Students, faculty react to Laetare Medal decision
Katie Galioto | 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.
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.