“Grave Moral Reservations” Won’t Stop Us!

Notre Dame offers a transparently infirm defense for again embracing a pro-choice politician while the Center for Ethics & Culture raises the pro-life flag.

In this bulletin, we first note the jarring juxtaposition of Father Jenkins’s assertion that some of Vice President Biden’s and Speaker Boehner’s actions raise “grave moral reservations” while handing them the Laetare Medal for their  “outstanding service to the Church”; then we draw attention to an analysis of how this award continues Notre Dame’s  practice of embracing pro-choice politicians; and finally we bring you an essay by Elizabeth Kirk (JD ’96) contrasting the university’s action in awarding the Laetare Medal to Vice President Biden with the action of  the Center for Ethics and Culture in presenting  its pro-life award to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Conferring high honors upon persons whose actions raise “grave moral doubt.”

While explaining during the Commencement why he selected Messrs. Biden and Boehner for the Laetare Medal, Father Jenkins acknowledged that “many among us” have “grave moral reservations” about some of their actions, doubts to which “we should not and do not turn a blind eye.”

(We say “he selected” because the Observer reported, “Biden and Boehner were not on this year’s [faculty committee] list of proposed recipients, but Jenkins chose to award the medal to the two individuals after discussing the matter with the committee.”)

It must be rare for a university to confer high honors upon someone about whose actions it has “grave moral reservations,” and even rarer, to put it conservatively, for a university to express those doubts to the audience assembled to celebrate the awardees.

But there is something even more jarring here because of the nature of the award. Father Jenkins’s acknowledgement of  “grave moral reservations” was a preface to the grant of what the university calls the nation’s “oldest and most prestigious award” to a Catholic “in recognition of outstanding service to the Church.” The radical disconnect — “intellectual incoherence,” in Bishop Rhoades’s words — is palpable.

The absence from Father Jenkins’s address of either the word “Catholic” or the word “Church” is suggestive. In practice, the Laetare Medal has morphed into a civics award in practical politics, and one that scandalizes in this instance because Vice President Biden is the highest ranking Catholic ever to support Roe v. Wade, same sex marriage, public funding of embryonic stem cell research, and the Obamacare abortifacient/contraception mandate that Father Jenkins has sworn in court violates Notre Dame’s institutional conscience.

Notre Dame and Pro-Choice Politicians

Among the many pro-life articles criticizing Notre Dame’s action, there is one by Father Raymond de Souza that bears reading because he traces Notre Dame’s solicitude toward pro-choice politicians over some four decades.

Father de Souza begins with Notre Dame’s providing the platform for Governor Mario Cuomo’s seminal address legitimizing pro-choice Catholic politicians, and he continues through the award of the Laetare Medal to pro-choice Senator Daniel Moynihan, the university’s defense of pro-choice vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferrara, and its honoring of President Obama.

His conclusion:

For most of the 40-plus years since Roe v. Wade, Notre Dame has chosen to employ its considerable prestige to provide cover for Catholic politicians who support the abortion license. Notre Dame itself is not in favor of abortion — Father Jenkins started going to the March for Life in 2010, after the 2009 [Obama] commencement mess — but it has been consistently and intensely on the side of prominent Catholics in public office who are pro-choice.

The Center for Ethics and Culture & The Little Sisters of The Poor

The good news is that there are vibrant pro-life forces within the faculty and student body. The Center for Ethics & Culture has been a pro-life leader ever since its founding by Dr. David Solomon, whose inspired leadership has been continued with energy and distinction by Dr. Carter Snead. The Center has joined in the objections to this year’s Laetare Medal award in a restrained but unequivocal analysis.

On April 9, the Center hosted its annual Evangelium Vitae award dinner, which was preceded by a Mass celebrated by Bishop Rhoades. At the dinner, attended by over 400 guests, the Little Sisters of the Poor were awarded the Evangelium Vitae Medal.  In his moving homily, Bishop Rhoades held up the Little Sisters as an example of the courage required of Christians today “in many situations in which people are pressured to violate their consciences by human laws or commands.”

In words pertinent to Notre Dame in the Biden matter, Bishop Rhoades declared:

What a powerful witness in society when there is a real consistency between what we proclaim our mission to be and the way we live that mission. When there is not that consistency, we lose our credibility.

The Little Sisters received a standing ovation at Mass for their courage, just as did Bishop Rhoades at the dinner for his.

