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Invitation to Rice debated at BC

Honorary degree draws objections

Two leading theologians at Boston College have written a stinging letter objecting to the college's decision to invite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak at graduation and to give her an honorary degree.

Nearly 100 faculty members have signed the letter, according to the theology department, which declined to release their names.

The letter, which will be delivered to the president and board of trustees, has set off a fiery debate.

Kenneth Himes, chairman of the department of theology, and the Rev. David Hollenbach, who holds the Margaret O'Brien Flatley chair in the department, titled their letter ''Condoleezza Rice Does Not Deserve a Boston College Honorary Degree," and sent it to the entire faculty inviting members to sign on. The writers said they were distressed with the university's decision to invite Rice to commencement May 22. Her selection was announced Monday.

''On the levels of both moral principle and practical moral judgment, Secretary Rice's approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College's commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university's work," the letter said. It pointed out Pope John Paul II's opposition to the war in Iraq.

''I have no objection to her coming here to speak -- I am in favor of free speech -- but I don't believe we should be honoring her with an honorary degree," Hollenbach said.

The debate over the Rice invitation underscores the tensions between liberal and conservative Catholics. Both camps yesterday accused the other side of selectively invoking Catholic teaching in their arguments.

''This is the only time these people have cited Pope John Paul II on anything," said the Rev. Paul McNellis, who is an adjunct professor in the philosophy department.

Student activist Reena Parikh, a senior English major, found a contradiction in BC's taking a Catholic teaching stance against abortion and gay rights, while at the same time inviting Rice to accept an honorary degree.

''Boston College has selectively chosen which Catholic teachings it's going to privilege and which ideas of Catholic teaching it's going to censor," Parikh said.

Other faculty members and students supported the invitation, saying that having such a notable speaker is an honor for the university. Political science professor Marc Landy said the letter was a ''grotesque mistake" and sent a letter asking colleagues not to sign the Himes-Hollenbach letter.

''This isn't about agreeing or disagreeing with Condoleezza Rice," Landy said. ''She is the secretary of state of the United States, and there is a presumption in favor of according a warm and dignified reception to arguably the third most important executive officer."

Student and faculty groups are meeting to hammer our positions on the invitations, and propose courses of action.

The US State Department would not comment on the letter or say whether Rice had accepted the invitation. According to BC, however, she has confirmed.

''Given that Dr. Rice's schedule allows her to make only one commencement speech per year, we are pleased that she has chosen to address graduating students at Boston College, a university with a proud tradition of preparing its alumni for careers in public service," director of public affairs Jack Dunn said in an e-mail to the Globe.

The letter, which will be presented to the college president and the board of trustees, stopped short of asking BC's administration to rescind its invitation. But it didn't take long after the the letter hit cyberspace for some members of the faculty to suggest it.

The Rev. David Gill, a classics professor, said he thinks it would be a waste of time to ask the administration to rescind its invitation to Rice, because it would never do so. But he supported raising debate about it.

''The secretary of state can also find something else to do that day if she needed to," he said.

Catherine Elton can be reached at celeton@globe.com.

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