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Truth, charity and the Laetare Medal

| Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Let me begin with a quote from Michael Sean Winters, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter and a supporter of University President Fr. John Jenkins’ decision to honor Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner with the Laetare Medal: “This year’s Laetare award sends the unmistakable signal that the time for building walls, either those erected by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or those promised by Mr. Trump, has ended and the time for building bridges has begun.”

This seems to be a common refrain after Pope Francis’ exchange with Donald Trump a few weeks ago. But, what is actually involved in building bridges, and why might some efforts be considered building walls?

Turning to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in “Caritas in veritate” is enlightening: “A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range.”

Bridges are built by charity in truth, that is, charity anchored in or indivisible from truth, because charity in truth promotes human development and fosters real human relations. How? Truth satisfies and fills that emptiness within us that often drives our searching, and charity is the bond of relationship by which we encounter such truth.

Walls are built by charity without truth: treating someone as the sum of their emotions (and therefore working to satisfy those alone) rather than as a human longing for something much deeper: the truth of existence and life itself. Charity severed from truth does not promote the development of a community of people yearning for authentic happiness.

When we honor someone for civility in politics while at the same time failing to point out where he has separated himself from the truths of his faith while acting in the political sphere, we are actually building walls. Such a recognition tells the Catholic faithful that the radical witness of the Catholic faith — in which charity and truth are inseparable — has no place in politics. Truth, it seems, should be covered up or set aside for personal life.

We should look, however, at the nature of the Laetare Medal itself. “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” is the inscription on the medal, translated, “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”

We should go right to the source to discover the ultimate meaning of such words.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said.

And another passage from Scripture: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Truth — Jesus — sets us free. Bridges, not walls, set us free. Jesus is indeed mighty and has prevailed against all evil.

How then are the lives of Biden and Boehner witnesses to truth, to Jesus, in the realm in which they work — politics? How do they live up to the radical witness of God on a cross or the martyrs burned alive for their faith?

We do not talk like this today, and this probably causes many of us to cringe. By radical, however, I do not mean crazy and irrational. I mean Jesus: a healer of the sick, outspoken against hypocrisy and a complete gift to others. We are not called to be nice (Jesus was not always nice). We are called to be charitable (offering ourselves in relationship) and to speak the truth (to be in truth), which can sometimes seem harsh to hardened hearts.

By honoring civility over the truth, is granting this medal to Biden and Boehner perpetuating the indifference to truth, the moral relativism, that is so prevalent in our culture?

Both are Catholic, yet Biden supports the funding of contraception and embryonic stem cell research, and Boehner stalls immigration reform.

Giving this award to Biden and Boehner is a direct contradiction of the very nature of the medal itself. Rather than encouraging political dialogue, it instead builds walls. It encourages everyone, and politicians in particular, to disregard truth.

Biden and Boehner are prominent politicians, maybe as prominent as one can be: The perfect stage, one would think, to voice their knowledge of the truth learned from the mother they purport to accept as Catholics — holy mother Church.

Where is the radical Catholic witness of charity in truth today? Are we mired in indifference to truth? This University should be the hands and voice of charity in truth for the whole nation. We should not be afraid to proclaim the truth that we know in the public square.

There is still hope though. Be radical, Fr. Jenkins: rescind the award.

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

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  • Gary

    It is so good to know that so many students are so much smarter than Fr. Jenkins and the Board of Trustees. Very well written and very well thought out. My trust in Notre Dame is in its students and some very good faculty.

    • Tom Z.

      Actually, the majority of students support Fr. Jenkins and the board’s decisions. It’s the very religious minority who go against this decision and feel the need to write about it.

      • Fresh air

        how dare the “very religious” have a voice at a “Catholic” university

  • what no really

    oh my god these are all so insufferable

  • Ryan

    Very well put Mr VanBerkum! Thank you for addressing the complexity and offering an authentic solution. My personal nomination for the medal would certainly be neither of these men, but rather someone like Mother Angelica. People who uphold truth and lead others to the truth.

  • João Pedro Santos

    “Both are Catholic, yet Biden supports the funding of contraception and embryonic stem cell research”
    So, because he’s Catholic he needs to oppose medical progress?

    • McLovin

      Yes. “Medical progress” at the cost of innocent lives is the simplest case of ends not justifying the means. No one doubted that Josef Mengele was making “medical progress” either.

      • João Pedro Santos

        How do contraception and stem cell research harm anyone? I’m confused…

        • Fresh air

          stem cells are harvested from living embryos

          • RandallPoopenmeyer


          • Fresh air

            Wouldn’t be saying that if you had been harvested. Then again we wouldn’t have to put up with your idiocy

          • RandallPoopenmeyer

            You wouldn’t be saying that if you broke your back and needed this technology to help you walk again.

          • Fresh air

            Life trumps all else. Someone choosing to end someone else’s because they see fit is a steep decline for a society to condone. Remember how Europe faired in the 1940s with the same philosophy- that one life mattered less when used to better another.

          • RandallPoopenmeyer

            No, I don’t know what you are talking about.

  • Fresh air

    Agree on the issue of Biden but “stalling immigration reform” is not a valid reason to rescind. Stalling blanket amnesty protects the poorest among us in our own country. Kudos to Boehner, shame on Biden