Last weekend, Notre Dame honored Joseph Biden, the first Catholic Vice President of the United States, as well as former Speaker John Boehner, also a Catholic, with the university’s prestigious Laetare Medal, given to American Catholics for outstanding service to the Church and the nation.
To a few, the conferral of the award on a pro-choice politician Joseph Biden was controversial. And to be fair, some also protested giving the award to John Boehner, whose support of budget cuts for programs that serve the poor has drawn the ire of the American bishops.
But what was more remarkable to me was the lack of backlash Notre Dame’s decision received. Unlike 2008, where over 80 bishops protested President Obama’s honorary doctorate and speech at Notre Dame because of his support of abortion rights, Biden and Boehner’s appearance received little episcopal pushback aside from a nuanced critique from the local prelate, Bishop Kevin Rhoades.
Why’s that? Because the times have clearly changed.
The cultural warrior Catholicism that favored political confrontation to personal engagement and partisan fighting to authentic dialogue has given away to a Catholicism that is willing to engage, encounter, and befriend anyone.
Make no mistake: the Church will not, and cannot, compromise on its commitment to fighting for the dignity of each and every human life, particularly those who are most often excluded, and left behind, and discarded. But it too cannot be afraid to enter into dialogue with anyone.
If pro-choice Democrat Bernie Sanders can speak on economic justice at the Vatican, why can’t Joe Biden and John Boehner speak and be honored at Notre Dame?
Notre Dame’s President Father John Jenkins said it well to me: “We’re not honoring the political positions of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner. We’re honoring their courage and willingness to work together – often in opposition to members of their own party – for the common good.”
John Carr, the founding director of Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life, often remarks that he hopes the Catholic faith can be an asset, not a burden, for today’s politicians.
For Biden and Boehner, that’s clearly been the case. Both told me that their Catholic faith has given them the inspiration to cross the aisle and work with members of the opposing party.
Biden said that his faith encouraged him to “show mercy and consideration” for those with opposing views. He lauded Pope Francis’s example, and said his leadership had reminded him of the need to go “beyond partisanship in order to address the nation’s most pressing issues.”
“I believe everything is personal and everyone – even those with whom we disagree – should be treated with dignity,” he told me.
Boehner too credits his faith for his willingness throughout his career to buck his party hardliners and work with the Democrats on crucial issues.
“I believe engagement with those whom we disagree is sometimes necessary to keep a door open for people to change their positions on matters that go to the heart of who we are and what the Church teaches,” he said.
Boehner said he saw no distinction between holding onto one’s principles and working with others on compromises to forward the common good.
This has to be music to the ears of Jenkins, who invited both Biden and Boehner to Notre Dame. Political civility and compromise aren’t new topics for the Notre Dame president.
During his eleven-year presidency, Jenkins, a board member of the Commission on Presidential Debate, has been trying to create a broad space for civil dialogue at Notre Dame. It’s a gritty endeavor, and it doesn’t always make Jenkins popular.
In January 2013, he penned a strong Wall Street Journal op-ed calling on politicians to take a new approach to civil discourse:
“What if, instead of demonizing opponents, we took steps to persuade them?” Jenkins asked.
“If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns,” he wrote.
“I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can’t insult them.”
“If we earnestly try to persuade, civility takes care of itself,” Jenkins said.
Listening, understanding, respect, and civility? Sounds like Notre Dame is on board with the Pope Francis agenda.
That’s not a bad place to be for the nation’s most prominent Catholic university.
Christopher J. Hale is executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.