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Laetare: In defense of ND decision

| Monday, April 25, 2016

Laetare (“rejoice”), Notre Dame! Congratulations! You have wisely and courageously decided to honor Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner. Thus you teach that public service is the noblest way of life and the surest road to heaven, and that the real purpose of an education is to learn to think on your own.

University President Fr. John Jenkins makes the University’s position clear: “It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public service in politics look like. We find it in the lives of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner.”

Understandably, many alumni and current students disagree with Jenkins, claiming in a March 18 letter to The Observer that giving the award to Biden is a “blatant disregard for the injunction of the Catholic bishops.”

The major objections to Biden receiving the award are that he does not profess the extreme pro-life position that the fetus is a human person from the moment of conception, that he upholds Roe v. Wade and that he embraces same-sex marriage.

Biden, a conscientious Catholic American, does his own thinking on the disputed issues of contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage like the majority of Americans and Catholics in this country.

The moral principle at issue in these disputed matters is simply that we should choose the lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil. President John Kennedy invoked this principle while negotiating with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, which resulted in the Soviet Union removing its missiles from Cuba when the U.S. agreed to secretly remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in order to avoid a suicidal war.

Upon closer scrutiny, some of these “un-Catholic” positions of Biden will appear to be no less “Catholic.”


Pope Francis openly admitted that even Pope Paul VI, the architect of “Humanae vitae,” “permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape” in the 1960s in the former Belgian Congo. Pope Francis himself does not find any problem with contraception against the Zika virus just as Pope Benedict XVI had no problem with the use of condoms in order to avoid HIV infection. Admittedly, there are acceptable uses of contraceptives in order to avoid greater evils.


Granting abortion as sinful, sometimes we do tolerate limited abortion in order to avoid a greater evil: the principle of double effect.

Biden and many Catholic faithful continue to tolerate limited abortion as a lesser evil instead of treating all abortions as murder. This nuanced position rejects the extreme pro-choice position seemingly advocated in the Hebrew Bible, according to which only if the death of the mother takes place should abortion be treated as murder: “If men quarrel, and one strike a woman with child, and she miscarry, but live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman’s husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award. But if her death ensues thereupon, he shall render life for life.” (Exodus 21:22-23) The rationale being the fetus is the property of the mother and not yet a separate human being.

The extreme pro-life position is based on the Pythagorean theory that pre-existing human souls are infused into the fetus at the very moment of conception. St. Augustine counters by saying that the Bible does not say anywhere when exactly the soul is infused into the embryo.

The Greek Septuagint Bible, used in the Gospels, offers the moderate, middle-of-the-road solution to the dilemma about the criminality and culpability of abortion during the early stages of pregnancy: “And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty; as the woman’s husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life.” (Ex.21:22-23)

After the first trimester of pregnancy, the New Testament seems to recommend adoption as the right course of action, as implied in the birth-story of Jesus, where Joseph adopts Jesus as his foster son when Mary returned home exactly three months after her conception and self-exile from being stoned to death for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

Jesus once reportedly made this mysterious statement: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Mark 14:21) What did Jesus mean? Choose the lesser evil?

Same-Sex Marriage

It appears that the majority of Americans now think, as the Supreme Court does, that allowing the use of the “legal fiction” of “marriage” to same-sex unions is a lesser evil than the greater evil of denying equal rights to gay Americans under the Constitution. We may have our political difficulties and theological disagreements as we try to come to terms with this fact of life that marriage equality is legal in this land. Remember, too, even the Bible applies the term “marriage” to God’s relationship to his people. (Apoc.19:7; 21:9; Ephes. 5:22-33; etc)

Finally, any negative partisan images of Biden and Boehner seem to pale beside their brilliant record of public service. Don’t you think Pope Francis, who entertained and honored the pro-choice Bernie Sanders at the Vatican, would approve of Jenkins’ decision on the Laetare Medal honorees?

Zacharias Thundy
class of 1969
April 22

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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