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Build bridges, not walls

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” was the subject of widespread controversy weeks before it was even published in May 2015. In the time leading up to its release, presidential candidates, political pundits and even University President Fr. John Jenkins made statements on the matter.

The key difference between Jenkins’ commentary and that of various political figures, however, was what members of the Catholic Church and all citizens of the world should take away from the pope’s letter. Prominent Catholic politicians such as Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum stated their disagreement with Francis and refused to integrate his thoughts on care for creation into their political decisions. The pope was heavily criticized by many for going too deep into the political realm with his encyclical.

In an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, Jenkins asserted that this line of thinking was erroneous. Francis, he wrote, was “not out to declare a side but to challenge the consciences of all of us.” If people from either political party were seeking for the pope to affirm or oppose their policies, they were missing the point of the encyclical. Jenkins ended his op-ed by stating, “The immediate question may not be whether or not we agree with the letter. It may be what kind of people we have to become to hear what the pope is trying to tell us.”

The University’s decision to jointly award Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner with the Laetare Medal is a challenge to our Notre Dame community to rise above the very same partisan bickering and hostile discourse that accompanied the publication of “Laudato Si’.”

The statement released by the University shared that by choosing to award both men the medal, Notre Dame did not endorse the policy positions of either. Instead, it is meant to celebrate “two lives dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good.”

Recently, some have remarked that Biden is unfit to receive the Laetare Medal because he has a record of supporting pro-choice legislation. They argue that this is contrary to Church teaching on the dignity of human life and an award considered to be the highest honor for an American Catholic ought to be reserved for someone who has performed “real service to the Church in this country.”

For those of us who view Biden in a favorable light, it is tempting to turn the same critical eye to Boehner’s policies and scrutinize the ways his actions while in public office may have been contradictory to Church teaching. Doing so, however, would mean we too have missed the point of what Jenkins and the University are trying to communicate to us.

Striving to be loyal to a political party, ideology or constituency are worthy goals. Be that as it may, there comes a time when one must rise above partisan political conflict and pursue the common good. Just as Biden and Boehner sought to do in their careers, we have also been challenged to do so in our own lives. It does no good to argue about the ways in which Biden and Boehner have or have not incorporated Church teaching into their policy. Exchanging harsh words or calling one another “murderers” or “hypocrites” does nothing but harm our Notre Dame community and the discussions we have on critical issues facing our world today.

Francis gave a homily in 2014, where he discussed the need for people to “build bridges of dialogue, not walls of resentment.” Allowing the discussion on awarding the Laetare Medal to Biden and Boehner to turn into a blame-filled political circus only supports the construction of such walls. By honoring both men with this award, Notre Dame has presented us with the opportunity to foster constructive dialogue on how we can all learn to rise above differences amongst one another to work for the common good and better live out the principles of our faith.

So let the first among us who is without sin or flaws, who is a perfect Catholic, be the first to throw a metaphorical stone and criticize the religious devotion of others. Until then, the rest of us will be busy building bridges, not walls.

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

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