In controversial decision, Notre Dame honors Biden, Boehner with award for outstanding service to the Church

The university announced on March 5 that Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner will jointly receive this year’s Laetare Medal. The Laetare Medal, which will be awarded at commencement on May 15, is “presented annually to an American Catholic in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society. It is considered the oldest and most prestigious award for American Catholics.”

In the university press release announcing the news, University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, offers an explanation of the university’s decision. “We live in a toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership,” Jenkins said. “It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public services in politics looks like. … 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.”

The United States bishops write, in their document on Catholics in political life, that, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Biden is a Catholic who served as one of Delaware’s two Senators for 36 years before becoming vice president in 2009. He has repeatedly applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. For some of his years in the Senate, he received a rating of zero from pro-life groups. Biden supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and voted against a ban on human cloning. He embraces same-sex marriage and the HHS mandate, which requires religious institutions such as Notre Dame to facilitate coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients under its healthcare plans—Notre Dame itself is suing the federal government for relief from this mandate. Biden’s positions on all these issues are directly contrary to Church teaching. Two bishops have indicated that Biden should not present himself to receive Communion in light of his support for policies that conflict with fundamental tenets of the Church’s moral teaching.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend released a statement condemning Notre Dame’s decision to award the medal to Biden on March 14. In his statement (reproduced in full in this issue of the Rover), Bishop Rhoades explains that Fr. Jenkins sought his counsel prior to Notre Dame’s announcement of the recipients of the medal. Bishop Rhoades told Fr. Jenkins at the time that, while he understood the university’s intentions, he disagreed with the decision:

“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,” Rhoades wrote.

“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,” the letter continued. “I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.”

The Bishop went on to encourage Notre Dame to “raise the bar” when it comes to the granting of honors. He writes, “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 … 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.”

Notre Dame’s decision has raised concerns from many quarters, and also has recalled memories of the protests that took place when the university conferred an honorary degree upon commencement speaker President Barack Obama at the graduation ceremony in 2009.

William Dempsey (’52), Chairman of Sycamore Trust, told the Rover that the university has turned the Laetare Medal into an instrument of political commentary.

“In reciting the political achievements of Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden, Notre Dame in effect takes their side against their critics,” Dempsey explained. “The Notre Dame officers might be right or wrong, but they are without any special qualifications, and there’s nothing specifically Catholic about any of this. The officers seem simply to have drafted the Laetare Medal into the service of Father Jenkins’s intense interest in the character of political dialogue.

“But the Notre Dame officers have misused the Laetare Medal in a much more important way: They have made it an instrument of scandal,” Dempsey continued.  “Vice President Biden supports Roe v. Wade, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, same sex marriage, and the abortifacient/contraception mandate. That is, it should be noted, he opposes Notre Dame’s claims of religious liberty. On all these crucial issues, the Vice President’s service has been not ‘to the Church,’ but against the Church.”

In his statement, Bishop Rhoades noted that his central concern with this decision is scandal. Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, Professor of History, agrees with this concern. He told the Rover, “By conferring the award on Biden, Notre Dame misuses the Laetare Medal, which is meant to honor Catholics for their genuine and faith-inspired accomplishments, in order to promote an ill-conceived political agenda.

“The University administration offers an embarrassing gimmick apparently designed to make Notre Dame seem relevant,” Fr. Miscamble continued. “Instead, the award to Vice President Biden simply cheapens the significance of the Laetare Medal. It also damages Notre Dame’s commitment to the pro-life cause both on campus and beyond it.”

Father Miscamble also noted that the university is honoring “the second-highest ranking individual in a presidential administration that the university, along with groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, is now suing on the grounds that its contraceptive mandate—which carries the threat of massive fines—violates our religious liberty.

“Bishop Rhoades had it exactly right when he described the Notre Dame action in honoring Vice President Biden as ‘intellectually incoherent,’” he concluded.

The Rover asked University Spokesman Dennis Brown to explain the university’s decision and, in particular, whether the university sees the award as not contradicting the U.S. bishops’ injunction against honoring public figures such as Biden, or, rather, judges that the bishop’s rule is mistaken.

Brown declined to comment, directing the Rover to “see our news release for the university’s perspective.”

Requests for comment from Cardinal Donald Wuerl—who will receive an honorary degree from the university this year—went unanswered as of the time of publication.

Father Thomas O’Hara, Provincial Superior of the Congregation of Holy Cross for the United States, declined to comment on Notre Dame’s decision and Bishop Rhoades’ statement.

Tim Bradley is a senior studying economics, theology, philosophy, and Constitutional Studies. Contact him at