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Biden and Boehner, teary and grateful, receive high Catholic honor

Former House Speaker John Boehner, University of Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins and Vice President Joe Biden enter the school's commencement ceremony on May 15, 2016, where the politicians were awarded the Laetare Medal. Photo courtesy of University of Notre Dame

(RNS) Vice President Joseph Biden stood at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony on Sunday (May 15) with a medal signifying American Catholicism’s highest honor slung on a blue velvet rope around his neck.

The longtime Democrat turned and looked to former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a stalwart Republican who also wore the Laetare Medal that had just been awarded to them both for their efforts to work for the common good in a time of deep partisan rancor.

That rancor was vividly demonstrated by the fact that many anti-abortion Catholics strongly protested Notre Dame’s decision to give the award to Biden, a Catholic who favors abortion rights.

But neither man directly addressed the controversy, instead preferring to praise each other and let their respective public records do the talking.

“It’s been said we are ‘old school,'” Biden said. “John and I aren’t old school. We’re the American school,” he said, to cheers from thousands attending the university’s commencement ceremony.

It’s the school, he told them, that says “you have to restore, (the one where) progress only comes when you deal with your opponent with respect.”

To underscore his point, Biden recalled a Vatican encounter with Pope Francis, who embraced him in the open-hearted way he believes Americans must embrace each other and the world.

The pontiff told the politician, “You are always welcome here.”

RELATED STORY: Notre Dame rebukes ugly politics, gives award to Biden and Boehner

Boehner, who described himself as “a regular guy who used to have a big job,” for his part praised Biden for coming to the table, no matter how strong their differences, while they searched for elusive common ground.

In his remarks, Boehner also offered his own challenge to the graduates of the iconic Catholic campus near South Bend, Ind.: think not about what you want to do next, he said, but rather ask, “Who do you want to be?”

Both politicians spoke of how their families and their Catholic faith, in small personal moments, in joy and in tragedy, had inspired and informed their decades of political service.

And, said Boehner, those same principles inspired him to leave leadership behind when he could no longer bring people to the table in good conscience. He announced his resignation in September, the morning after a private moment with Francis following the pontiff’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress.

Or, as Boehner, known for his wisecracks as well as his frequent public tears, after saying he was influenced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the pope, “I’m outta here!

‘Laetare’ means ‘rejoice’ and, trust me, every day since last October, I have been rejoicing,” he said, referring to when his resignation took effect.

Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, had introduced them both by praising the politicians for giving their lives to the common good with “collegiality, patriotism, perseverance (and) courage” and for always finding, even in time of tragedy, “strength and guidance in their faith.”

The medal has been given since 1883 to those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

When Jenkins announced the picks in March, he said it was a way of repudiating today’s “toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership.”

But conservative Catholics, including the local bishop, were incensed that Biden, who favors abortion rights and the legalization of gay marriage, would join Boehner in receiving the medal and an honorary degree.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend said this was inappropriate, no matter how positive Biden’s other accomplishments.

“The (Catholic) Church has continually urged public officials, especially Catholics, of the grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that supports or facilitates abortion or that undermines the authentic meaning of marriage. I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.”

But the choices struck others as in keeping with the views Pope Francis expressed in his September address to Congress, delivered with Biden and Boehner sitting directly behind him.

RELATED STORY: Pope Francis to Congress: ‘Stop fighting, start working!’

At the time Francis said, “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”

The  Laetare Medal bears a Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”).

Jenkins has provoked outrage with traditional Catholics for his choice of speakers before. In 2009, he invited newly elected President Obama, also an abortion rights supporter, to give the commencement address.

Rhoades’ predecessor at the diocese, Bishop John D’Arcy, did not attend the 2009 event and Rhoades was absent on Sunday. A few dozen protesters, including a retired Notre Dame professor, met at the university’s main gate in the morning with signs objecting to honoring Biden, according to the South Bend Tribune.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, gave the principal commencement address.

