Clarifying our objections
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, April 14, 2016
Along with 88 other students, I signed a letter published in the Observer on March 18 entitled “Objections to the Laetare Medal decision.” In that letter, we expressed our disappointment with this year’s Laetare Medal honorees, especially Vice President Biden. I write to continue the discussion sparked by our letter, with two main points of emphasis.
First, in light of criticisms directed at our letter since its publication, it is important to note that we were not motivated by partisan bias or political ideology. Our criticism of the University’s decision corresponded with that of Bishop Rhoades, who had released a statement on this topic prior to our letter.
Some critics have asserted that, if one is displeased with this year’s Laetare Medal honorees, one must oppose, in equal measure, the honoring of both Biden and Boehner. Such criticisms stem from misrepresentations or misunderstandings of the Church’s moral teaching and of the meaning of Catholic social teaching.
To equate Boehner’s positions on immigration and the environment, for example, with Biden’s positions on abortion and same-sex marriage is simply incorrect — doing so neglects the distinction between positive moral obligations and negative moral absolutes. The sanctity of innocent 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 issues. 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, meaning that many policies or programs can be in line with Church teaching.
Second, despite the fact that 346 Notre Dame students have signed our letter as of April 12, Father Jenkins and the other Holy Cross Fellows of the University denied our requests for a meeting. On April 1, we sent our letter to the Fellows, requesting a meeting so that students could raise their concerns and hear the Fellows’ rationale for the decision. We wrote to the Fellows in light of the fact that their duties include ensuring “that the University maintains its essential character as a Catholic institution of higher learning.”
The University states that it has awarded the Laetare Medal to Biden and Boehner, in part, to recognize their willingness to work with opponents in pursuit of the common good. Despite disagreeing with the University’s decision, we wish to enter into the spirit of the award and converse productively with those responsible for the Catholic character of our University. Sadly, this seems impossible.
In a letter addressed to all co-signers of our letter, Father Jenkins stated that the Fellows of the University were not responsible for the Laetare Medal decision; in the end it was his own decision. While the Fellows would not meet with us, Father Jenkins promised he would clarify his decision for the entire campus community and wider public.
We responded to Father Jenkins, reissuing our request for a meeting, this time not to the Holy Cross Fellows as a unit but to each Fellow individually, including Father Jenkins in his capacity as President and as the person responsible for this decision. We were denied once again.
I am glad Father Jenkins will take steps to clarify his decision for the broader community and will consider the arguments put forward in our letter. But I am tremendously disappointed that our meeting requests — on behalf of so many Notre Dame students — were denied. Personal encounter is the best way to understand those who disagree with us and to work toward a greater understanding of the truth. I wish Father Jenkins and the Holy Cross Fellows had chosen to enter into the spirit of this year’s Laetare Medal and allow such a personal encounter with my fellow students and me. We are, after all, among those harmed by the scandal of Father Jenkins’ decision to honor Joe Biden with the most prestigious award for American Catholics.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.