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Students, faculty react to Laetare Medal decision

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016

When the University conferred an honorary degree to President Barack Obama in 2009, members of the campus community were quick to express their opinions on the controversial choice. Now, Notre Dame students and faculty are once again debating the religious and political implications of a University decision.

Laetare Medal WEBSusan Zhu | The Observer

Notre Dame will jointly award the Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner at the 2016 Commencement Ceremony, the University announced in a press release on March 6.

“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,” Jenkins said in the release.

Sophomore Jack Kill, one of 89 students who signed an Observer Viewpoint objecting to the University’s decision, said he was disappointed when the honorees were announced.

“The Laetare Medal should be an award that we grant to individuals who have performed exemplary actions to further or help the Church and society,” he said. “Unfortunately, as we well know in American society, it’s very hard to further both your country and your church.”

Senior Janelle Wanzek, president of Notre Dame Right to Life, said she thinks awarding Biden and Boehner with the medal conflicts with some of the University’s core Catholic values.

“Our club’s mission statement states that we’re working to promote and uphold the sanctity of all human life from conception until natural death, in the spirit of the Catholic Church,” she said. “We believe that through awarding this Catholic medal, Notre Dame is not in line with upholding the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

During his time in office, Biden has supported abortion, capital punishment and embryonic stem cell research, junior Emily Burns, vice president of events for Notre Dame Right to Life, said. Boehner has also supported the death penalty in certain cases, she said.

“The medal itself that’s given to the recipients bears the inscription that translates to ‘truth is mighty, and it shall prevail,’” Burns said. “The question that we’re asking as a club … is how can we bestow the most prestigious award for Catholics in America to leaders who fail to protect the most vulnerable, which is a basic element of justice and a fundamental truth of the Catholic faith?”

Fr. Bill Miscamble, professor of history, said he agrees with a statement released by Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades that criticized the University’s decision.

“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,” he said in an email.

Other members of the Notre Dame community said they support the selection of Biden and Boehner as joint honorees.  The decision makes a statement about political unity, senior Michelle McCarthy, co-president of College Democrats, said.

“I think it’s an interesting choice because I don’t think that Catholicism maps out neatly onto either one of these parties,” she said. “I think that we could make an argument that former Speaker Boehner has not done enough to promote fighting climate change, as the pope has talked about, or pushing through immigration reform, allowing us to provide preferential options for the poor.”

Junior Gracie Watkins, the other co-president of College Democrats, noted the importance of a current vice president and a former speaker of the House taking the time to visit Notre Dame’s campus.

“Notre Dame is a serious university and is taken as such in our nation’s highest offices. We should be proud, not dismayed, at the news of the joint award,” she said.

College Republicans declined to comment on the matter.

David Campbell, political science department chair, said he thinks the intent of the administration should be taken at face value.

“When Fr. Jenkins and his office says that the University wants to acknowledge civility and discourse, they want to acknowledge perspectives and viewpoints,” he said. “They want to provide a venue where people who disagree can come together and demonstrate there’s a greater cause than your own partisan position.

“I think that’s the statement that the University is making. And I think that is all for the good, both at Notre Dame and for those who might be paying attention beyond Notre Dame.”

Campbell said he was pleased to see Notre Dame recognize individuals in public life and elected office, something he said has not been done yet since Obama spoke in 2009.

“I think it’s perfectly appropriate for the University to recognize the vice president’s service to the country,” he said. “I also think it is appropriate to recognize the former speaker of the House, just on the basic principle that these are people who have held important positions, have done good work — who have put themselves out there in a way that many choose not to in their lives.”

The decision to award the Laetare Medal to Biden and Boehner was a bold one, John Duffy, associate professor of English, said. However, it sends the message that Notre Dame is concerned with the condition of public discourse, he said.

“I think it’s a good decision, and I hope it sends a message to the students of Notre Dame, first of all, and perhaps beyond Notre Dame, about the importance the University places on the qualities of engagement, generosity and tolerance, especially when dealing with those people whose beliefs and values are different from our own,” Duffy said.

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About Katie Galioto

Katie, the Observer's current Managing Editor, is a senior majoring in political science, with minors in Business Economics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She's a former Walsh Hall resident who now lives off campus and hails from Chanhassen, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter @katiegalioto.

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  • Newyorkmom

    Our Lady would not honor Biden, why should her University.

    • João Pedro Santos

      Yeah, she would rather honor xenophobic death penalty supporters who deny climate change.

      • maize

        To whom do you think the term Our Lady refers?

