Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft

 Commencement Address for The Catholic University of America

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Washington D.C.

May 11, 2002


Your Eminence, Cardinal McCarrick; Very Reverend President, Father O’Connell; trustees; members of the administration, faculty and staff; distinguished guests; parents and families of the graduates; and members of the class of 2002:


I am overwhelmed with the honor of joining you as an honorary graduate of this institution. It almost prompts me to cut the length of my speech.


Seriously, I am grateful to you, Father O’Connell, for your kind invitation to deliver this year’s commencement address at The Catholic University of America.  I am privileged, not only to be making the address, but also to be joining the ranks of those who have learned here, to join their ranks as an honorary member, thanks to the degree you have conferred upon me.


It is customary, on occasions such as this, for the speaker to congratulate the graduates on what they have achieved — and let me be the first to do so.  But let me also remind you, on this day so near to Mother’s Day, that your achievement is not yours alone.  You share this day with — and they deserve our thanks – those people behind you, people who have been behind you for years — the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters who have supported you; the faculty and staff who have guided you; and, last but not least, the friend who got you through Religion 201.


The Catholic writer, G.K Chesterton, defined education – and I’m quoting now – as "the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another."  But Chesterton cautioned that we must first possess this societal soul – this common understanding of the virtues we value and the freedoms we cherish – we must possess it before we can pass it on. As he put it, and I’m quoting again,  "We cannot give what we have not got," Chesterton said, and I’m quoting further, "and we cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves."


Today is a day worthy of celebration because today you begin your lives as the builders of our culture, the shapers of our institutions – the leaders, teachers and mentors of your fellow Americans.  You begin this life journey as the heirs to the great tradition of scholarship informed and nurtured by the Catholic faith.  Each of you, regardless of your personal faith, is today the recipient of a great gift – the gift of an education in human reason guided by the light of eternal truth. 


In his extraordinary constitution on Catholic universities, His Holiness Pope John Paul II described the experience of Catholic education as "an ardent search for truth and its unselfish transmission to youth and to all those learning to think rigorously."  The goal of this search for truth, the Pope wrote, is "to act rightly, to act rightly and to serve humanity better."


For 115 years, the university from which you graduate today, The Catholic University of America, has guided young people in this search for truth.  You are soon to join a long line of distinguished alumni of this and other Catholic institutions.  Monsignor George Higgins, a graduate of Catholic who passed away just a few days ago, devoted his life to the pursuit of social justice.  I have the privilege of working with Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor. She attended Notre Dame University.   Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are graduates of Georgetown and Holy Cross Universities.  All of these men and women and many more graduates of Catholic institutions have, in the spirit of Chesterton, shaped the soul of our society, moulded the contours of this great culture, and passed it along, passed the culture along – better and more complete – to new generations of Americans.


They have understood as all eventually learn that the greatest responsibility of  a  society is the transmission of values from one generation to the next.


Across the country, at over 230 Catholic colleges and universities, hundreds of thousands of young Americans of many different faiths join in this heritage and receive this great gift.   Two and a half million children in Catholic elementary and secondary schools –  rich children, poor children, black children, white children, Catholic children,  non-Catholic children – God’s children – are also a part of this great tradition, part of this rich opportunity, this important gift. These children have been given a gift – the gift of high achievement born of high expectations, and high achievement and high expectations are partners in the process of producing the best that mankind can enjoy. They’re also the recipients of the gift of dignity born of unconditional love.


The tradition you inherit is not confined within the walls of Catholic institutions.  It has formed and shaped principles that resonate far beyond the Catholic Church and the faithful – these are the universal principles, truths, about the nature of life, the essentiality of truth and the unique gift of human freedom. 


Today, we are a nation called to a better understanding of these ideas — a deeper comprehension than that which is conveyed by our popular culture and even many of our academic institutions.  The values we hold — truth, human dignity, freedom – these are the values that are under assault in the world.  And in the midst of this assault, we have learned that our values are neither self-executing nor self-sustaining.  They must be defended, not just with military might, but with deeper devotion.


            To defeat a culture of death, we must cultivate a culture of life.


            To expose the great lie of nothingness, we must embrace the great truth of being.


            Above all, to conquer tyranny, we must understand the nature and source of our freedom.