Elizabeth Kirk’s Article

Elizabeth-KirckElizabeth Kirk (JD ’96), formerly associate director of the Center and now a Resident Fellow in Cultural & Legal Studies at the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University — and a Sycamore Trust board member — has explored this singular divide between the lamentable and the laudable on the South Bend campus in the essay we reproduce below, which appeared originally in the National Catholic Register. (In another article, Ms. Kirk discusses true civility and  dismantles a distinctly uncivil article by National Catholic Reporter contributor Michael Sean Winters in praise of the award.)

Authentic Civility at Notre Dame: The Evangelium Vitae Medal

by Elizabeth Kirk

Last Wednesday, the Little Sisters of the Poor argued to the Supreme Court that the government, through its Affordable Health Care Act, violates their deeply held religious beliefs by requiring their employee health care plan to include coverage for contraceptives and abortion inducing drugs. The Little Sisters of the Poor, founded over 175 years ago, are dedicated to living with and caring for the elderly poor. They serve 13,000 persons in 31 countries around the world; in the United States, they provide 27 homes for the elderly and dying. If they fail to obtain relief, the Sisters face fines of $70 million per year.

At the Supreme Court and around the country, many gathered in support of the Little Sisters with “Let Them Serve!” as the rallying cry; others engaged in a nationwide day of solidarity and service at the Little Sisters’ homes. Next month, the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame will grant its highest award, the Evangelium Vitae Medal, to the Little Sisters and their Mother Provincial, Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire for their service. The Evangelium Vitae Medal honors those “whose outstanding efforts have served to proclaim the Gospel of Life by steadfastly affirming and defending the sanctity of human life from its earliest stages.” According to the Center’s director, O. Carter Snead, the Little Sisters will receive this award for their “unwavering defense of the unborn in the HHS mandate litigation, alongside their longstanding work to care for the elderly poor, [which] offers a beautiful and powerful witness to the unique, inviolable dignity of every person, from conception to natural death.”

The award to the Little Sisters by the Center for Ethics and Culture, an interdisciplinary academic unit within Notre Dame known for its commitment to upholding the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition, is in marked contrast to Father Jenkins’ grant of the University’s Laetare Medal to Vice President Joseph Biden and former speaker of the House, John Boehner. Critics of the University award argue that the University should not confer its highest honor to a person, like Vice President Biden, who has a clear and unambiguous record in favor of abortion, same-sex marriage, research on human embryos and the very HHS Mandate which the Little Sisters (and Notre Dame) are fighting in court. Some also argue that Speaker Boehner is an inappropriate candidate because of his stance regarding torture as an interrogation technique. Formal objections have been lodged by Notre Dame’s local bishop, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who released a critical statement, a group of Notre Dame students, who issued an open letter objecting to the Laetare Medal decision, and Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about the University’s Catholic character, which has called for all concerned persons to join an online petition protesting the award.

According to the University, its Laetare Medal is being conferred for the recipients’ dedication to civility in public life rather than for their particular policy positions. But, as Bishop Kevin Rhoades’ stated, it is not “realistically possible or intellectually coherent” to honor a person for his civility or cooperative spirit if he works tirelessly to support positions that are harmful to the common good. Bishop Rhoades called upon Notre Dame to “choose for honors those whose lives and work are exemplary in witnessing to the Gospel … to recognize and thank authentic witnesses to the Catholic faith for their fidelity. We also lift them up in a way that may inspire others to imitate their example.”

Awarding the Evangelium Vitae medal to the Little Sisters of the Poor perfectly corresponds to this higher standard set by Bishop Rhoades. The mission of the Little Sisters is to “offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.” Wholly embodying authentic civility, they treat those they serve like family, with “a spirit of joyful hospitality embracing all with open arms, hearts and minds; fostering participation in the life of the home and rejecting all forms of discrimination.”

The Center for Ethics and Culture is right to find The Little Sisters of the Poor worthy of emulation. They deserve honor because of their worthy actions in the service of the dignity of all human life and because of their mode of action. There is no dissonance between the end of their actions and their manner. There is no discord between their public “positions” and their personal beliefs. Our nation, with its historical commitment to a robust understanding of religious liberty, has always been a haven for those seeking to worship God as they see fit and seeking to live out that faith in service to others — that is to live a life in which one’s personal beliefs and public actions are integrated. Let us pray that the Supreme Court will allow it to continue to be so, and let us publicly honor the Little Sisters of the Poor for providing a witness of how to do it well.

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