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Laetare medal misstep

| Thursday, March 17, 2016

Earlier this month, the University of Notre Dame announced this year’s Laetare Medal recipients. According to the University website, the award, which has been awarded since 1883, “is presented annually to an American Catholic in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society.” In order to emphasize its significance, the university website notes that the medal “is considered the oldest and most prestigious award for American Catholics.”

This year, the University of Notre Dame decided to give the prestigious Laetare medal to two men: Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. When I learned that Joe Biden would be receiving the Laetare medal, I was gravely disappointed. The decision to award Biden upsets me and I am not even Catholic. Given that I am Protestant, some may wonder why I am so passionately disappointed with the University’s decision. Some may even question whether I have the right to judge the University’s decision. The reason for my disappointment is found in the decision’s inherent hypocrisy. One does not need to be Catholic to recognize blatant inconsistencies between a description of an award and the words and actions of its recipient.

While I recognize that Joe Biden is a Catholic who has garnered immense success within the American political system, I also am forced to acknowledge the fact that Biden’s success is filled with support of ideas and legislation that are indisputably and absolutely opposed to basic Catholic doctrine. Joe Biden vocally supports the legality of abortion and has displayed so through his voting record.

The National Right to Life Committee, which rates politicians based on the degree to which they support legislation that protects the unborn, has given Vice President Biden extremely low ratings throughout his political career, often times rating his support for legislation protecting the unborn at zero percent. Conversely, Biden scored very high with the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice America, often receiving ratings of 100 percent for supporting legislation that furthered the pro-abortion cause. This voting record is in direct conflict with Catholic doctrine. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” Biden’s political history is not in line with this doctrine. Joe Biden has chosen not to utilize his power and influence to protect the unborn.

It is important to note that I do not intend for this article to be a political cheap shot at the Vice President. My political affiliation has nothing to do with my disappointment with the University’s decision. I respect the Vice President and do not doubt that he is a faithful Catholic. However, the fact of the matter is Joe Biden has endorsed a position that is against a fundamental moral principle of the Church. While this obviously does not mean he can not be Catholic, it does mean that he can not be awarded the “most prestigious award for American Catholics.” I would love for the University to invite Joe Biden to speak and engage in discussion, as that is the purpose of true education. However, presenting the Vice President with the Laetare Medal is wrong, and it undermines the meaning of what the award represents.

In addition to evaluating the University’s decision to award Joe Biden, it is also important to assess the decision to award the Laetare Medal to former Speaker of the House John Boehner. However, I believe that judging the decision to give the Laetare Medal to John Boehner is much more difficult. While Joe Biden’s political history presents a rather stark divergence from the Church on a core fundamental principle, the grievances many have with John Boehner receiving the award seem to center on issues that are less black and white in terms of Church doctrine.

Some would argue that the former Speaker is misaligned with the Church on the issue of immigration, maintaining that Boehner is in favor of overly stringent immigration laws. Others may insist that Boehner’s position on social welfare programs are inconsistent with the Church.

Given that I am not Catholic, I find it hard to judge whether Boehner’s positions are in line with the Church. I do know that the Catholic Church, and Christianity as a whole, is open to all and embraces immigrants. I also know that many within the Church disagree over what specific laws should be in place and how they should be enforced. Similarly, I know that the Catholic Church, and Christianity as a whole, is devoted to serving the poor and disenfranchised. However, there are many disagreements amongst prominent Catholics over the methods of serving the poor and the role government should play. Social welfare programs and immigration policy are hotly debated within the Catholic, and there is often not a clear answer.

I do not know if John Boehner is deserving of the Laetare Medal. Being a part of a different sect of Christianity makes it difficult for me to judge whether someone’s positions are in line with the Catholic Church unless there is explicit and generally agreed-upon teaching on the matter.

What I do know, however, is that Joe Biden should not be given the Laetare Medal. The reason I am able to say so is due to the stark contrast between Vice President Biden’s support for abortion and the explicit and universally agreed-upon doctrine within the Church that emphasizes the importance of protecting the unborn. I believe that an award that is, according to Notre Dame’s statement on the matter, supposed to honor those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity” should not be bestowed upon an individual who actively promotes the legality of abortion. Supporting and promoting legislation that is associated with the murders of thousands of innocent human lives each day is not enriching the “heritage of humanity” but rather harming it.