        • João Pedro Santos

          A Middle Eastern woman who was going to be stoned for being impregnated against her will. That is, a person who Republicans would hate.

          • maize

            So you never did your homework, ever.

          • João Pedro Santos

            My school records are none of your business. 🙂

          • John Robin

            João, that’s a ridiculous and asinine comment. First, Scripture is quite clear that Mary consented completely to God’s plan for her to give birth to the Messiah. When the plan was announced to her, she replied, “May it be done to me according to your word.” It wasn’t at all “against her will”.

            Your remark about Republicans hating pregnant women, frankly, is stupid and betrays a partisan, prejudiced outlook. You should really try to overcome your intolerance of people who may hold political positions different from your own.

          • João Pedro Santos

            Sorry for being “intolerant” of right-wing extremism.

          • John Robin

            If everyone who disagrees with you is an “extremist”, I don’t think you’ve overcome your intolerance quite yet. You’ll need to submit yourself to further sensitivity training. 😉

          • John Robin

            If everyone who disagrees with you is an “extremist”, I don’t think you’ve overcome your intolerance quite yet. I think it’s OK to be strongly opposed to a belief or philosophy. But to paint all Republicans (or all Democrats) with the broad brush of “hatred” is silly. Not all Republicans (or Democrats) believe the same things. Neither party is monolithic. I think it’s OK to be critical of ideas without being quick to attribute malice to people with opposing views.

          • Johnny Whichard

            And to think Notre Dame is giving this guy an education when there were thousands of kids who would have appreciated it more (or at least have been respectful of the Church responsible for his education). Instead, we have a radical liberal troll who (as other posters have noted) cannot hold a mature rational conversation or use Google for his own research.

  • maize

    “When Fr. Jenkins and his office says that the University wants to acknowledge civility and discourse, they want to acknowledge perspectives and viewpoints,” he said. “They want to provide a venue where people who disagree can come together and demonstrate there’s a greater cause than your own partisan position.”

    The “greater cause” for any Catholic University is consciously and purposefully seeking to fulfill the will of God.

    • João Pedro Santos

      “The “greater cause” for any Catholic University is consciously and purposefully seeking to fulfill the will of God, not groveling at the feet of famous politicians and paying tribute to mortal sin.”
      Define “sin”.

      • maize

        Are you asking me to do your homework for you?

        • João Pedro Santos

          As far as I’m concerned, you aren’t my teacher so I have no homework to do. And you can’t use meaningless words and then tell others to “do their homework”. That means you have no arguments.

          • maize

            You asked me to define a word for you because you were too lazy to do it yourself.
            “Meaningless words” is an oxymoron and the rest of your post is the excuse of the willfully ignorant.

          • João Pedro Santos

            Do you know what “ad hominem” means? If you use Google, you’ll find the definition in three seconds. Do your homework. 🙂

          • maize

            I didn’t ask you what ad hominem meant. You framed that argument and assumed the answer yourself.
            Conversely, it was you who asked me to define a word you were too lazy to look up. My answer to you was to do your homework.
            Is that clear or are we going to have to continue this absurb little tete a tete.

      • John Robin

        João, the publication here is of a Catholic university. The topic a Catholic award. The context is the Catholic faith.

        You don’t need to be Catholic to engage in the discussion. But if you’re going to engage, you might want to learn some of the basic terminology and how it’s understood in this context. College level discourse does not include expecting others to provide basic definitions for you.

        If you do not have a clear understanding of “sin” or other basic terms related to Catholicism, I suggest referring to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s free and accessible on the internet.

        • João Pedro Santos

          Since you apparently pretend to speak in the name of Catholics, I’ll tell you that, according to your weird definition, a lot of Catholics are “mortal sinners” who should be “excommunicated”. And good way to defend fascism when you consider an opinion to be a “mortal sin”.

          • John Robin

            João, I don’t speak ‘ anyone but myself. But I’ve got a news flash for you. All of us Catholics are sinners. All non-Catholics are, too.

            As far as who has been guilty of mortal sin, aside from myself, I can’t say. You might be confused about the nature of mortal sin and the practice of excommunication, however, and might want to consult the CCC about it. Not every serious sin is a mortal sin, and not every sinner is normally excommunicated.

            I have no idea what what you’re getting at with your reference to fascism. Care to explain?

  • Bill Dotterweich

    Not much worth the discussion. Tarnished trinket.

  • BridieMurphy

    It is neauseateing to listen to the President defending this decision. Abortion is murder and the taking of an innocent life. It is the blood sacrifice to the god of convenience. Joe Biden is an unworthy candidate for an award of any kind from a Catholic institution.