Debate over consistency with university’s Catholic identity

The university’s announcement on March 5 that Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner will jointly receive this year’s Laetare Medal has triggered heated debates across campus and beyond.

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.”

On March 18, a letter signed by 89 students and entitled “Objections to the Laetare Medal decision” was published in the The Observer.

The letter critiques the reasoning of university president Father John Jenkins, CSC, that in bestowing the honor upon both men, the university is not endorsing their policy positions but is instead seeking to recognize them for civility and willingness to work across the political aisle. The letter states, “By awarding the Laetare Medal to Biden and Boehner, the University discredits the award, which ought to honor an American Catholic for service to the Church and society rather than make a point about the character of political dialogue.”

The letter cites Biden’s record as “one of the most rabidly partisan senators” who has opposed Church teaching on issues such as embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, same-sex marriage, the HHS mandate, and abortion. “Biden’s positions on all these issues are directly contrary to Church teaching. His public service has not been ‘to the Church,’ but largely against the Church,” the letter states.

In addition, the letter references the injunction of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in “Catholics in Public Life,” which states, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Henry Dickman, a junior accounting and economics major, was one of the 89 students who signed the letter. He told the Rover, “Awarding the Laetare medal to pro-abortion, pro-death penalty politicians seems to insinuate that a person can pick and choose which aspects of the Catholic faith to follow and still be a role model for living a good, Christian life. But the sanctity of life isn’t something that any human has the right to compromise, and someone truly worthy of this honor should understand that.”

Graduate student Alex Roth also signed the letter opposing the decision. “My objection is essentially two-fold,” he explained to the Rover. “First, the purpose of this honor is about service to Church and society. Have either of our honorees made more ‘outstanding contributions’ to the Church (or the state) than the Little Sisters of the Poor, to name but one example?”

Roth continued, “My second objection is Vice President Biden’s failure to adequately defend the lives of voiceless unborn babies. Being disciples of Jesus Christ means following him always, everywhere, and in all things. The Laetare Medal should recognize those who honor God, all that is truly human, and the goodness of creation. Our school, as leaders in Catholic education and thought, must confess on our lips the gospel of life with clarity and consistency for those whose voices go unheard.”

Currently, 346 Notre Dame undergraduate and graduate students have signed the letter.

The Notre Dame Right to Life Club wrote a letter dated March 25 and published April 1 in The Observer entitled “Undermining the Notre Dame identity,” which views the university’s decision to honor Biden and Boehner, who have supported policies against Church teaching, as inconsistent with the university’s Catholic identity.

Not all students responded in opposition to Notre Dame’s decision. Sophomores Jake Maginn and Micaela Powers objected to the original letter in their March 21 piece published in the The Observer entitled “Catholic Social Teaching and Laetare honorees.”

Maginn and Powers acknowledge that Biden’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage oppose Church teaching, but they state that the letter’s focus on Biden’s views, while neglecting the fact that Boehner’s “political positions regarding immigration, environmental issues and capital punishment are lacking in the face of Catholic Social Teaching (CST),” reveals its “obvious partisan bias.”

Maginn and Powers conclude, “We do not wish to endorse or refute either awardees’ worthiness to receive this honor, but simply call on dissenters of the University’s decision to acknowledge the importance of all Catholic Social Teachings, not simply those they believe are the most important.”

Freshman Lucas Masin-Moyer also opposed the original letter in his March 31 letter published in the The Observer entitled, “Equality of Outrage.” Like Maginn and Powers, Masin-Moyer acknowledged that Biden’s views on life issues oppose Catholic teaching, but he says Boehner’s positions also oppose principles of Catholic social teaching and merit equal outrage.

In an interview with the Rover, sophomore Julio Salazar explained his support of the Laetare Medal decision. When he first heard about the decision, he was confused. “As a medal which is the highest award for a Catholic … I wasn’t sure either Vice President Biden or John Boehner deserved that kind of recognition as outstanding Catholics,” he explained. “But I supported Fr. Jenkins’ reasons behind it: trying to bring conversation and about working together … So I supported that he chose both of them for a specific reason: that Biden and Boehner are both Catholics and on opposite sides of the aisle.”

Salazar continued, “I didn’t expect the fallout that came from it. When I heard the one-sidedness of it, everyone was anti-Biden … I was unhappy with it.”

He said that Boehner has likewise opposed Catholic teachings by being “pro-death penalty, [receiving an] A-rating from the NRA, and voting against and stopping debate about immigration reform and undocumented aliens and families.”

“I don’t understand why it has to be a one-sided argument,” Salazar continued. “I don’t think it’s abortion versus everything else … I don’t know that you can make the distinction that pro-choice is pro-abortion.”

He said, “For me, perhaps the Laetare Medal was not the way to go. Perhaps giving both of them honorary degrees and having them speak at graduation would be more helpful, because you’re not recognizing that they are outstanding Catholics.”

Yet Salazar maintained his support of Fr. Jenkins’ decision, which he says is in concord with the university’s mission. “Honoring both of them is great for this university,” he said. “Having the Vice President and former Speaker of the House speaking at this university is really going to the mission of what Father Jenkins and what I want to see this university become, of bringing in big names and being recognized as a top-tier university.”