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

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About Eddie Damstra

Eddie is a junior from Orland Park, Illinois. He is majoring in Economics and Political Science with a minor in Constitutional Studies and plans on pursuing law school after his time as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame.

Contact Eddie
  • Gary

    Kudos to you! A freshman at Notre Dame has more common sense that the President and Trustees of Notre Dame!

  • Thanks to Mr. Damstra for his clear explanation of what should have been glaringly obvious to Father Jenkins and his associates — but have I missed something else, a report by the Observer of the statement by Bishop Rhoades strongly criticizing the administration’s decision? I do not see a reference in “related stories” and do not recall seeing an account. I hope I am wrong.

  • So what about Representative Boehner’s leadership in marshaling House Republicans in passing numerous pieces of legislation that ran/run contrary to Catholic Social Teaching?

    • Johnny Whichard

      What issue trumps the murdering of over 1 million innocent Americans every year?

      • RandallPoopenmeyer

        Maybe murdering the birthed overseas?

        • Johnny Whichard

          The USA doesn’t murder over 1 million people overseas every year.

          • RandallPoopenmeyer

            But millions here die because they lack a body to save them. Have you provided a minimum of 9 months worth of blood, bone marrow, or given up a kidney or part of your liver? Don’t worry, your liver will grow back to normal size. You are guilty of murder if abortion is also murder.

          • Johnny Whichard

            I’m failing to see the point you tried to make…

          • MC

            This is a ridiculous argument for abortion. If giving blood is the same as carrying a child, all this comparison says is that there is no moral imperative to get pregnant–just as there is no moral imperative to donate your body. However, once you are pregnant (have made the decision to donate your body), there is a clear moral imperative to refrain from terminating the pregnancy. For example, imagine you donate your kidney–or even imagine it is taken without your consent. Do you have a right to take it back from the person who received the transplant? After all, it is your kidney. That is the real equivalent to be drawn if we are talking about our bodies supporting the lives of others.

            Furthermore, there is a clear distinction between killing and letting die. If I pick up a gun and shoot someone, I am guilty of murder. If I eat three meals a day and someone else is starving to death (which is unfortunately a reality everyone on this campus is likely currently experiencing) am I guilty of murder as well?

            Lastly, I do think it is a little ridiculous to ignore the role of natural reproduction and the reality of human development in all of this. The only way humans can develop is through pregnancy and every human on earth has benefitted from this natural process. The same cannot be said for organ donation.

      • Impoverishing millions each year, which certainly doesn’t support “life”.

    • Erik

      While what exactly the best way of helping the poor is is not doctrine (though I agree that Bohener’s methods aren’t as effective), let’s for the moment concede that Boehner shouldn’t be receiving the medal. Great, now the university has failed in both of its choices on who to award the medal too! I’m not sure how that makes things better.

    • MC

      Democrats also do that. But the Church does not rule in absolutes on political economy. It does rule in absolutes on the issue of abortion. Sorry VP.

      • MJ

        So the rule (or test?) is always “Does this person support the Church’s position on abortion?” for absolutely any award, honor, position, level of authority, etc. If that’s the case, the Church should just be clear about that, and reduce it’s teaching to:

        Rule 1: We’re against abortion and you must always oppose it.

        Rule 2: Nothing else comes before Rule 1.

        Rule 3: Here’s a whole bunch of other things that might be important, but aren’t really, because see Rule 1.

        I don’t mean this to be snide, but that’s basically what I read and hear every. single. time. And while the University is Catholic in character, it is independent of the authority of Rome.

        • McLovin

          Well if you consider life to begin at conception, then essentially your position is saying something like “Well if you were responsible for the mass murder of millions of people, it’s okay because other factors such as helping the poor, etc. make up for…killing millions of people.” Of course, if you believe life begins when one can feel pain or when one doesn’t have to “leech” off someone else’s body you would hold a different view.

          However, the Catholic Church took the position that life begins at conception, so the logic makes more sense than you’re giving it credit for.

