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Glendon declines Laetare Medal

Jenn Metz | Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mary Ann Glendon declined acceptance of the University’s Laetare Medal in a letter to University President Fr. John Jenkins Monday, saying she was “dismayed” upon hearing Notre Dame is conferring an honorary degree upon President Barack Obama.

Her decision marks the first time the award has been accepted and then declined, according to Julie Flory, a University spokesperson.

In the letter, which was printed on “First Things,” an online journal about religion, culture and public life, Glendon said she was “profoundly moved” when she was selected to receive the Laetare Medal.

Glendon serves as a member of the editorial and advisory board of the journal.

A former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Glendon is currently the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

She recalled receiving an honorary degree from the University in 1996 and her Commencement speech that year, and said she immediately began work on her Laetare Medal acceptance speech when she was informed of her selection in December 2008.

She wrote that after she was made aware the principal Commencement address was to be given by Obama she would have to rewrite her speech.

“I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree,” Glendon wrote, adding this disregarded the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2004 document titled “Catholics in Political Life,” which states Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

“That request,” Glendon wrote, “which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.”

Noting two “talking points” associated with the Notre Dame response to the criticism directed at the University’s decision to invite Obama to campus that imply her “acceptance speech would somehow balance the event,” Glendon wrote that Commencement is “not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problem raised by Notre Dame’s decision … to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

University spokesperson Dennis Brown said these “talking points” are not direct quotes from Jenkins, but were developed by communications personnel to be used in response to concerns.

With the news that other Catholic schools are “similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines,” Glendon wrote she is “concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.”

The former ambassador was announced as the 133rd recipient of the award, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics, in a press release March 22 – Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, for which the Medal is named.

Glendon would have received the Medal at the 164th University Commencement ceremony May 17.

The University’s invitation to Glendon to attend Commencement and receive the Medal was extended and accepted before Obama was invited and confirmed as principal speaker, Brown said.

Jenkins received Glendon’s letter as a fax around 9:30 a.m. Monday, Brown said.

Jenkins issued this response in a press release Monday afternoon: “We are, of course disappointed that Professor Glendon has made this decision. It is our intention to award the Laetare Medal to another deserving recipient, and we will make that announcement as soon as possible.”

In the press release on Glendon’s announcement, Jenkins said as a public intellectual and a diplomat Glendon “has served our Church and our country.”

“She is an articulate and compelling expositor of Catholic social teaching who exemplifies our University’s most cherished values and deserves its highest praise.”

In an interview with The Observer in March, Jenkins said Glendon is “probably the most powerful spokesperson for the Catholic viewpoint in our world today.”

He said her presence at Commencement, where Obama will deliver the principal address, would have been a strong representation of the Catholic point of view.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, told The Observer Obama is “disappointed by former Ambassador Mary Glendon’s decision.”

Obama “looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas.

“While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position, and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country,” Inouye said.

In a March 29 statement, Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy, who has been openly critical about the Obama decision, said he spoke with Glendon and “encouraged her to accept this award and take the opportunity such an award gives her to teach.”

The Laetare Medal was first awarded in 1883 as an American counterpart to the Golden Rose, a papal honor given since the 11th century. The Medal bears the Latin inscription “Magna est veritas et prevalebit,” which translates as “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”

The Medal has been awarded annually at Notre Dame to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity,” according to a University press release.

The most recent recipient of the medal was actor and activist Martin Sheen. Notable past recipients include President John F. Kennedy and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day.

Glendon is a scholar of law and philosophy and has researched in the areas of bioethics, comparative constitutional law and international human rights. The author of many books, including “A Nation Under Laywers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American Society,” Glendon graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, were she served on the law review.