(RNS) When Pope Francis became the first pontiff in history to address Congress last fall, two of the most powerful Catholics in Washington sat behind him.
Former House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden fought many political battles over the years, but they will share the oldest and most prestigious honor awarded to an American Catholic on Sunday (May 15) during a commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame.
The decision to recognize Biden, who supports abortion rights, has predictably sparked a backlash from pro-life activists and conservative organizations.
Notre Dame’s chapter of the University Faculty for Life passed a resolution calling the decision a scandal and asked for the honor to be rescinded. The Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog group that monitors Catholic identity, blasted the university for “betraying” its religious mission.
Pope Francis, please book a return flight.
The fevered reactions to a modest gesture that reminds citizens that we can disagree over politics without demonizing each other are a sign that a key part of the pope’s message in the United States failed to stick.
The best of American history is about overcoming divisions to serve the common good, the pope told Congress last fall.
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation,” he said. “The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, is sending a message in line with the pope’s vision. By recognizing two Catholics from different political parties, the university is offering a dignified rebuke to the toxicity and hyperpartisanship that pollute our political culture. It’s also a healthy attempt to heal wounds in the nation’s largest church that have festered for too long.
During the nearly three decades that St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI led the church, the American Catholic culture wars raged. Prominent theologians faced scrutiny and sometimes censoring from the hierarchy. An American cardinal described President Obama’s election as “apocalyptic.”
After the University of Notre Dame invited Obama to give the commencement address in 2009, more than 80 bishops protested. Catholic pro-life activists rented a plane that flew over campus with the image of an aborted fetus.
In 2012, the Vatican’s doctrine office clamped down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters, for espousing “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Obamacare and the still-unfolding fights over contraception coverage can seem like a border wall running through the heart of the Catholic landscape.
Francis knows these painful realities can turn Catholics against each other and make political cooperation harder. He recognizes that the culture wars are a quagmire, and calls instead for a “culture of encounter” that builds bridges.
“I cannot tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly,” he told 300 U.S. Catholic bishops during a speech in Washington, stressing that “harsh and divisive language” is sometimes tempting but never effective or reflective of the gospel.
Along with almost every Catholic public official, the vice president and the former House speaker don’t always live up to the fullness of Catholic teaching in their policy positions. A church that defends the unborn, the undocumented immigrant, the death row convict and the striking worker makes every Catholic elected official uncomfortable in different ways.
Francis’ critique of a “throwaway culture” includes myriad threats to human life: abortion, war, climate change and what he calls an “economy of exclusion and inequality” that destroys lives and hurts families.
If the vice president deserves scrutiny from Catholics for his views on abortion, Boehner doesn’t get a free pass. As a 2011 letter from prominent Catholic theologians and scholars noted before he gave the commencement address at Catholic University in Washington, the former speaker supported budget proposals, strongly opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that slashed funding for programs that help low-income pregnant women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.
Inequality, as Francis starkly puts it, is the “root of social evil.” Speaker Boehner also refused to oppose torture, an “intrinsic evil” according to Catholic teaching. And while Boehner spent years criticizing Obama for addressing climate change, Francis called for “decisive action” in a landmark encyclical last summer and warned at the White House that an urgent problem disproportionately impacting the world’s poor can “no longer be left to a future generation.”
The University of Notre Dame isn’t endorsing the politics of Biden or Boehner this weekend. In a bruising election year when demagoguery and division tear us apart, a Catholic institution is reminding us something better is possible.
(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church”)