The Laetare Award: Dismantling the architecture of the culture warrior church

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by Michael Sean Winters

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The University of Notre Dame announced today that its annual Laetare Award this year will be given jointly to Vice President Joseph Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. The award, the most prestigious to be bestowed upon U.S. Catholics, will recreate the iconic image we all witnessed last year as Biden and Boehner sat behind Pope Francis as the Holy Father addressed the U.S. Congress.

In announcing the joint award, Notre Dame’s President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., said, "We live in a toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership. Public confidence in government is at historic lows, and cynicism is high. It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public service in politics look like. We find it in the lives of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner."

Unlike Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to President Obama in 2009, although this announcement will certainly occasion heartburn over at the inaptly named Cardinal Newman Society, I do not anticipate the U.S. hierarchy will froth at the mouth as they did in 2009. In a sense, the most important word in the press release is the last: "Wuerl." Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl will be receiving an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame at the Mass that weekend, and his presence will spread a kind of imprimatur over the award the way the cold Indiana breeze will spread his red ferriola in the wind.

Jenkins has made a bold move to begin the fraught process of dismantling the architecture of the culture warrior model of church that has plagued our church and our country for too long. It must be stated: That model of a culture war church is complicit in the politics of Donald Trump we witness today. The disrespect shown to President Obama shown by too many bishops in 2009 fed the anger than has now consumed the base of the Republican Party. And, as is usually the case with anger when left undirected and unmitigated, the venom is now more diffuse, directed at Muslims and Mexicans, at “losers” and even fellow Republicans.

The announcement will be seen by some, especially those who are still committed to a culture war ecclesiology, as a direct challenge to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2004 statement "Catholics in Political Life." That text was adopted when some, like then-Archbishop Raymond Burke, were pushing for the denial of communion to politicians who differed from the Church on abortion. That document, although much more nuanced in fact than in usage, was regrettable and became one of the high water marks of the culture warrior dominance of the conference. It would be saying too much to say that this decision, and Cardinal Wuerl’s presence, drives a stake through the heart of that document. It would be correct to say that the award makes clear what should have always been clear, namely, that there is more to know about a candidate or government official than their position on abortion.

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

When you read the 2004 document, it opens with several paragraphs discussing abortion. This is dicta or context, take your pick. But, the key operative ruling was this: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” (emphasis in original) It should be clear to all that Notre Dame is not honoring Biden because he is pro-choice nor Boehner because he kept comprehensive immigration reform from coming to a vote. As Fr. Jenkins said in announcing the award, “In recognizing both men, Notre Dame is not endorsing the policy positions of either, but celebrating two lives dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good through dialogue focused on the issues and responsible compromise.” Both men represent a kind of politics that was better, far better, than what we have now. I have had my disagreements with both men, to be sure, but neither of them ever referred to their genitalia in a public debate.

It is a sad truism of our public life today that neither party lives up to the breadth of moral vision one finds in Catholic teaching. As Bishop Robert McElroy wrote in his recent article on conscience and voting, “voters will often find themselves in situations where one candidate supports an intrinsically evil position, yet the alternative realistic candidates all support even graver evils in the totality of their positions.”

I am sure that whatever outcry there is will come mostly from the zelanti in the pro-life movement. I certainly wish Mr. Biden had been an advocate for the unborn. Yet, a case can be made that while Mr. Biden has never had a particularly consequential vote that would profoundly affect the legal treatment of abortion, Mr. Boehner single handedly kept comprehensive immigration reform from coming to a vote. Some may not think immigration reform is a profoundly moral issue, but Pope Francis surely does. Most of the U.S. bishops surely do. What Boehner did was not intrinsically evil, but it prevented millions of people from gaining relief from all the harm and anxiety that comes from living in the shadows. That said, do I think Boehner deserves a Laetare? Of course. He has given his life to public service, most especially to the institutional integrity of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the thanks he got from his own party was being dumped as Speaker.

It is also worth re-reading that 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life.” It commits the bishops to continue communication with elected officials, it calls for efforts to “persuade,” and it even condemns the “polarizing tendencies of elect-year politics.” But, whatever it said, the document was used to post a big “No Democrats welcome” sign outside our major universities. And, the whole thrust of the text was not along the lines of Pope Francis’ repeated calls for a culture of encounter, for civic engagement, still less for a humble Church.

Fr. Jenkins has done an important thing. By lending his presence to the event, Cardinal Wuerl has done an important thing. This year’s Laetare award sends the unmistakable signal that the time for building walls, either those erected by the USCCB or those promised by Mr. Trump, has ended and the time for building bridges has begun.

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