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Revoking honorary degrees: a semi-canonical thought on a non-canonical issue

August 2, 2018

Are honorary degrees conferred in recognition of one’s past accomplishments or as incentives toward one’s future behavior?

I ask because, having long assumed the former (however thinly deserving some recipients of such honors were), Fordham University and Catholic University of America have each revoked the honorary degrees that they had conferred on the predator prelate ‘Uncle Ted’ McCarrick, but without saying that they had been misinformed about whatever great services to mankind Uncle Ted was supposed to have rendered and in recognition of which these honors were bestowed. Hence, my question.

Consider: After an Oscar for Best Actor or a Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded, is the award revoked if later the actor turns in a lousy performance or if the war hero gets arrested for reckless driving? But academe’s favors (I include secular schools, noting that predator Bill Cosby probably holds the record for the most rescinded honorary degrees) savor of a marked ‘what-have-you-done-for-us-lately’ quality and, if what you have done lately stinks, it’s hasta la vista time, baby. Such revocations makes the schools, I suppose, feel better about themselves.

What they also do, however, is to make it obvious that many, perhaps most, of these honorary degrees—especially degrees to celebrity prelates such as McCarrick, degrees that reflect not a whiff of intellectual, albeit not academic, achievement—are transparent public relations ploys intended to make those conferring such honors look good in the public’s (read: donors’) eyes. Thus, if having a McCarrick or a Cosby on a school’s honor roll is good for public relations, it’s grip-and-grin pix time; but if association with the person becomes bad for public relations, those names are stricken with almost as much deliberation as apparently went into inscribing them in the first place.

So, do honorary degrees from Catholic academe recognize a recipient’s past accomplishments, or, like a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a man of zero international achievement, express hopes that the recipient might someday do something useful, at least for the school if not for the world? And, if the latter, do we need to add a new layer to academe’s infamously bloated bureaucracy, say, the Office for Honorary Awardees’ Social Comportment Compliance and Anti-Criminal Behavior Monitoring? 

Okay, I promised a semi-canonical angle on this obviously non-canonical issue of the academic public relations schemes known as honorary degrees, and here it is: Canon 1338 § 2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that, in punishment for crime, “privation of academic degrees is not possible.” Of course, the Code is talking here about real degrees, not honorary ones, and the law binds agents acting on behalf of the Church, not officers acting within private organizations thereof.

Still, the idea behind the canon is that, no matter how badly a credentialed individual behaves after graduation, the fact of the conferral of the degree cannot be erased or rescinded. So, a Catholic theologian might lose his or her teaching post for heresy, and might even be excommunicated for crime, but he or she could not be “de-doctored” for offenses of any sort.

Schools have been being embarrassed by some of their graduates since shortly after schools began conferring degrees, but they don’t generally pretend that they had not determined, at some point, to recognize the achievement represented by the degree just because that degree is later misused or the holder thereof turns out to be an offender. If anything, such incidents should cause schools to look much more closely at their criteria for conferring honors and awards in the first place.

That said, if the differences between real degrees and honorary ones are so significant as to render nugatory the analogies I have suggested here, fine. There are certainly more important issues at hand here. But, if the differences between real and honorary degrees really are so significant, can academe at least stop calling these awards “degrees” of any sort?

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