(Editor's note: This story was updated on March 14 to include the news of Bishop Kevin Rhoades' statement disagreeing with Notre Dame's decision).
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Seven years after President Barack Obama received an honorary degree and delivered a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame that sparked pro-life protests and objections from dozens of bishops, Vice President Joe Biden will be awarded the university’s prestigious Laetare Medal.
Notre Dame will also present former House Speaker John Boehner with the Laetare Medal during commencement ceremonies on May 15. Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the university president, said the two are being honored against the backdrop of a toxic political environment, where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership.
But as they did in 2009, pro-life leaders and Catholic observers are blowing the whistle because Biden, a Democrat and a lifelong, outspoken Catholic, supports policies that are at odds with the Church’s moral teachings on life and the sanctity of marriage.
“Apparently, some at Notre Dame still don’t get it. And this time, matters are made worse, because the pro-abortion public official being honored claims to be Catholic,” said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.
Biden said the Catholic faith “defines who I am” during the 2012 vice-presidential debate, but he has also said that he supports Roe v. Wade, arguing that he cannot force his personal acceptance that life begins at conception on other people. He has embraced homosexual rights and praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that legalized same-sex “marriage.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was also compelled to correct the vice president’s statements during the 2012 debate that the federal government’s contraceptive mandate did not force religious institutions to provide birth control in employee health-insurance plans.
And at least two bishops, Bishop John Ricard of the Diocese of Tallahassee-Pensacola, Fla., in 2008, and Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2012, have indicated that they do not believe Biden should present himself to receive Communion in light of his support for policies that conflict with fundamental Church teachings.
Father Jenkins: Not a Policy Endorsement
“Public confidence in government is at historic lows, and cynicism is high,” Father Jenkins said in his prepared statement about the decision to honor the two prominent politicians. “It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public service in politics look like. We find it in the lives of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner.”
Father Jenkins said that by recognizing Biden and Boehner, the university “is not endorsing the policy positions of either,” but celebrating the lives of two men “dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good through dialogue focused on the issues and responsible compromise.”
Boehner, a Republican, also drew objections from several Catholic scholars when he delivered the 2011 commencement address at The Catholic University of America. The scholars wrote a letter to the former House speaker accusing his legislative agenda of ignoring Catholic social teaching’s preferential option for the poor by gutting government social programs.
Charles Camosy, a moral theologian at Fordham University and board member at Democrats for Life, told the Register that Boehner and Biden are both “flawed and have deeply problematic positions on issues which are central to Catholicism.”
Said Camosy, “Still, yes, both have a ridiculously impressive record of public service — a record which demonstrates, especially in light of our current politics, a willingness to engage seriously with those who disagree. Notre Dame decided to honor two men who did politics in a time where bridge-building was honorable.”
The Register requested an interview with Father Jenkins, but Dennis Brown, a Notre Dame spokesman, said the press release provides the university’s perspective.
By awarding Biden and Boehner, William Dempsey, chairman of the Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned with the university’s Catholic identity, told the Register that the university has turned the Laetare Medal into an instrument of contentious political commentary.
“In reciting the political achievements of Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden, Notre Dame in effect takes their side against their critics,” said Dempsey, adding that the university’s officers have drafted the Laetare Medal “into the service of Father Jenkins’ intense interest in the character of political dialogue.”
Dempsey also accused the university of turning the Laetare Medal into “an instrument of scandal.”
“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,” Dempsey said. “On all these crucial issues, the vice president’s service has been not ‘to the Church,’ but against the Church.”
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit with the stated mission to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” told the Register that awarding the Laetare Medal to Biden “is one of the most deceptive things that Father Jenkins has done since becoming president.”
Reilly noted that, according to Notre Dame’s website, the Laetare Medal is awarded annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
“It is not an award for political cooperation on Capitol Hill,” Reilly said, adding that the polarization and gridlock in Washington coincides with the congressional tenures of both Biden and Boehner.
“It is a deceptive way of giving an award to a very pro-abortion Catholic, in the wake of the disastrous honor to President Obama in 2009,” Reilly said.
The 2009 Controversy
More than 367,000 people signed an online petition voicing their objection to Obama’s commencement speech in 2009, and 83 Catholic bishops in the United States also opposed the president’s appearance at Notre Dame. On the day of Obama’s visit, hundreds of pro-life activists and Notre Dame students protested, some carrying signs that said, “Shame on Notre Dame.” More than 20 people were arrested on trespassing charges.
“We had an alternate commencement ceremony, in which the students’ commitment to defending the most vulnerable among us, the unborn, was highlighted and honored,” Father Pavone said.
Bishop John D’Arcy, former bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, boycotted the commencement. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, who was to receive the Laetare Medal that year, declined to accept the award and did not attend the ceremony.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades, the current bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said on March 14, "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."
In the 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life,” the U.S. bishops said that “failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice.” The document also prohibited Catholic institutions from honoring those “who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” with “awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
Calling the university’s decision to award Biden a “clear violation” of the bishops’ directive, Dempsey said that “one does not need episcopal guidance to see that students and the public will reasonably regard Notre Dame’s action as a wink and a nod toward dissent from Church teaching on this wide range of vital issues.”
The Notre Dame announcement follows closely on the news that a student group at Georgetown University is inviting Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to speak on campus next month.
Richards’ upcoming speech on a Catholic university campus has also sparked protests, including a statement from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington.
Cardinal Wuerl will receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame during the May 15 commencement ceremony where Biden and Boehner will receive their Laetare Medals from the university. His office told the Register that he would not comment about the situation at Notre Dame.
But Cardinal Wuerl wrote this week on his blog about the identity of Catholic universities, saying that those institutions should provide a “unique forum” where the Gospel can be explored, more deeply understood and lived.
Wrote the cardinal, “If the moral climate and ethical texture of a Catholic university is no different than any secular institution of higher education, it loses its claim to distinctiveness and the label ‘Catholic’ becomes simply a reference to an earlier era.”
Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.