Vice President Joe Biden's "gravely irresponsible" rejection of Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage should disqualify him from Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, the local bishop has said.

"We should seek to honor those who act to protect human life and dignity from conception to natural death, who respect true marriage and the family, who promote peace, justice, religious freedom, solidarity, the integral development of the poor, the just treatment of immigrants, and care for creation," Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend said March 14.

"We should not honor those who may be exemplary in one area but gravely irresponsible in another."

The bishop's diocese encompasses the University of Notre Dame. The Catholic school announced March 5 that it would award its prestigious Laetare Medal to Vice-President Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. The award will be presented during the university's May 15 commencement ceremony.

The Laetare Medal dates back to 1883. It has been awarded annually to a Catholic "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity," the university said.

Previous honorees include President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil, actor Martin Sheen and Jazz composer Dave Brubeck.

Bishop Rhoades objected to the vice president's support for legal abortion.

"I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any 'pro-choice' public official with the Laetare Medal, even if he or she has other positive accomplishments in public service, since direct abortion is gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching: the inalienable right to life of every innocent human being from the moment of conception," the bishop said.

"I also question the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage."

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The bishop said that several months previously the university's president, Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., had discussed with him the decision to give the Laetare Medal to both Biden and Boehner. Father Jenkins said the move was intended to honor their public service, not to endorse their political positions.

Bishop Rhoades reflected on the decision.

"I know that this honor is also an attempt to recognize two Catholics from different political parties at a time when our national politics is often mired in acrimonious partisanship," the bishop said March 14.

However, he added that public officials, especially Catholics, have the "grave and clear obligation" to oppose laws that support or facilitate 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," he said.

For Bishop Rhoades, the university's efforts to distinguish the conferral of the Laetare Medal from honorees' public policy decisions is "not realistically possible or intellectually coherent." He suggested the two honorees should have been invited to speak at Notre Dame rather than to receive an honor.

The bishop said that honors can give the impression that it is possible to be a good Catholic while advocating "positions that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings." He encouraged further reflection on the nature of such honors from Catholic institutions.

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The university cited Biden's service on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his work against domestic violence, and his oversight as vice president of a multi-billion dollar stimulus bill. The university cited Boehner's service in the House of Representatives and his work on pension and school choice programs.

In the 1970s Biden had been critical of legal abortion, and still professes to personally oppose abortion. However, he changed his position in the 1980s to support legalized abortion. As vice president, he voiced support for gay marriage in a May 2012 television appearance that led to President Barack Obama announcing his own public support for redefining marriage.

Father Jenkins in the medal announcement decried "a toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership."

"It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public service in politics look like," he said. "We find it in the lives of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner."

Father Jenkins said the recognition does not mean the university is endorsing either politician's policy positions. Rather, it is "celebrating two lives dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good through dialogue focused on the issues and responsible compromise."

In 2009, the University of Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to give its commencement speech and receive an honorary degree. The move drew strong criticism from pro-life advocates due to the president's strong pro-abortion rights stand. Several dozen Catholic bishops objected to the decision.

Bishop John M. D'Arcy, who headed the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend at the time of the controversy, declined to attend the school's 2009 commencement. He cited a 2004 U.S. bishops' statement on Catholics in political life that calls on Catholic institutions not to honor those who counter Catholic beliefs.

In April 2009, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon declined the Laetare Medal. In her view, the honorary degree disregarded the U.S. bishops in order to honor "a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church's position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice."

Several dozen pro-life advocates protested on the university campus the day of the president's 2009 commencement speech and were arrested for trespassing.

In 2012, the Obama administration announced a Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring Catholic institutions like the University of Notre Dame to provide health insurance coverage for drugs and procedures proscribed by Catholic ethics. The university filed a lawsuit against the mandate. Its request for a preliminary injunction against the mandate was denied in May 2015.

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