May 15, 2009


A steward of the truth

On April 27, Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, wrote to Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, to inform him of her decision to decline Notre Dame’s most prestigious honor, the Laetare Medal.

Ambassador Glendon’s letter is a clear and concise statement of her support for the “U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The ambassador goes on to say that the bishops’ request, “which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.”

People of good will can, and do, disagree about Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama.

Father Jenkins insists that this is simply one more in a long line of Notre Dame honors for American presidents. He says that Notre Dame does not agree with all of President Obama’s positions or decisions, and that the university remains unequivocally pro-life.

Some bishops support Father Jenkins’ decision, although a large number, including Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, have openly criticized Notre Dame.

Ambassador Glendon says she was dismayed by the news that Notre Dame planned to award an honorary degree to “a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.“

The ambassador also objected to Notre Dame’s efforts to use her participation in the commencement ceremony as part of its justification for the decision to honor President Obama. Talking points issued by Notre Dame implied that her brief acceptance speech would “somehow balance the event.”

The Jesuit newsweekly, America, has characterized the criticism of Notre Dame’s action as a veiled expression of partisan politics on the part of conservative Catholics.

We disagree.

Ambassador Glendon’s decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal is much more than simply a statement of her political views. It is, in fact, a profound expression of Christian witness—making it a form of martyrdom.

Rather than participate in a ceremony that she believes compromises fundamental moral principles, or be seen as part of its justification, the ambassador sacrificed her own interests and refused the honor.

Ambassador Glendon did not have to decline the Laetare Medal. No one would have questioned her acceptance of this well-deserved honor. No one would have doubted her uncompromising support for fundamental moral principles.

When Bishop D’Arcy announced that he would not attend Notre Dame’s commencement for the first time in 25 years, he made a point of saying that he had encouraged Ambassador Glendon to go ahead and accept the university’s Laetare Medal.

But after wrestling with her conscience for many weeks, the ambassador decided that she could not support, in any way, the university’s disregard for what she considers the “settled position” of the American bishops on this important issue. Her decision to refuse the Laetare Medal was a public witness to her faith.

The Church teaches that “the duty of Christians to take part in the life of the Church impels them to act as witnesses of the Gospel and of the obligations that flow from it. This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and in deeds. Witness is an act of justice that establishes the truth or makes it known” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2472).

One who gives witness to the truth, especially when it is unpopular, is exercising a special kind of stewardship, a guardianship of the fundamental principles of justice that should govern all individual decisions and public actions on behalf of the common good.

That’s what Ambassador Glendon has done. She has exercised responsible stewardship of one of our faith’s most fundamental truths—the dignity and inviolability of human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.

Let’s pray that the witness provided by Mary Ann Glendon will emerge as the saving grace of this unfortunate incident, which has divided our Church at a time when unity and solidarity are sorely needed.

Let’s pray, too, that all people of good will can come to recognize the fundamental moral obligation that we have, as Christians and as citizens, to protect and defend all human life.

—Daniel Conway

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