In the middle of a particularly nasty election season, the University of Notre Dame is hoping to remind Americans that politics can be civil by awarding a prestigious prize to two Catholic politicians from opposing parties.
Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner will receive the Laetare Medal at the university’s commencement ceremony May 15.
“We live in a toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership,” Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said in a statement. “Public confidence in government is at historic lows, and cynicism is high. It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public service in politics look like. We find it in the lives of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner.”
Jenkins said that Boehner and Biden were chosen because they each challenged their parties in an effort to govern effectively while trying to rise above the toxicity defining modern US politics.
“While both have been loyal and committed partisans, they were leaders who put the good of the nation ahead of partisan victory, seeking through respectful dialogue honorable compromise and progress,” he said. “Speaker Boehner’s resistance to a simple reductionism made him suspect in his own party; Vice President Biden reminded his fellow Democrats that those in the other party are ‘our opponents, not our enemies.’”
Biden is the nation’s first Catholic vice president, and he speaks often of the role his faith has played in his life. Boehner, a lifelong Catholic, worked for years to get a pope to address Washington lawmakers, ultimately succeeding last fall when Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress. Both men greeted Francis at the Capitol and sat behind Francis during the speech. The next day, Boehner resigned.
During that speech, the pope called on politicians to work for the common good, and reiterated the Church’s stance on issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and immigration; both Biden and Boehner diverge from Church teaching on some of those issues.
The University of Notre Dame came under fire from some conservative Catholics for its decision to award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama in 2009. Bishop John D’Arcy, who was then bishop of the region that includes Notre Dame, decided to skip the ceremony. Some graduates silently protested the president’s stance on abortion, while others in the crowd hurled insults.
The winner of the Laetare Medal that year, Mary Ann Glendon, a former ambassador to the Vatican, chose not to accept the prize because of Obama’s presence at commencement. A previous winner gave the speech that year, and no medal was awarded.
In announcing the honors for Biden and Boehner, the university sought to preempt any criticism for supporting specific political positions.
“In recognizing both men, Notre Dame is not endorsing the policy positions of either, but celebrating two lives dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good through dialogue focused on the issues and responsible compromise,” Jenkins said.
The Laetare Medal has been awarded since 1883 to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity,” according to the university. It is named for the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, the Latin word for “rejoice.”
Previous medal recipients include President John F. Kennedy, actor Martin Sheen, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, actress Helen Hayes, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.
At May’s ceremony, the university will give an honorary degree to Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Retired US Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, will deliver the commencement speech.