We come together today at this great university — The Catholic University of America – we as people of many beliefs united in a single conviction:  we come together,  understanding that people of faith find the source of freedom and human dignity in the Creator.  People of all religions are called to the defense of His creation.


As God's gift, freedom is not license to behave in any way we choose.  It is the gift of consequence – the fact that when we act we have impact. The ability to make choices with the understanding that what we choose has consequence. Our freedom is the freedom to choose good or evil — it is not freedom to make choices that have no consequence.  Our choices will have consequence for good or evil. Our opportunity is to make those choices well.


For those who embrace a biblical understanding of creation, the difference between freedom and license echoes down the corridors of time in two voices, both first heard in the Garden of Eden.


The first voice, the voice of evil, was a voice disguised as the voice of freedom, and it whispered: "Just do it, it won't make a difference."  The second voice, the voice of God, states plainly: make your choices but make them carefully because you make all the difference.


The voice of evil, posing as freedom, tells us that we are free to ignore the difference between good and evil, between life and death. It says, Go ahead; it won’t make a difference. The consequence isn’t as promised. But let me just say that when we are told that our choices are without consequences, we are not told that we are free, because without consequence, we are without meaning. So the voice which tells us that we have no consequence doesn’t describe freedom. It describes meaninglessness. Each of us wants to have meaning. Each of us embraces the fact that we choose with consequence and that those items in our portfolio that we bring to our culture and to the people and population with which we live, those potentials describe our capacity to shape that culture positively. The greatest virtue of true freedom is that our choices have consequence.


Now the terrorist has a distrust of freedom. Terrorists distrust the decisions of free people, afraid of what free people would choose. Instead, the terrorist’s rejection of persuasion leads them to rely on extortion to force people to a conclusion that they would never embrace on their own. And instead of hope and reason, terrorists offer fear.   For those who seek truth and think rigorously, the way of the terrorist offers nothing.  In a universe of choices – in a marketplace of ideas – the terrorist defames the concept of choice, embraces the idea of force and rejects the idea that truth prevails over distortion. 


It is the deeper understanding of freedom as the inborn hope of humanity that is part of the heritage that passes to you today.  It is a heritage which teaches us that freedom is not the grant of any government, any prince, or any king but is, in fact, our gift from God.


It is a heritage that shaped the great founding idea of America, the idea expressed in these words, which we learned years ago:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


For over two centuries, American leaders of every party and every faith have echoed this idea.  Abraham Lincoln spoke of a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." John F. Kennedy declared that the rights of man come not "from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."   And our president George W. Bush began his presidency by reminding Americans that we are not alone in the struggle for freedom, that an angel rides in the whirlwind, directing the storm that engulfs humanity.


There are those who believe that to acknowledge the Creator as the source of freedom is to diminish our freedom.  But I believe they misinterpret, they invert, and they turn around that which is right. We acknowledged God as the author of our freedom and when we have, we affirm the dignity and worth of every human being.  We are blessed to live in a nation that protects the rights of all precisely because we acknowledge that we are not the grantors of these rights, that God grants rights – we seek to guard them and guarantee them, but they are of a source greater than our own.


Two days ago, I managed to get through my 60th birthday and began the seventh decade of my life.  I have now lived long enough to know that nothing is more important in life than friendship.  And if you will indulge me, I would like to conclude my remarks by saying a few words about a most important friendship:  the friendship and mutual reinforcement of the enduring bond between learning and freedom.


Like all great friendships, the relationship between learning and liberty is mutually enriching.  We are free because our actions have consequences.  We have meaning when we make choices. If we had no meaning we would not be free; we would be meaningless. And education gives meaning and value to our freedom. It helps us to understand by our mistakes what to avoid doing again, and it helps us to understand by witnessing the successes of those around us so we can learn from those successes, so we can move toward greater success in ourselves.


And just as education enriches freedom, it confers responsibility.  As graduates of this great Catholic institution, your obligations do not end with this day but have only just begun.  The legacy you inherit is now the hope of future generations, so hold it high, and bare it proudly.  Seek truth.  Think rigorously.  Act rightly.  Serve humanity.  And know that in a world of freedom, there is no doubt that you will prevail.


Congratulations, graduates.  God bless you, and God bless America.