.  He trotted merrily through the list. “Here.” “Here.” “Present.” “Here.” He arrived at my name. "Bozell?" "Here."  The roll call came to an abrupt stop. He put the paper down, and slowly looked up to find me at the back of the class. "Mr. Bozell!" he smiled. "It's so good to put a face with a name!"

 

One wonders if in some quarters mine was seen as a hopeless cause with this university in a defensive crouch counting the days til my departure.  Hayek once said of Adam Smith that his "chief concern was not so much what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst."

That hits uncomfortably close to home.

What's the University of Dallas done for you?

It has opened your eyes to the wisdom of the ages. You too read Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine. You also studied Locke and Burke and Hayek; Dante and de Tocqueville; the Constitution and the Bible.

This university has afforded you the opportunity to become acquainted with some of the world's greatest treasures. The grandeur of the Roman coliseum.... the ashes of Pompeii... the ruins on the Seven Hills ... the majesty of St. Peter's.

It's here where, with no apologies to President Obama, you learned that you might never be a great athlete but you would proudly be a Crusader. You were introduced to the tradition of Charity Week, and what rollicking fun that was. You became acquainted with and then barely survived Ground Hog Day, with hangovers that qualified as crimes against humanity. It's here where you learned and struggled with the mystery of love.

It is here where you were sent to begin the rest of your life. But to what end?

I remember vividly my meeting with Dr. Alex Wilhelmsen exactly 40 years ago to declare my intention to pursue a degree in history. "What do you plan to do with that degree?" she asked. I was stumped. Truth to tell, I hadn't even pondered that question. I had no idea where I was headed, much less how this degree might get me there. I just wanted to study history.  "I, um, uh, don't know," I stammered helplessly. Her answer was equally unexpected. "Great!" she snapped with her beaming smile. "You'll make a fine history major!"

Dr. Wilhelmsen was making a critically important point. An education at the University of Dallas might lead directly to a career, which is a very good thing, as one could take that history degree and teach it, but this institution did not intend as its primary mission to prepare you for your career. It meant to prepare you for your legacy.

It is in Dr. Wilhelmsen’s honor that I choose to speak today about history, specifically three figures, one known to us all, the second I suspect known to no one here, and the third known to but a few.

All figured in the most violent, the most noble, and the saddest chapter in our history: when America went to war against herself.

One cannot fathom the fortitude of the men who fought in the Civil War, giants like Grant, who knew only human carnage would end the war and caused rivers of blood to flow from his own men to accomplish it; and Lee, who did not want this war, who knew his cause was doomed and watched as the remnants of his once formidable army marched in rags, starving, many with only rocks to throw, yet when all was lost still marched toward the enemy for yet another fight because honor required it.

It was their lieutenants, men like Jackson and Mosby, and Sherman and Sheridan, who executed their assignments brilliantly, valiantly and gallantly, knowing that the outcome of the day's battle rested on their shoulders alone.

President Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 5, 1865. (Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons)

It was Abraham Lincoln. Consider the weight borne by this man. He could have arrived at a political solution to prevent this war; and once it began, another one to end it. In each case it would have been a rather simple exercise, putting the onus on future administrations to resolve. It is what's become a staple with today's political leaders, where something as simple as balancing a checkbook is left to another administration, for another day.

Lincoln's challenge was infinitely more daunting because the options were unacceptable. Political accommodation to preserve the Union might well require the continuation of slavery, and while once he had reluctantly supported this proposition he came to abhor it. A truce would require legitimizing the Confederacy, and this he could not allow, either.

So he chose war, the most horrific war imaginable. Cliches dull the senses but fathers really did shoot and kill their sons, sons their fathers, and brothers each other. Every day he received the grizzly battlefield reports. The lists of the dead only grew, from hundreds to thousands, to tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands.

With the tolls of war came the personal attacks, from every quarter, criticisms that surely stung, deflated, and would have broken a lesser man. But not this one.

Asked about them he responded, "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."

And so he continued day after day, surely broken-hearted, but with steely resolve until final victory, followed almost immediately by an assassin's bullet. Could you show such conviction?

