“Magna est veritas et prevalebit.”
So reads the inscription of the Laetare Medal: “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”
The Laetare Medal, first awarded in 1883, is the most prestigious award for a practicing American Catholic. It is derived from an 11th century tradition in which the pope would award a Golden Rose to monarchs or churches as a type of blessing. Most recently, Pope Francis conferred a Golden Rose on the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The University of Notre Dame, however, chooses to recognize an American for not only his or her clear devotion to the Church, but also for his or her conscious incorporation of these values into professional work. Through this action, the university shows America its role as a premier institution of higher learning: supporting the idea that men and women can be strong in their faith and have successful professional careers.
In recent years especially, with the increasing encroachment of modern “progress” on Catholic education, the recognition of inspiring American Catholic intellectuals is crucial. To this end, on March 30, 2014, the University of Notre Dame announced Kenneth R. Miller as the 2014 recipient of the Laetare Medal.
Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University, specializing in the structure and function of plant photosynthetic membranes. He earned his BS at Brown University and his PhD at the University of Colorado. He worked for six years at Harvard University before returning to teach at Brown.
His scientific work coincides with his faith in the area of evolution: For most of his professional career, Miller has striven to counter the creationist and intelligent design approaches to the origin of the human species through both debates and his academic writings.
He has written Finding Darwin’s God and Only a Theory, explaining how scientific understanding does not inhibit belief in God. In Only a Theory, he explicitly states that he is not “reconciling” evolution and faith because they are not in conflict and thus do not need reconciliation. His is an extremely important justification, especially today when science and faith are constantly portrayed as incompatible. The classic confrontation between science and faith is dismantled by Miller’s witness and work, revealing that the two realms actually work together towards the truth.
In an interview back in 2004, Miller expressed the struggle he and others have faced in being people of faith, especially as scientists: “It is difficult to live a life as a committed person of faith in most American universities, not because faith is persecuted or suppressed, but rather because faith is not taken seriously … My faculty colleagues respect [observant Christians, Jews, or Muslims], even though many of them respect it in an almost condescending way [because] everybody knows that serious scientists are just too smart to give credence to religion.”
His becomes a much-needed witness to the scientific community and is, therefore, rightly recognized.
The Laetare Medal is always awarded on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. Laetare in Latin means “rejoice, a foreshadowing of the great joy to come at Easter, where Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life—is resurrected for all mankind.” On Laetare Sunday and at Easter, therefore, we are rejoicing in the truth. We can similarly rejoice in the truth found by scientific research in our world today.
Miller’s work in science reflects the truth about the natural world; he professes truth through his faith. Miller’s example shows that truth cannot contradict truth; thus, science and faith are intimately interwoven and very compatible with one another. The university acknowledges this understanding by awarding the Laetare Medal to Miller.
This is an important step for the university to take as it moves forward as a great research university. Father Edward Sorin, upon instituting this award, did not know the full extent to which this university would pursue truth. Awarding this medal to a scientist suggests that Notre Dame does intend to follow Fr. Sorin’s call to love the truth in the modern age. Miller understands that the truth will prevail through all modes of professional service but especially through science and faith.