Yesterday, at the University of Notre Dame, this year's Laetare Medal was awarded jointly to Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. Last September, we watched the two men sit behind Pope Francis as he delivered the first ever address by a pope to Congress. Eight months later, Fr. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, led both men onto the dais at Notre Dame stadium. For all the things that divided Biden and Boehner, they share the Catholic faith and it has obviously impacted both men.
Biden and Boehner both spoke to the fact that this joint award cut across the grain of the politics our country has fallen into. Biden said, "Father, I've read some accounts how John and I are 'old school.' We used to treat each other with respect, hang out with each other. John and I aren't old school, we're the American school. We're what you have to restore. Where progress only comes when you deal with your opponent with respect, listening as well as talking."
Boehner told the assembly, "Joe and I had many disagreements on many different issues. But you know I learned the art of being able to disagree without being disagreeable growing up in my dad's bar. But even as we've both disagreed, we've both always understood the need to keep looking for things we could agree on. Because, while I'm a Republican, and Joe's a Democrat, the fact is that first, we're both Americans. Mr. Vice President, it is an honor to share the stage today."
I am someone who tends to be more suspicious of "inside the Beltway" observations than not. People trade in gossip in D.C. the way brokers trade in shares on Wall Street, and as often as not, the gossip, like the shares, are not worth what they claim to be worth. Worse, the gossip usually comes with the claim of a privileged hermeneutic -- "we insiders know what is really going on" -- that is patently false. The myopia that descends upon the intellect when it crosses I-495 is acute. With all that said by way of caveat, let me share a little inside the Beltway gossip: Biden and Boehner really have been two of the few politicians in this town willing to try and seek common ground and, just as important, both have routinely and regularly clashed with the extremists in their own party. Biden really did try and get the Obama administration to be more accommodating on the
It would have been nice if the critics of the university's decision to award the Laetare to both men had captured some sense of the civility both men exhibited. Alas, the political hacks at the poorly named Cardinal Newman Society ranted and culture warriors like Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life raved, both saying that Notre Dame had again abandoned its Catholic identity. LifeSiteNews went into its typical hysterics. The Sycamore Society, committed to a particular and Jansenistic understanding of "Catholic identity" at Notre Dame, again besmirched the name of one of the most beautiful of trees.
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The best response to these critics came in the speeches given by Biden and Boehner. Both men recounted their personal meetings with Pope Francis. I especially liked Biden's recollection of attending the inaugural Mass for Pope Francis, and being led to greet the new pope afterwards. Even before the monsignor could introduce them, the Holy Father reached out and said, "Mr. Vice President, you are always welcome here." So, my question to those who voiced umbrage or even quibbles about this year's Laetare is simply this: Why if Pope Francis thinks Biden and Boehner should be welcome, why should anyone else treat them as untouchable?
Even more than this, the most moving part of both men's talks had nothing to do with their political success or their political failures, or even with their one-on-one moments with Pope Francis. Both men spoke about how their faith accompanied them in key moments in their life. Boehner invoked the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his decision to leave the Congress last autumn the day after he welcomed the pope. Biden gave a deeply personal account of the death of his wife and daughter so many years ago, and of his son just last year. Both men spoke about how their family and their faith were not two distinct realities in their lives, but one joined reality, a beautiful and I expect unplanned testimony to our Catholic teaching on the family.
As a student of history, I tend to be less worried about the tenor of our political discourse than most. If you want to encounter truly nasty political attacks, look no further than the election of 1800, which pitted two of our founding fathers against each other, indeed two of the most intellectually gifted of the founders: That was a nasty election. Still, for most of our country's history, however nasty the elections, once the ballots were counted, Democrats and Republicans came together to conduct the nation's business. "We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans," said Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address after he won that election. Compromise was not a bad word and the search for common ground was taken for granted. Political power was understood to carry with it a responsibility to seek the good of the country first, and future electoral advantage later. That has been lost.
Both the vice president and the former speaker have had their bad moments to be sure. Neither man embraced the full spectrum of Catholic social doctrine in their political life, which was not a constitutional obligation to be sure, but was a personal obligation insofar as we think that doctrine embodies the truth about the human person. Both have embraced positions that should have challenged their consciences more than they permitted. But both men were and are serious public servants. They cared about legislating. They cared about governing. Both could have made millions in the private sector, but they stayed in politics and earned more modest sums. Most importantly, at Notre Dame's commencement ceremonies yesterday, both men showed our entire country that we can do better than we are doing this election cycle.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]