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Critics keep quiet for Bush commencement speech

Times Staff Writer

After weeks of debate over an invitation to President Bush to address St. Vincent College’s commencement, graduates listened without a word of dissent Friday as the president urged them to “make service more than a line on your resume.”

The announcement that Bush would speak at the small Roman Catholic school prompted a spirited debate among students, faculty and alumni over whether his policies -- on the war in Iraq, the environment and the economy -- contradicted Catholic teaching.

At the school associated with the Order of St. Benedict, in the end, the Benedictine doctrine of hospitality won out.

Although there was no protest on the campus, more than 100 people gathered along nearby U.S. 30 on Friday to call for an end to the war, while the night before, several dozen people held an antiwar candlelight vigil, citing biblical strictures against violence.

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The president -- in a robe of blue, the color of his alma mater, Yale University -- was given two long ovations before he spoke to the nearly 300 graduates and their family and friends. He made only passing reference to world events, never mentioning Iraq, but noting that five members of the class of 2007 were joining the military at a time of great risk. His wishes for their safety drew applause.

The president of the college, H. James Towey, was for 4 1/2 years the director of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which was created to make it easier for religious and other nonprofit organizations to provide social services more commonly carried out by government agencies. Towey also worked closely with Mother Teresa, the late nun who devoted her life to charity.

Citing such charitable work, Bush said, “The volunteer spirit of America makes us unique. It represents the true strength of our nation, and it must constantly be reinvigorated and renewed.” By volunteering, he said, “you learn to take the initiative, instead of waiting for a government to step in.”

His remarks drew heavily on Benedictine ideals of “charity and community,” offering a rejoinder to the debate over where his policies fell in the spectrum of Catholic thought.

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Many of those who took part in the quiet protest of the president’s visit in recent weeks argued that his policies conflicted with Roman Catholic doctrine.

Twenty-five faculty members, about a quarter of those in tenure-rank positions, signed an open letter to Bush arguing that the “preemptive unprovoked war in Iraq” ran counter to the church’s “just war” teaching, which they said “insists that war may be undertaken only as a last resort and then must be conducted under strict guidelines that preserve the dignity of individuals.” The protests underscored discontent among Catholics over the war at a time when the Republican Party is seeking to forge stronger ties to Catholics by emphasizing Bush’s opposition to abortion.

The speech was the second of three commencement addresses Bush plans to give to audiences the White House carefully chose with the belief that they would be receptive to the president.

At Miami Dade College in Florida last month, Bush outlined his immigration proposals to an audience that included many immigrants. He is scheduled to speak May 23 at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, one of his annual visits to a military academy at which he regularly addresses national security.

james.gerstenzang @latimes.com


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