He also received an honorary degree along with civil rights activist Diane Nash, Notre Dame board chair and business leader Richard C. Notebaert, musician Arturo Sandoval and American Council of Learned Societies President Pauline Yu.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, also received an honorary degree but it was presented at Notre Dame’s baccalaureate Mass on Saturday.

According to the university, Wuerl had another commitment Sunday. He did not attend the 171st commencement where 2,163 undergraduate degrees were conferred.

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • some question Biden’s getting the honor because he’s pro-choice, evidently ignoring how much damage the republican-led congress has done to the prospects of traditionally marginalized segments of society. It’s the old routine that life is sacred – until that life is an undernourished or otherwise underserved child.

  • Yay, let us honor and award two rich and powerful politicians, both of whom have achieved little more than political gridlock these last 8 years, while the poor and hungry continue struggling to find hope and meaning to keep them going on. Perhaps these honors and awards will give them hope? Doubt it, just as much as I doubt RNS approving this comment.

  • Keep it real Danny. The republican congress was not being singled out for “outstanding service to the Church and society.” This medal should go to neither of these two. It’s a political play by a Catholic university trying to be relevant at the cost of it’s proper identity. You might appreciate Bishop Rhoades more appropriate proposal for these two politicians which Notre Dame mistakenly ignored.

  • Biden should have NEVER gotten this award as he has supported slaughtering babies for 41 darn years AND supports gay marriage….WHAT does one have to DO in this church to get EXCOMMUNICATED is my question??? This Pope just sits there as well and does NOTHING, NOTHING about it….This Pro Life talk is basically just that, TALK, because if they really meant it, folks like Biden would be kicked out of the church per the Bible, Matthew 18:15-17 AND 1 Corinthians 5:11-13….Nothing CLOSE to that ever happens in this church…..Remember, one can follow their “conscience” even if that conscience is NOT EVEN CLOSE to what the Bible says….

  • When the world system heaps awards and titles on you, look out. You’re possibly headed for the infernal regions.

  • Good for ND! Joe Biden, like most US Catholics, respects women’s rights of conscience and religious liberty. Actually, it would be great if the 2016 Democratic White House nominee would keep Biden in his present job. — Edd Doerr

  • Biden supports the execution of innocent little girls/boys in the womb. He is pro-choice, pro-choice to kill. As for the now debunked myth that pro-lifers care only for the unborn, it is well documented that conservatives are much, much, more generous with their money. The liberals of course, either steal from others so they don’t have to support these so-called undernourished or undeserved children, or dispose of them through abortion, or keep them dependent on them for life…Lord it over them….

  • As it happens, Biden’s political position on fetal personhood is closed to Augustine and Aquinas and the Bible (Gen 1:27 and 2:7) than is that of Mike or today’s Vatican.

  • This “debunked myth” exists only in the Faux bubble. The first sentence is factually incorrect. Biden is opposed to abortion but he is not living in some la-la land where the illusion passing a law against something will stop it. Abortion occurs at the same rate whether it is legal or illegal. The rest of this silly post is just regurgitated Faux sound bytes.

  • That’s an interesting point, why are pro-choice Catholics like Biden, Pelosi, etc. not excommunicated? I think I know why: the Catholic hierarchy take the long view and know such action would not be to their benefit. Moreover, I doubt that such will ever occur, except perhaps to minor officials in places like the right-wing-dominated Catholic diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, which one time excommunicated clinic workers, but it never happened anywhere else. If they did things like that, it would reveal their impotence and place the focus on them, where they do not want it to be. The institution which whines about abortion in order to exercise slut-shaming is the #1 institution in human history ever where real post-birth children have been sexually assaulted by their functionaries.

  • I suppose it is laughable to consider Notre Dame a ‘Catholic’ school of higher learning.

  • Is Biden opposed to slavery too but he wouldn’t impose his beliefs on others? Or how about the death penalty? We have laws against stealing and murder and of course, they don’t stop all of them. 55 million babies killed cannot even compare to the few hundred that were practiced illegally before legal child killing occurred. (Former abortionist and founder of the abortion movement Bernard Nathanson revealed the numbers were highly inflated) Nothing silly about the killing of little girls/boys.

