Notre Dame gives Laetare Medal to Biden, Boehner over critics' objections

IMAGE: CNS photo/Barbara Johnston, University of Notre Dame

By Ann Carey

DAME, Ind. (CNS) — The University of Notre Dame conferred it prestigious
Laetare Medal on Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner
without incident at graduation May 15, but the controversy over the recipients still
hung in the air.

the moment the university announced the 2016 medal recipients March 5,
criticism swirled over the decision because the medal is supposed to honor
Catholics for “outstanding service to the church and society.”

critics find Biden, a Democrat, to be an inappropriate awardee because his
stand on abortion and his support for redefining marriage to legalize same-sex
marriage clash with church teachings. Some others find Boehner, a Republican, inappropriate
because of his support for the death penalty, which the church also opposes.

the Notre Dame president, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, has defended the choice,
saying that the two men are not being honored for policy positions but for
their public service and dedication to civility in public discourse.

Jenkins struck that chord again when he addressed the two medal winners at
graduation before the conferral of the award, noting that each man had
legislative achievements for which everyone should be grateful.

of you, we must acknowledge, have cast votes and taken positions about which many
among us have reservations — in some cases grave moral reservations,” the
priest said. “We cannot and do not turn a blind eye to such reservations.
We award you today the Laetare Medal not to endorse particular positions you’ve
taken or votes you’ve cast, but because each of you have given your lives to
serve the common good in political leadership by your own best lights.”

similar note was struck in the Laetare Medal citation that was read by Richard
C. Notebaert, chairman of Notre Dame’s board of trustees.

citation said that the university was conferring its “highest honor, the
Laetare Medal,” on the two men “neither to advance your favorite
causes nor to advance your respective policies, but to celebrate two lives and
careers inspired by the Catholic call to service and admirably dedicated to the
alignment of our democratic institutions with the contours of the common good
through honest engagement with contentious issues, vigorous debate and responsible

the awardees were publicly announced in early March, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of
Fort Wayne-South Bend had advised Father Jenkins against giving Biden the
award. He explained this advice in a March 16 statement in which he wrote: “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,” and to do so would cause scandal.

should not honor those who claim to personally accept church teaching, but act
contrary to that teaching in their political choices,” Bishop Rhoades wrote,
explaining that “trying to separate or distinguish the conferral of the
Laetare Medal upon the recipients from their positions on public policies”
is not “realistically possible or intellectually coherent.”

Rhoades did not attend either the Notre Dame baccalaureate Mass a day earlier
or the graduation ceremony. Instead, he celebrated the baccalaureate Mass and
gave the graduation invocation at his alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s University
at Emmitsburg, Maryland, where his niece was in the graduating class.

Donald W. Wuerl of Washington celebrated Notre Dame’s baccalaureate Mass but did not attend graduation. When asked about Cardinal Wuerl’s opinion of the
Laetare Medal choices, an archdiocesan spokesperson said that the archdiocese
does not comment on matters in other dioceses, and referred to Bishop Rhoades’
March 16 statement.

their remarks after the conferral of the Laetare Medal, neither Biden nor
Boehner referred to the controversy, but spoke instead of the necessity to find
common ground.

told the graduates that common ground can be found without compromising one’s
core beliefs, and that he and Biden had been able to find common ground even
though they disagree on many issues. He advised the graduates that deciding
what their future jobs will be is not as important as deciding what kind of
people they will be.

credited Pope Francis and former Notre Dame football coaches Gerry Faust — who
coached Boehner in high school — and Lou Holtz with helping him decide who he
was going to be and what he would do with his life.

cited Pope Francis’ remarks to the U.S. Congress last September, when the pope
told the lawmakers that their responsibility was pursuit of the common good. Calling
the Notre Dame graduates “the most educated and the most tolerant
generation” in the history of this country, he urged them to “engage
in the tireless pursuit of finding common ground, because not only will you be
happier, you will be incredibly more successful.”

the personal losses in his own life, Biden urged the graduates to choose family
over career and to bounce back from setbacks they will experience.

small group of protesters from area pro-life groups gathered peacefully on the
public sidewalks at the main university entrance. Wearing his academic garb, Notre
Dame professor emeritus Daniel Costello joined them and held a sign that read “Abortion:
The Ultimate Child Abuse.”

told Catholic News Service that Biden has been opposed to almost everything the
church tries to do in the areas of life, marriage and family, and to honor a
person with that record sends the wrong message and is a source of scandal.

think it was a bad decision,” Costello said, “and I’d like to see us
get back to honoring people who are faithful to the church and faithful to
church teaching, particularly on important matters like life and marriage.”

said that feelings on campus on the matter were mixed, and he praised the 800-member
student pro-life group that offered an alternative to a sidewalk protest by
providing graduates and their relatives “precious feet” life pins
symbolizing the unborn to wear to commencement.

statement from the Notre Dame Right to Life group explained: “We believe
that this form of protesting is one of love and will still be respectful of the
graduates and their families as they are rejoicing in their graduation from Our
Lady’s university.”

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