Vice President Joseph Biden stood at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony on 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 where 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.”
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, put it—through 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 some 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.
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.