  • False equivalency. Abortion is in no way equal to crimes. It is a woman’s right and no sin whatsoever.

  • Higher learning definitely. But not so big on the indoctrination that some people of a more cretinous Christian bent are happy with. Those people have schools of their own for that. Ones which gladly trade off education for adherence to religious dogma.

  • With “Catholic” institutions exchanging awards for position at the public $ trough, We can direct our charitable giving to more deserving entities and causes.

  • Abortion is violence against women and children. Two victims, one dead and one wounded and legal does not make it right. But there is always hope if only we seek healing. Thousands of women have and the reward is freedom from the pain of this crime against humanity.

  • Augustine and Aquinas had no information about fetal development, nice try though.

  • So? But they were the leading Catholic theologians. And the Vatican’s condemnation of abortion is based on oudated 17th century science.

  • Public schools have 100% more abuse and have done absolutely nothing about it. As for the homosexual sex abuse scandal, which amounted to less than 4% of Priests, with 2% of those credible cases, the Church has done more than any other institution and for the last 5 years 8 credible accusations annually have been reported.

    And yes, Biden will someday be held accountable as will the Bishops who failed to take serious the mass extermination of little girls/boys in the womb not to mention to the millions of wounded mothers.

  • Women’s right of conscience to terminate their children’s lives? And since when is killing a religious liberty issue?

  • Pre-28 week fetuses are not children or persons, according to either science or the Bible (read and think about Gen 1:27 and 2:7); 90% of abortions are performed by 13 weeks, 99% by 20 weeks, and the rest only for serious medical reasons. What matters are women’s rights of conscience and religious freedom.

  • Biden has done nothing wrong. The Catholic hierarchy however covered up the abuse of children at the top levels. Your measure of “credibility” is the rationalization of crime all accessories make due to their blind loyalty to those who don’t deserve it.

  • Sometimes the truth hurts but yes, if I ‘finger-waged’ I apologize and hope everyone will find the freedom there is from God’s forgiveness and love.

  • An unrepeatable preborn child has a heart beat before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. And science and the Bible have both confirmed that life does begin at conception.

  • Biden, by supporting the killing of the innocents certainly has done something very, very wrong…Thou shall not kill sound familiar.
    My measure of credibility is exposing the truth. I stand by it. As for blind loyalty, I abhor the Priest sex abuse scandal in my Church and blame the liberal Bishops for allowing men with deep seated homosexual tendencies from entering the Priesthood.. But throughout of history, Judus has entered the Church and tried to destroy it.

  • A heartbeat does not make a person, consciousness does. Life, human life, began hundreds of thousands of years ago. An anencephalic infant has a heartbeat but no functioning brain. I take my info from science, not the opinions of clergy. Life and personhood are two different things.

  • Thou shalt not kill PERSONS. By the way, how do you account for the fact that about 50% of fertilized eggs and early fetuses abort spontaneously. Do you blame that o God?

  • A comatose person is not a human life? How about people with dementia? Or disabled people? You sound like the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger…”more from the fit less from the unfit”….

    The criteria for life is definitely being reinvented for those who want to easily dispose of imperfect life. But who is perfect. And who decides. Those who want to protect the weak against the strong or those who want a thowaway society where the strongest prevail.

  • The child is an unrepeatable human life, never to exist again with a separate DNA.
    In my view as far as spontaneous deaths that occur God, I believe, has a plan (which is unknown to us) but He definitely rejects the deliberate destruction of a human life.

  • Your reply is a hilarious cop-out. And you show no respect for the rights of conscience and religious liberty of Catholics and others who find your position offensive and laughable.

  • I did not say that the comatose or demented are not persons. Your position is out of tune with both the Bible and modern science, but you are entitled to your opinion.

  • And you are entitled to yours. But life, in my view, all life, has dignity and worth.

  • A right of conscience and religious liberty to end another’s person’s life?
    You want the right to end someone’s life and you find my position offensive?
    I don’t find that laughable but sad.

