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Dispelling the toxicity

| Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The University’s decision earlier this month to award the Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner at the 2016 Commencement Ceremony has ignited an array of debate and controversy across campus. The Observer has reported in detail on the different reactions resulting from the decision and has been the primary platform for students to criticize its implications, which started just days after the announcement when a student petition and accompanying letter denounced the University’s commitment to awarding Biden the medal given his history of supporting the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage in his political career.

A separate Letter to the Editor followed, which asked dissenters of the University’s decision to not lose sight of the importance of all facets of Catholic Social Teaching when judging the worthiness of this year’s honorees. Specifically, the authors emphasized Boehner’s views on immigration and environmental issues, which have contradicted pretty plainly the principles of various elements of Catholic Social Teaching.

Assuredly, much of what can be said about these contentious decisions has already been spoken, but what cannot be forgotten about in this holistic discussion is the simple, yet important fact that there is nothing near a perfect intersection between the Catholic Church and politics in the United States, which should be the case in a country that was founded heavily on an ethos of religious freedom. In fact, statistics from the most recent presidential election show that no party came close to having a notable majority of the support of Catholic voters and that should be the expectation for the upcoming election this November.

Essentially, the University could have chosen any politician from each of Biden and Boehner’s respective parties and comparable protest would have resulted. Therefore, a reasonable argument could be made that politicians should be avoided altogether in the selection of its recipients; in recent history, that has largely been the case — New York Senator Dan Moynihan was the last practicing politician to receive the honor in 1992.

Certainly, University President Fr. John Jenkins knew when the choice was made to honor Biden and Boehner that a significant share of demurral would follow even though the University’s explanation clearly dictated that it did not wish to endorse policy positions of either politician with its decisions. Ultimately, he and the University decided that the benefits of attempting to dispel the toxicity of contemporary politics outweighed the inevitable disapproval and criticism that ensued and will continue to effervesce from now until graduation.

Given the Catholic lens that is the basis for the entirety of the criteria for judging Laetare honorees, objections can undeniably be made against both of this year’s recipients. However, when criticizing, dissenters should realize that there is no genuine Catholic political party in the United States and thus try to avoid forms of debating that are a microcosm of the “toxic political environment” that the University was trying to nullify when making these decisions in the first place.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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