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Laetare Medal: Then and now

| Monday, April 25, 2016

Some time ago I resolved not to tangle in fruitless spats with the Catholic right. However, Tim Bradley’s precocious claim in an April 14 letter to The Observer declaring Vice-President Biden unworthy of the Laetare Medal proved too great a goad. Apparently, Biden’s pro-choice position puts him beyond the orthodox pale. Bradley writes, “The sanctity of human life and the nature of marriage as an indissoluble bond between one man and one woman are fundamental teachings of the Church. Abortion and marriage are non-negotiable. … There are other issues, like immigration policy, environmental regulations and care for the poor, on which the Church permits prudential decision-making in light of broader principles.” Phew!

The above shows how out of touch the Catholic right is with the teachings of the prophetic Jew, Jesus. For Jesus, the touchstone of faith is the “non-negotiable” requirement He lays out in the Beatitudes, Matthew 25: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” In other words, discipleship is nugatory unless based in these commands. The Catholic right’s second person of the Trinity is more Christ Pantocrator as depicted in Byzantine art. Here Jesus is represented as an impassive figure, omnipotent and the severe judge of all humanity standing above and outside history. Think of the contrast with Matthew’s Jesus who was immersed in the thick of human history, mixing with sinners and breaking bread with them.

My spouse, a devotee of John XXIII, thinks the Holy Spirit went AWOL during the conclaves that gave us John Paul II and Benedict XVI and was delighted when it returned, in the nick of time, to land on Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. His task would be to deliver a sclerotic Tridentine Church from its defensive entropy. Under John Paul and Benedict the church had been losing its prophetic and merciful edge, becoming instead the dispenser of what the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” That is “grace as doctrine, a principle, a system … the grace we bestow on ourselves.” Costly discipleship based in the Beatitudes was discouraged.

For example, liberation theology with its option for the poor in Latin America was virtually stamped out. Consider the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. The Vatican was not happy with his unremitting commitment to the dispossessed and did virtually nothing to confront the Catholic military thugs who murdered him. Following Romero’s death Pope John Paul was lukewarm at best about any formal recognition of his martyrdom. And in Argentina during the Dirty War, when the fascist junta was torturing its opponents and then dropping them from helicopters into the sea, the Papal Nuncio there, Archbishop Pio Laghi, was a frequent tennis partner to these generals. Doubtless, Pope Francis’ emphasis on God’s mercy comes from his experience of this period in Argentinian history. It also explains why he is doing an end run around those Vatican diktats that obsess the Catholic right. In short, Francis is restoring the Church’s foundational commitment to the Beatitudes.

Finally, I would like to revisit an earlier time when the Catholic right organized to protest an invitation to a pro-choice individual. I was at that Commencement in 2009 when President Barack Obama was speaker. Much of the drama then centered around the Laetare Medal recipient of that year, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who had close ties to the Vatican and Pope John Paul II. She turned down the award, refusing to share the stage with the pro-choice president.

At that very moment, the judgmental Glendon was publicly supporting an infamous criminal, Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the ultra-orthodox Order of the Legion of Christ. Maciel enjoyed the pope’s patronage and was known to be delivering bundles of cash to the Vatican donated by right-wing Catholics, including former CIA Director William Casey. As far back as the 1990s, an American journalist Jason Berry was writing in the National Catholic Reporter that Maciel was being accused of sexual abuse by former seminarians. Nevertheless Mary Ann Glendon stood by Maciel, calling his accusers liars right up to the time she refused the Laetare Medal. Moreover, it was only after the death of John Paul that Maciel was moved by Pope Benedict into seclusion within the Vatican walls.

But, to return the Commencement of 2009, President Obama did address the abortion issue, arguing that it should be kept legal but rare in our pluralistic society. He went on to spell out ways this could be achieved — an ample welfare net for unintentionally pregnant poor women and comprehensive sex education in schools, for example. Such policies had reduced the incidence of abortion in many western European countries to levels vastly lower than those in the United States.

The president received a standing ovation.

Ann Pettifer
class of 1976
April 23

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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