Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner have been awarded “the oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics.” The University of Notre Dame will give the 2016 Laetare Medal to Biden and Boehner at their commencement on May 15th. Michael O’Loughlin of The Boston Globe’s Crux blog writes, “The Laetare Medal has been awarded since 1883 to a Catholic ‘whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity,’ according to the university. It is named for the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, the Latin word for ‘rejoice.'” The third person on the stage that day will be another bridge builder in the U.S. Catholic Church writes Michelle Boorstein for The Washington Post’s Acts of Faith blog, “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.” Biden, Boehner, Wuerl are all being recognized for their ability to build bridges in the polarized political environment of the present day in the U.S., and the entire world.
Notre Dame sparked a firestorm in 2009 by having newly elected Pres. Obama give its commencement speech. Some bishops led a boycott and the animus their tone added fuel to the growing anger in the American electorate that is a raging inferno seven years later. Rocco Palmo in his blog Whispers in the Loggia states, “Yet even well outside the capital, facing the altered state of an anger-ridden polity likely to produce a Democratic nominee for the Presidency who advocates the full range of ‘reproductive freedom’ as a ‘fundamental human right’ against a Republican contender whose most prominent policy plank has been explicitly blasted by no less than the Pope as ‘not Christian,’ a quiet but significant rethinking has already been afoot in many quarters on how the church’s concerns in the nation’s public square are most effectively addressed.” Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter responds that the Catholic Church needs to help reduce the toxic culture it helped to create, “[Notre Dame President, Rev. John] Jenkins [C.S.C.] 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. It must be stated: That model of a culture war church is complicit in the politics of Donald Trump we witness today. The disrespect shown to President Obama shown by too many bishops in 2009 fed the anger than has now consumed the base of the Republican Party. And, as is usually the case with anger when left undirected and unmitigated, the venom is now more diffuse, directed at Muslims and Mexicans, at ‘losers’ and even fellow Republicans.”
Fr. Jenkins said of the two men, “they [Biden & Boehner] were leaders who put the good of the nation ahead of partisan victory, seeking through respectful dialogue honorable compromise and progress.” Many reporters and commentators have pointed to instances in their vast political careers where they have not always been consistent on bridge-building over partisan acrimony, but their overall orientation has pointed towards cooperation rather than polarization. This is very reminiscent of Pope Francis canonizing both Pope John Paul II AND Pope John XXIII on the same day (April 27, 2014), favoring neither liberal nor conservative. Winters sees an opportunity to heal divisions in South Bend, Ind.,”Fr. Jenkins has done an important thing. By lending his presence to the event, Cardinal Wuerl has done an important thing. This year’s Laetare award sends the unmistakable signal that the time for building walls, either those erected by the USCCB or those promised by Mr. Trump, has ended and the time for building bridges has begun.” Pope Francis has led by example in trying to build bridges, Notre Dame has followed suit, hopefully the U.S. bishops and the “Catholic vote” will respond.