Our second figure is a man presumably unknown to everyone in this hall: Albert Gallatin Willis. In the fall of 1864, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Northern General Armstrong Custer was dispatched to destroy the forces of the pesky Confederate guerrilla leader Col. John Mosby. The campaign grew vicious and personal resulting in the rules of civil warfare willfully ignored.  Uppermost was their desire to execute their prisoners of war, oftentimes instantly and brutally.

On 14 October, 1864, two of Mosby's Rangers were captured outside the village of Flint Hill and one, chosen by lot, was ordered hanged from a tree. As the condemned was led to his death his cohort, a young ministerial student, spoke up. Telling his captors that the man about to be executed was married with children and he was not, Albert Gallatin Willis offered his life instead. His Union captors acquiesced. A strong branch from the hanging tree was pulled down, the rope affixed to it, and the noose placed over the young man's neck. The branch was released. Willis' body went flying through the air grotesquely, and his neck snapped instantly.

He was your age. Could you show such courage?

In the end the Union was preserved and slavery was terminated. Unfortunately, so too was the Tenth Amendment. As Shelby Foote noted, before the war the term “United States” was plural; after the war, it had become, and remains, a singular proposition. The principle of limited government was now open to debate.

Enter our third and final figure. Shortly after Lee's surrender, Orestes Augustus Brownson, one of the great polemicists of his time, published The American Republic.  Brownson was a curious fellow who made a startling political journey, beginning as an atheist and a socialist, "a Marxist before Marx" as one called him, and ultimately, after his conversion, a staunch Roman Catholic.

A Unionist during the war, Brownson had argued that a strong and controlling federal government was needed to preserve individual liberty and the social order.

When the cannon were silenced at last, it was time to re-assess the situation. Two opposite forces had emerged. One the one hand, if the abolition of slavery was the primary focus, then the North’s victory was a celebration of personal freedom. Paradoxically, if preservation of the Union was the primary concern, then the expanded power of the state was firmly established. Talk about a bi-polar social disorder!

Brownson identified within each a deadly threat to the Republic.

In the first case he saw personal liberty morphing into radical individualism, which he poignantly labeled "egotistical democracy."

"In every man there is a natural craving for personal freedom and unrestrained action," he wrote, "a strong desire to be himself, not another—to be his own master, to go when and where he pleases, to do what he chooses, to take what he wants, wherever he can find it, and to keep what he takes... it everywhere identifies liberty with power."

If egotistical democracy was a threat after the Civil War, it is an epidemic today.

We find the evidence everywhere in modern society: in crony capitalism that rejects social justice and the dignity of man; in the reckless decadence of popular culture; and in the hallways of government that reek with the stench of self-interested corruption. Horrifically, we see it in the absolute selfishness required to justify the slaughter of tens of millions of God’s most innocent. When there is no moral true north, it's only a matter of time before society collapses on itself like a black hole.

The second threat identified by Brownson was its opposite, secular socialism. This camp believed social justice can be achieved only by the abolition of individualism. But where would this socialism lead? Brownson dreaded the consequences. He wrote:

"Veiling itself under Christian forms attempting to distinguish between Christianity and the Church, claiming for itself the authority and the immense popularity of the Gospel, denouncing Christianity in the name of Christianity, discarding the Bible in the name of the Bible, and defying God in the name of God, Socialism conceals from the undiscriminating multitude its true character... it asserts itself with terrific power... with a force that human beings, in themselves, are impotent to resist."

Brownson was prescient. It should frighten us that this is precisely where our nation is also headed today. Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson publicly quotes Scripture and is suspended from his television show for being unChristian. The state advocates the destruction of the family and the sacrament of marriage as a moral good. A Christian minister appears on CBS to defend the sanctity of marriage and is labeled the leader of a “hate group.” It is not secularism that is replacing Christianity, nor even is it atheism. It is paganism.  Gaia is fast becoming our national God and anti-Christian bigotry our national blood sport.

Unchecked, both extremes are transformative in the worst possible way. Virtueless freedom leads to anarchy; mandated virtue to Fascism. The first describes our culture; the second increasingly our government. Both extremes are flashing their fangs, and make no mistake about that.

So what's to be done and what does this have to do with you and your graduation today? If this university has done its job, you know the answer, and based on what I've found, the University of Dallas may have succeeded spectacularly in giving it to you.

