Concerning the decision of Notre Dame to honor Vice-President Biden and former Speaker Boehner with the Laetare Medal
STATEMENT OF BISHOP RHOADES
In response to many inquiries, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the diocese where the University of Notre Dame is located, offers the following statement about the granting of the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame to Vice-President Joseph Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner:
The Laetare Medal is given by the University of Notre Dame ‘in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society.’ Several months ago, Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., the president of the university, discussed with me his consideration of conferring the Laetare Medal upon Vice-President Joseph Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner, two Catholics who have served in public office for many years, elected officials of different political parties. Father Jenkins made it clear to me that in recognizing Vice-President Biden and Speaker Boehner, Notre Dame would not be endorsing the policy positions of either, but rather, would be honoring them for their public service in politics. 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.
While I understand Notre Dame’s intentions in conferring the Laetare Medal upon Vice-President Biden and Speaker Boehner, I disagree with the decision. In dialogue with Father Jenkins about this matter some months ago, I shared with him my concerns with honoring the Vice-President. 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. The Church has continually urged public officials, especially Catholics, of the grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that supports or facilitates abortion or that undermines the authentic meaning of marriage. I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.
I realize that Notre Dame is trying to separate or distinguish the conferral of the Laetare Medal upon the recipients from their positions on public policies. I do not think this is realistically possible or intellectually coherent. To accomplish the goal of promoting cooperation, civility, and dialogue in American politics, I think it would have been better if Notre Dame had invited Vice-President Biden and Speaker Boehner to speak at Notre Dame on this topic rather than bestow an honor that can provoke scandal. My principal concern about this whole matter is scandal. In honoring a “pro-choice” Catholic who also has supported the redefinition of marriage, which the Church considers harmful to the common good of society, it can give the impression to people, including Catholics in political office, that one can be “a good Catholic” while also supporting or advocating for positions that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings.
Notre Dame serves the Church and my diocese in many exemplary ways and I strive to serve the community of Notre Dame through my active presence and involvement on campus. For the sake of the unity of the Church and the Church’s witness in society, I wish we could overcome disagreements which, at least in the public eye, can overshadow the good collaboration that goes on in other areas of Catholic life and mission.
We need to reflect more deeply on the meaning and significance of the bestowal of honors in relation to the Catholic identity and mission of our institutions. I would encourage Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges and universities to “raise the bar” in considering the granting of honors. I believe a higher standard is needed. There are many important values which we seek to teach, uphold, and live in our Catholic colleges and universities. These are the values we should look for in the lives of those we wish to honor. We should seek to honor those who act to protect human life and dignity from conception to natural death, who respect true marriage and the family, who promote peace, justice, religious freedom, solidarity, the integral development of the poor, the just treatment of immigrants, and care for creation. We should not honor those who may be exemplary in one area but gravely irresponsible in another.
If we honor Catholic politicians or public officials, we should make sure there is a basic consistency between their political decisions and sound Catholic moral and social teaching. We should not honor those who claim to personally accept Church teaching, but act contrary to that teaching in their political choices. We should choose for honors those whose lives and work are exemplary in witnessing to the Gospel and disqualify those who dissent from the truths and values we profess and hold dear. When we do so, when we “raise the bar,” so to speak, we not only avoid scandal, but we also have an opportunity to recognize and thank authentic witnesses to the Catholic faith for their fidelity. We also lift them up in a way that may inspire others to imitate their example.
Pope Francis is calling all of us to embrace the challenge of a missionary spirituality. He refers to “a sort of inferiority complex which leads to relativizing or concealing our Christian identity and convictions.” He also warns against a “spiritual worldliness that consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory.” I think this counsel is also relevant in decisions about conferring honors.
I recommend to all the document of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Though it does not directly address the issue of awards to public officials, I believe it gives important principles relevant to this matter and can be a helpful guide in discerning criteria for bestowing honors.