Citing America’s “toxic political environment” and the need to highlight dialogue, the University of Notre Dame has given one of the highest honors in U.S. Catholicism to Vice President Biden and former House speaker John Boehner. The announcement Saturday set off impassioned responses from Catholics, with some viewing it as a high moment for their church and others deeming it political pandering.

The announcement of the 2016 Laetare Medal recipients comes at a time of changing messages from Catholic leaders about what it means to be a Catholic voter — or what it means to live out the faith in public life. After years of popes and many U.S. bishops who often characterized Catholicism through opposition to liberalizing social changes around abortion and human sexuality, Pope Francis has encouraged leaders to be less judgmental as they teach traditional faith. Biden and Boehner — two lifelong, practicing Catholics taking very different policy positions, sometimes in opposition to church teaching — sat behind Francis this past fall when he spoke to Congress and urged civility.

Catholics were set off by — and are still debating — Notre Dame’s decision in 2009 to give an honorary doctorate to President Obama. Dozens of U.S. bishops — including five cardinals — reportedly criticized the decision, and that year a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican declined the Laetare Medal in protest.

“We live in a toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership,” the Rev. John Jenkins, president of the prominent Catholic school, wrote in announcing the medal on Saturday. “Public confidence in government is at historic lows, and cynicism is high. 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.
“While both have been loyal and committed partisans, they were leaders who put the good of the nation ahead of partisan victory, seeking through respectful dialogue honorable compromise and progress. Speaker Boehner’s resistance to a simple reductionism made him suspect in his own party; Vice President Biden reminded his fellow Democrats that those in the other party are ‘our opponents, not our enemies.’
“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.”

The award will be presented at commencement on May 15. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Washington’s archbishop and one of the U.S. bishops closest to Francis, will receive an honorary doctorate that day in what many will see as a symbolic church approval of the bipartisan award.

Jenkins “has made a bold move to begin the fraught process of dismantling the architecture of the culture warrior model of Church that has plagued our Church and our country for too long,” Michael Sean Winters, a writer on U.S. Catholicism, wrote Sunday in the National Catholic Reporter. “This year’s Laetare award sends the unmistakable signal that the time for building walls, either those erected by the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] or those promised by [Donald] Trump, has ended and the time for building bridges has begun.”

Debate was intense on Notre Dame’s Facebook page, where the award was announced. Some saw the award as a sign of what modern church leadership should look like — moderate and open. Others disagreed over whether either man deserved the award, Biden as a supporter of abortion rights and Boehner as someone seen as not prioritizing immigration reform. Dignity for immigrants and opposition to abortion are basic Catholic principles. Others wondered why Notre Dame seemed to be in the news again for its honoring of a politician.

The Laetare Medal is given to Catholics in all fields. Recent recipients include singer Aaron Neville, poet Dana Gioia, former head of the Catholic Relief Services Ken Hackett (now U.S. ambassador to the Vatican) and prominent death-penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean. The last time a politician received the award was in 1992, when it was given to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

“We were just getting over the Obama embarrassment and now this!! How are the behaviors and attitudes of these two men in anyway representative of Catholicism? This is just wrong,” one person wrote on the school’s Facebook announcement.

The most popular comment — with the most likes — on the school’s page was one urging compromise, which then morphed through replies into a debate about whether science proves or disproves that zygotes are lives.

“The U.S. Is a melting pot of beliefs and freedom of religion and the law of the land governs our free society. To hear people affiliated with such a blessed university be so closed minded and closed hearted is concerning,” the initial comment read.

The medal (pronounced lay-TAH-ray) is named for the Latin word “rejoice” and for part of the liturgy on the fourth Sunday of Lent, just before Easter. According to the university, it is given annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” On the medal is inscribed in Latin “Magna est veritas et prevalebit,” which means “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”

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