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of spending some time with six of your fellow graduates, Anthony, Kayla, Curtis, Frances, Chris and Christina. We spoke of many things that afternoon. They understood that the existential threat facing our county is not political, nor is it economic, nor even cultural. It is spiritual. God has been expelled from polite company and replaced by acedia. We have not only fled the world, we don’t care that we do not care. It can be a fatal tailspin. Disinterest leads to despair, and despair ultimately to national suicide. It’s not just the United States that’s threatened by acedia. Western Civilization itself is on the line.

This is where you come in.

The concept of critical thinking has guided you toward your Catholic identity, and your Catholic identity forbids acedia. It mandates you engage in the world. These students I visited with all understood that it's not enough to be a Catholic.

We are called to live Catholic.

God willing you'll never be called to show the conviction of Lincoln or the courage of Willis though others across the globe are being forced to do precisely that at this very moment. However living Catholic in American society brings other challenges and responsibilities.

You are commanded not just to reject the poison in our popular culture but to agitate against it.

When movies like Philomena, Dogma or The Priest deliberately project ugly lies about the Catholic clergy, it is up to you as a Catholic to speak up and defend your faith by denouncing the bigotry.

When Comedy Central presents as humor a man dressed as the Holy Father who greets an actress dressed as a nun with, "Bless you, Sarah, congratulations on all your abortions," you don't simply change the channel, you take to the public square to condemn the repugnancy.

When Lady Gaga or Madonna ridicule your faith—you—to millions of impressionable children, it is not enough not to listen; your call is to convince society to join in the repudiation. Christianity is under attack across the cultural spectrum, from music to theater to academia. Your Catholic identity commands you to respond.

You are also called to confront the state when it mandates you surrender your religious beliefs.

When the government orders you as the owner of a small bakery to facilitate the perversion of the sacrament of marriage, you must refuse and be prepared to face criminal prosecution.

When the government orders you as a businessman to fund abortifacients for your employees, you must refuse and be prepared to shutter your doors.

And when the White House orders you, as it did Georgetown University, to cover your crucifixes because the President of the United States intends to speak in front of them, you must be prepared to tell the leader of the free world that his request is duly noted, and rejected.

But your Catholic identity needn’t be a burden. It is also the gateway to extraordinary happiness—if you want it.

Thomas Jefferson once stated that “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” You know, I do too.  So let's dream about your future. If I can leave you with one word of advice it is this: Live your Catholic identity honorably and watch the pieces fall into place.

Chase your vocation not just with determination but with brio. Nothing is owed you save the opportunity to succeed, not security, not position, not reward. Security is possible when loyalty is demonstrated. Position is the bi-product of accomplishment. Rewards are earned.

May you become fabulously wealthy in the process. But to what end? My friend Steve Forbes hears the phrase "give back to your country" and recoils at the suggestion that what he has earned is excessive, if not ill-begotten. And yet charity is mandated. Prepare to give of yourself, of your efforts and your fortune, to those in need. Never mind your name in lights; do so quietly. Do not leverage your charity; do it grateful for the opportunity. I promise that the rewards will far exceed the gifts.

And if you haven't done so already, find your sweetheart. I met and fell in love with mine right here. Create your family. We did. Make your family the cornerstone of your natural existence. Raise them to live their Catholic identity as well. Then one day something marvelous will happen. You will meet your first grandchild and, if you're fortunate, there will be many more to follow. Words cannot do justice to the joy that awaits you.

Today you understand your Catholic identity cognitively. But live it—even with countless human shortcomings—and you’ll be awed by it.

You leave young and excited with the world as your oyster, and that is good. But one day you’ll enter the happy hour of your life and then things won’t be so hectic. Then come home for a visit. Oh, things will be different around here, to be sure. Most on this stage will be gone, replaced by a new generation of mentors. The campus will look different, and given the look of diabolic glee on President Keefe's face at the mere thought of Carpenter Hall's destruction, I suggest her chances of survival are nil. But quietly walk this campus and look about you. Spend some time talking to some students and to their professors, just as I did. You’ll see it. The University of Dallas—her soul—will still be here, vibrant as ever because she lives the Catholic identity she's taught you. Come home for a visit, and thank her, as I do now.

It’s been a tough four years working toward this very moment. Congratulations, Class of 2015. Your job here is done. Now dream your futures. Go create your legacies.

Thank you.


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