When Pope Francis delivered the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, 2015, seated behind him were two Catholics who at the time were first and second in line in succession to the presidency: Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat; and House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican.
Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, President of the University of Notre Dame, was among the guests to hear the pope’s speech to Congress that morning.
He said in an April 26 interview with Crux that the sight of those two prominent Catholic political leaders – from different parties and with starkly different stances, yet still friends – later helped inspire him to name them as joint recipients of Notre Dame’s 2016 Laetare Medal, which the university describes as “the oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics.”
Noting that the Laetare Medal was established in 1883 to “celebrate ways Catholics contribute to American public life,” Jenkins said in announcing the decision, “this year we recognize two political leaders who’ve served for decades in public life… I find in each of them a commitment to public service and a commitment to their faith.”
Unlike the nearly universal acclaim that seemed to greet Pope Francis’s address to Congress, the decision to award this year’s Laetare Medal to the vice president which was announced on March 5 has drawn heated criticism from the bishop of the diocese in which the university is located, and also from some Notre Dame faculty members, students and alumni, as well as other Catholic groups, because of Biden’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Jenkins said naming the two political leaders as honorees did not signal an endorsement of any of their policies or either of their parties, but is a recognition of how the two Catholic politicians have taken their faith into account in their efforts “to serve the common good… in public service as legislators.”
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, said in a March 14 statement, “I know that this honor is also an attempt to recognize two Catholics from different political parties at a time when our national politics is often mired in acrimonious partisanship. I appreciate Notre Dame’s efforts to encourage civility, dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation in political life.”
Yet, Rhoades said, honoring a “pro-choice Catholic” can promote scandal by giving the impression that “a good Catholic” can support or advocate positions “that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings.”
“I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal, even if he/she has other positive accomplishments in public service, since direct abortion is gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching: the inalienable right to life of every innocent human being from the moment of conception. I also question the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage,” Rhoades said.
The honor roll of Laetare medalists include Catholics from nearly every walk of life, including artists, poets, singers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, historians, labor leaders, women religious, priests, bishops, pacifists and military leaders.
Dorothy Day, who received the Laetare Medal in 1972, was the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement and was one of four Americans highlighted by Pope Francis in his address to Congress. Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps, received the Laetare Medal in 1968, as did his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, 20 years later.
Notre Dame’s decision to add Biden to the names of those luminaries doesn’t sit well with Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society – a watchdog group that monitors Catholic universities and colleges’ fidelity to their Catholic identity.
“He’s being held up for an honor for being an exemplary Catholic. That’s blatantly contrary to the facts… He’s publicly flouting Catholic teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage,” Reilly said in an interview with Crux.
That point was echoed by Notre Dame’s chapter of the University Faculty for Life, which passed a unanimous resolution on April 1 urging the university to rescind the awarding of the medal to the vice president.
The group, noting that promoting civility in public life and discourse was part of Jenkins’ rationale, added, “It is never uncivil to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable and defenseless among us.”
In a statement, Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble, a history professor at Notre Dame and president of its University Faculty for Life chapter, said the honor to the vice president “simply cheapens the Laetare Medal. It also damages Notre Dame’s commitment to the pro-life cause both on campus and beyond it.”
Miscamble also pointed out that, “Notre Dame will be honoring for his ‘civility’ the second-highest ranking individual in a presidential administration that the university, along with groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, is now suing on the grounds that its contraceptive mandate – which carries the threat of massive fines – violates our religious liberty.”
In his interview with Crux, Jenkins noted that the vice president has a mixed record on abortion. As a senator, Biden supported the Hyde Amendment restricting federal funding for abortion, and he opposed partial-birth abortion.
Alexandra DeSanctis, a Notre Dame senior from Potomac Falls, Virginia, majoring in political science, was among a group of hundreds of university students signing a petition against honoring the vice president, and she and other students participated in a related prayer service on campus.
In an email interview with Crux, she said the honor “gives the impression that one can work vigorously to contradict the Church on abortion and marriage while still maintaining one’s identity as a faithful Catholic, and even one worthy of high praise.”
Both Jenkins and Reilly said that criticism over the upcoming honor to Biden has not approached the furor that resulted when Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak at its commencement in 2009.
Some Catholics see the joint award as a positive step.
“Most Catholics are fatigued by culture wars that divide our Church into opposing camps and recognize a shared faith is built on foundations that transcend ideological boxes,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a Washington-based group.
“The university is reminding Catholics that we can disagree over politics without demonizing each other,” he said.
Gehring told Crux in an email interview that “along with almost every Catholic public official,” the vice president and former House speaker may not have always lived up to the fullness of Catholic teaching through their public policies, “but they strive imperfectly to serve the common good.”
“Notre Dame is making us think by honoring them,” he said. “It’s the kind of decision that seems to be in line with how Pope Francis calls the Church to build bridges.”
Jenkins noted that Pope Francis spoke out against polarization in his address to Congress. The pope urged its members to respect each others’ “differences and our convictions of conscience,” and he added, “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
At Notre Dame’s May 15 commencement, Biden and Boehner will again be side-by-side, and Jenkins said he hopes members of the class of 2016 will learn something from the joint honor.
“We live in a time of deep cynicism about political leadership. I hope that what they take away is a recognition that public service in political life is a worthy calling and can reflect one’s faith,” he said.
“We have to learn to disagree with each other in ways that allow us to work for the common good,” Jenkins said.
(Zimmermann writes for Crux out of Washington, where he also serves as editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington.)