        • MC

          The reason it comes off as snide is because you fundamentally ignored what I said. You cannot receive an award from a Catholic institution, says the Vatican, if you have supported or condoned a grave moral sin, like abortion or the death penalty, among others. The Church has principles about personal wealth and political economy, but there is room for debate on these issues. I would say our current pope believes both Republicans and Democrats have violated the economic principles he sees as being laid out in Catholic Social teaching (which are very, very far left, I might add, and probably not possible in the current US political and economic system).
          I don’t think either of them deserve the award. Neither have really dedicated their professional lives to living out Catholic Social Teaching, though I have no doubt each was following their own moral compass. Both violated principles of CST. But if we are talking about who violated Catholic teaching more, it is undoubtably VP Biden.

          • MJ

            MC, I can see why think I ignored what you said, though I disagree that’s what I did. My point is that all I ever hear/read/see is “Abortion. Full Stop. Nothing Else.” No other grave moral sins count. I find that frustrating, in light of exactly the other things you bring up. Or maybe it’s that I find it frustrating that the issue is so wrapped up in our politics.

      • RandallPoopenmeyer

        I am pretty sure the bible was very clear on certain economic rules. You know, the whole it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the kingdom of god.
        Boehner is estimated to be worth at least a million…

        • MC

          There is room for debate on economic policies that fit into Catholic social teaching, and both parties have violated principles of CST with respect to political economy to some degree. But again, there is no ambiguity in the Church’s stance on issues of life (which includes, I might add, the death penalty–a Republican-supported issue).

  • Jayce

    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.”

    • Jayce

      That’s a quote from Father jenkins

      • Johnny Whichard

        Shows what a “leader” he is, doesn’t it? “We don’t stand for anything…but at least these politicians are trying!”

    • Emmett

      Jayce, while I understand the motive for giving the Laetare Medal to Mr. Biden is an attempt to commend bipartisanship in a fragmented political climate, I disagree with the decision. I disagree because this great Catholic university is attempting to distinguish a man’s service to the Church and society through bipartisanship from his actions that directly contradict Catholic social and moral teaching. To me it is scandalous to suggest that Biden has “illustrated the ideals of the Church” when his actions prove otherwise.

      • João Pedro Santos

        What about Boehner, who supports the death penalty (something which the Catholic Church opposes)? But by some reason you seem to only be concerned about Biden for his struggle for human rights.

  • RandallPoopenmeyer

    Jeesh is that all you guys care about, abortion? You know there are actually birthed people out there that could use help!

  • Annette Magjuka

    Both of these men are devout and practicing Catholics and their Catholicism is part of their public personas. I am proud that the university is honoring both of these great public servants. I agree with one more than the other, as most of us will. But I think Fr. Jenkins and the board made a great decision and commend them for it.

  • Emmett

    For anyone interested, here is an article from the National Catholic Register with the letter from Bishop Rhoades. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/notre-dames-bishop-criticizes-universitys-move-to-honor-biden/

  • João Pedro Santos

    “I do not know if John Boehner is deserving of the Laetare Medal.”
    Boehner supports the death penalty (something which the Catholic Church opposes). But you only care about the fact that Biden supports the right of a women to choose to terminate her pregnancy.
    Apparently right-wing extremists are OK with murder as long as the victim was already born and is not just a bunch of cells.

    • maize

      All you are is just a bunch of cells.

      • João Pedro Santos

        Not really. Do you know what “personhood” means?

  • NDaniels

    The controversy that Father John believes needs to be debated is in essence that erroneous belief that one can dissent from that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith. (Catholic Canon 750). Father John Jenkins has a fiduciary duty to not misrepresent our Catholic Faith. If he refuses to listen to the local Bishop, Bishop Rhoades, it is the duty of the USCCB, to make a statement of fraternal correction. If he refuses to listen to the USCCB, it is the duty of the Pope to make a statement of fraternal correction.


    “Formal cooperation involves actually intending an evil purpose, regardless of the extent of physical participation in executing the act, e.g., advising, counseling, promoting, or condoning an evil act – all constitute formal cooperation.”