Notre Dame announced a few days back that the Laetare Medal would be jointly awarded to John Boehner and Joe Biden. The award -- dubbed the "most prestigious award presented by a Catholic institution in America" by Wikipedia -- is the American version of the "Golden Rose," a very old award that was traditionally given to royalty on Laetare Sunday (a brief time of joy and thanksgiving during in the middle of lent) . It's been presented each year since 1883, with one exception.
In 2009 Mary Ann Glendon (professor at Harvard Law School) declined the award in light of the fact that Barack Obama was selected that year as the commencement speaker.
In some ways, I think this year's joint-presentation is a response to this very controversy. Not directly, of course, but still. Glendon's refusal -- and the uproar amongst so-called conservative Catholics that Notre Dame could have invited President Obama to speak at commencement -- represented a moment in American Catholicism, call it "the low point of the culture warrior model of civic engagement" (or something shorter if you can think of a better name). In defense of her refusal, Glendon cited a pronouncement from the USCCB instructing Catholic institutions not to provide "honors, awards, or platforms" to "those who act in defiance of [Catholic] fundamental moral principles." A few years earlier, this same council had released a voter's guide all but asserting that to vote for a democrat (in light of their pro-life stance) was a mortal sin. At the time, some American Catholics from the right were bemoaning Obama's invitation as a decision characteristic of Notre Dame in decline: a secularizing institution becoming even more secular; a school that has lost its "Catholic identity."
What most of these critics failed to realize, though, is that in inviting Obama, Notre Dame was staying true to another tradition. An orthodox tradition that had guided it since its foundation, up through the Hesburgh years, and into the 21st century. This is the tradition of the Land O'Lakes Statement; a tradition that values autonomy and critical reflection as much as cautious proclamations of dogma. This statement reads, in part: institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.
Still, there are some tough questions here. The Laetare Medal is an award. Giving to someone is a complex statement; it entails approval or endorsement at some level or in some sense. Notre Dame hasn't said, in very specific ways, what Biden and Boehner are being praised for. There's some general language about working for the common good, and devoting one's life to civic engagement, about witnessing to the truth even what it's unpopular, but I wonder if there's anything concrete beneath this generalities. This is something I plan to ask Fr. Jenkins when I interview him for a story I'm working up on this issue. I also plan to ask him some more general questions about how he sees this move as consonant with (an embodiment of) Notre Dame's ongoing commitment to engage public figures in a thoroughly secular society. Is the award a concession to the limits of religious reason in the public sphere? The fact that neither Biden nor Boehner seem consistently motivated by recognizably Catholic values (at least in any systematic way) could be taken as such. Or perhaps the message is subtler: Catholic public figures can focus on different aspects of the good, even if some of their positions are at odds with their religious traditions.
At a more general level, I've been thinking about how this very decision is something of an act of faith on the part of Notre Dame. We're bound to be disappointed by politicians, and politics more generally. They're humans. And humans with intense practical pressures and temptations (constituencies, etc). But there's still room for hope. Hope that if we encourage each other to engage in good faith, to make decisions informed by the best in their various traditions, and to communicate across divides without hatred and caricatures, we'll see genuine action for the common good. At an even more general level: this is a faith in the power of truth itself. We all have partial views, distorted by any number of interests, but the truth is mighty, after all, and -- at least for Christians -- we have an assurance that in the end it will prevail.