  • And you have no respect for the 1/3 of all US women who have chosen to follow their consciences on this matter.

  • Are you serious? I’m personally friends with many of them…the Silent No More ministry and women do regret this error of their consciences which took away their children’s lives and they will never be no more.

  • This discussion is going nowhere. I respect every women’s right to make her own health decisions, and you do not.

  • Nope, Biden is certainly much more ethical than you are for supporting a woman’s right to control her own body. A fetus is nit a person thus cannot be killed. This radical ideology you present is pure evil. There’s no way the RCC can assess for “homosexual tendencies.” At best, you have it, given your gross hatred of women. Homosexual priests are not the problem. the power of the priesthood is. The elevated status of these corrupt clergy is the problem. It’s all about power and control. And thanks to Biden and other heroes like him the amount you can exercise is limited.

  • Bull. The violent ones are the antiabort protesters who kill doctors and clinic staff.

  • The bottom line is this: Who should decide? The woman or a male-dominated church or government?

  • I take my science from real scientists. Several years ago I was involved with an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in an abortion rights case. 165 distinguished biologists, including 12 Nobel laureates (one of them was DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick). The scientists’ brief .pointed out that the fetal brain in not sufficiently developed for the functions of personhood, such as consciousness and will, until some time after 28-32 weeks of gestation. This fits with the Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 definition of personhood at birth. Well over 99% of abortions are performed well before that. — Edd Doerr (

  • I am an honors grad of my state’s leading Catholic high school. My godparents were a priest and a nun. My dad was the choir director in our church for 35 years.

  • He was just at the Vatican welcomed by this weak social justice Pope…They had a funeral for his son who also supported child slaughter and gay marriage…My source of authority is the BIBLE, GOD’S WORD, not some Church and its many anti biblical man made traditions such as the rosary, purgatory, confessing my sins to some priest, another sinner and many of them homosexuals, AND that bible says in several places, 1 Timothy 5, verse 20 says the following: But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.
    ***Again, they had a darn funeral for his own son last year and the weak, gutless bishops kissed his butt…He was just with the Pope last month AND took the Pope around when he came to the states….
    You of course can actually read the BIBLE yourself before coming on here and spewing your garbage….Give me the names, the proof, of the priests and bishops in his hometown who have refused him communion….Most of the priests and bishops in this church, I have met a ton of them, are weak man fearing gutless cowards who preach this nice little ten to fifteen minute homily…Way too many folks in this church rarely if ever read the Bible, rarely if ever confront the culture, it is a joke…Heck, 62% of Catholics support gay marriage and 68 % support sex outside of marriage, what does that tell you about Catholics actually reading the Bible?? 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 says to PURGE YOURSELF from the Evil one and yet this Pope associates with the likes of Pro abortion, Pro gay marriage Biden….WAY to obey the BIBLE there, right??? Really again a joke the way this church’s picks and chooses which parts of the Bible are convenient to them….Mary was sinless??? Really, that is NOT what Romans 3:23 says—ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, NOT ALL except Mary….Luke 1:47 conveys that she needed a Savior….WHY would she need a savior if she was sinless???
    Joe Biden and Pelosi and others need to be PUBLICALLY EXCOMMUNICATED…Just because your Pope and far too many leaders in this church do NOT have the guts, the guts to do it is their problem, not mine…

  • You’re confusing homosexuals with sex offenders. That’s like saying all heterosexual men are Roman Polanski.

  • This part: “t is true that the homosexual priests who preyed on homosexual teenage
    boys and were pronounced “cured” by the American Psychological
    Association” is incorrect. The American Psychological Association, which is a professional association, did not conduct these examinations, if there were any ,Homosexuality is not a mental disorder. Pedophilic acts are crimes. Learn the difference.

  • No, the hospital demur because of politics and security from the terrorists of the homegrown right-wing sort. There is no profit whatsoever in abortion. Due to concerns from terrorist attacks, as recently happened in Colorado Springs, abortion clinics perform a humanitarian task and save women’s lives.