From the co-signers of the original letter, a coalition of students and student groups opposing the decision formed to plan actions moving forward, including a prayer service on Sunday, April 17, at 2 p.m. Sponsoring groups include the Notre Dame Right to Life Club, Identity Project, Militia of the Immaculata, Notre Dame Law School groups Jus Vitae and the St. Thomas More Society, Catholic Graduate Community, and the Irish Rover.

On April 1, co-signers of the letter authored a request to Fr. Jenkins to meet with the CSC members of the Board of Fellows. On April 5, Fr. Jenkins responded by denying the co-signers a meeting.

Fr. Jenkins explained that the Laetare Medal decision rested ultimately with him. He stated, “In the coming days, I will take steps to clarify my decision not only for you, but for the entire campus community and the wider public.”

Some students have expressed the need to actively respond in opposition to the inconsistency they perceive between the university’s decision and its Catholic identity.

On behalf of Right to Life, freshman Matt Connell, Vice President of On-Campus Operations for the upcoming school year, explained to the Rover the role of students in responding to university decisions. [Editor’s Note: Connell is the Politics & Economics editor of the Rover.] “It is important for students to actively and publicly respond to this decision in order to show our concern with honoring Catholic politicians who have rejected fundamental Church teaching on life,” Connell stated. “Awarding Biden and Boehner sends the message that it is acceptable to do so in the name of civility.”

Sophomore Nicole O’Leary, president of the Militia of the Immaculata (MI), told the Rover that MI objects to the decision based on the club’s Catholic mission. [Editor’s Note: O’Leary is Campus Editor of the Rover]. “In the context of a Catholic university, we believe that the best way to carry out our mission, given to us by St. Maximilian Kolbe, of leading ‘every individual with Mary to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus,’ is to cultivate an environment that encourages the discovery, development, and continuous living out of the faith,” she explained. “How can we, as an organization, continue to insist that this necessarily entails adherence to fundamental Catholic principles when the university suggests otherwise by honoring Catholics whose actions and policies are publicly defiant of these principles?”

P.J. Jedlovec, president of the Catholic Graduate Community, told the Rover that his group follows Bishop Rhoades in opposing the decision for its potential to cause scandal. He explained, “To give the Laetare Medal to a man who has so consistently failed to defend the unborn and actively worked against the Gospel truths on life and marriage is to make a mockery of this prestigious award. It effectively says, ‘As long as you play nice and get along with others, you are living an exemplary Catholic life.’”

He continued, “This decision does a grave injustice to the public. It falsely represents what our Catholic faith values and holds dear. It falsely represents what Notre Dame stands for as a Catholic university. And it deprives the public of the Gospel truths we are called to share with them.”

Mary Mangan, a third year law student and president of Jus Vitae, told the Rover, “Jus Vitae is dedicated to defending the right to life from conception to natural death. We oppose this decision, because it undermines Notre Dame’s commitment to promoting the sanctity of life,” she said.

Jedlovec said students have an obligation to voice their dissent to decisions that misrepresent the university and the Catholic faith. “For a lot of people in this country, Notre Dame represents the Catholic faith. By publicly bearing witness to the Church’s true teaching on life and marriage, we can show the general public that this decision does not reflect the views of the Notre Dame community as a whole, nor those of the Catholic Church,” he stated.

Students are not the only ones disappointed. William Dempsey, Chairman of Sycamore Trust, an alumni organization that works to promote and protect Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, organized an online petition addressed to the Fellows of the university that denounces honoring Biden and “[urges] the adoption of a policy that will preclude this or any award’s becoming a source of scandal and division and that will instead ensure they fully reflect the values Notre Dame aspires to teach.” The petition currently has over 2,700 signatures.

The Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life (UFL) passed a resolution on April 1 requesting that the university “rescind its award of the 2016 Laetare Medal.” UFL details Biden’s rejection of the truth of the “Church’s teaching about the sanctity of life” on the issues of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning. The resolution also mentioned both honorees’ support of the death penalty.

Agreeing with Bishop Rhoades, UFL declared, “[A]warding of the Laetare Medal to Vice-President Biden is a scandalous violation of the University’s moral responsibility (as the American bishops wrote in 2004) never to honor those who act in defiance of fundamental moral principles about the sanctity of life.”

Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture released a memorandum entitled “Civility, Dialogue, and Catholic Mission: A Proposed Framework for Notre Dame,” which was prompted by the controversy surrounding the Laetare Medal. It seeks to “[offer] a possible framework for how Notre Dame might, in the future, promote civility in public life and engage in dialogue with public figures (including the President of the United States) with whom we have strong disagreements, while also bearing witness to all the goods at the core of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission.”

With regards to the Laetare Medal, the memorandum concluded, “[T]he Laetare Medal is not a sufficiently fine-grained means of communication, nor is commencement a sufficiently nuanced context, for the university to convey the complex meaning it intended this year. As a result, there was public confusion about the relationship between the Medal and Notre Dame’s firm commitments.”

Dickman agreed that the Laetare Medal has created confusion. “The awarding of the Laetare Medal should be a booster shot to Catholics who are disturbed by modern cultural trends. But this year, the medal has done nothing but foster controversy,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who is excited about Vice President Biden or Speaker Boehner receiving the award; students are either ambivalent or disappointed. The entire aim of the award has been defeated this year.”

Stephanie Reuter is a sophomore studying PLS and theology. She is looking forward to the coming days of blissfully ignoring her email inbox with impunity. Until then, contact her at