Liberalism and the Laetare Medal


Vice President Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner will receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, the school’s highest honor, at this year’s commencement ceremonies.

Predictably, outcry has been focused on Mr. Biden, primarily because of his decades long support of social liberalism.

Notre Dame students, a host of Catholic commentators and Bishop Kevin Rhoades, the Bishop in whose diocese Our Lady’s University resides, have all voiced disagreement with the school’s decision.

In a public letter, Bp. Rhoades argues “it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal.” He goes on to say “I also question the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage.”

The Bishop recommends that Catholic institutions should

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.

For obvious reasons no one should quibble with opposition to Joe Biden receiving this award. May God have mercy on his soul when he is cast before the judgement seat.

But isn’t it time for folks to understand that the Republican Party, far from being a “serviceable vehicle” for Catholic causes, oftentimes acts as an obstacle to Catholic principles? After all, economic liberalism, the tenets of which John Boehner and his party espouse, does not in any way reflect Catholic social teaching.

Pope Pius XI of happy memory, in his eloquent encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, lays out the Church’s teaching on economics as such:

…public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property.

Moreover, Leo XIII wisely taught “that God has left the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and institutions of peoples.”

Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods…from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them

If one were to read these words at Republican clearing houses like the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute – organizations Boehner and his Catholic successor Paul Ryan have spoken at – you’d likely be chased out with torches and pitchforks.

Concepts like a just wage and government oversight of the economy don’t jive with Republican orthodoxy. Rather, global free trade, privatization, deregulation, slashing taxes for the uber rich, and, in some quarters, getting rid of the minimum wage law, is what the modern GOP stands for. When has John Boehner voiced meaningful opposition to any of these laissez-faire, un-Catholic, positions?

Furthermore, only an ideologue would deny that these policies haven’t helped hollow out the middle class in this country and aided in producing an economic system wherein the richest 62 people in the world now own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion put together.

In an essay for Commonweal, Anthony Annett provides some insight into the matter. While his article is at times disagreeable – as if often the case when one reads Commonweal – there are some incontrovertible facts he puts forth.

Annett describes the GOP as a “party that bows low before the deified market.” A “party that has spent decades seeking to undermine and destroy the ability of labor to organize, a direct attack on both solidarity and subsidiarity.” And a “party of war, of bellicosity [and] of torture” that “prizes machismo posturing over reasoned dialogue, or—God forbid—peace building.”

It’s tough to dispute any of this.

Most importantly, Annet adds that:

Of all their claims, the most outrageous is that the Republican party embodies “constitutional and limited government”, which they claim is in accord with subsidiarity. This is egregious on numerous fronts. First, it seeks to grant American constitutional documents quasi-magisterial status in a way that is quasi-blasphemous. Second, it utterly misrepresents subsidiarity, which calls for decisions to be taken at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary, for higher-order associations to aid and support lower-order associations, and which can never be divorced from solidarity. There is simply no mandate in Catholic social teaching for what they deem “limited government”. But this is what happens when you conflate the gospel of Jesus Christ with the gospel of John Locke.

Gabriel Sanchez, purveyor of, and P.J. Smith, the author of the blog Semiduplex, have some intriguing thoughts on the futile attempt waged by some to square Republican economic doctrine with Catholic social teaching. Read their views here and here, respectively.

A word or two also needs to be mentioned about the recommendations put forth by Bp. Rhoades.

The Bishop suggests that Catholic institutions should honor those who, among other things, promote “peace, justice, the integral development of the poor, care for creation,” etc.

Three things come to mind when I hear this.

One, there’s nothing distinctly Catholic about these criteria. They are merely naturalistic ones. Luke 6:33: “And if you do good to them who do good to you, what thanks are to you? for sinners also do this.”

Two, why doesn’t the Bishop argue that Catholic institutions should recognize those who proclaim the Social Kingship of Christ? Ought Catholic institutions acknowledge those who boldly remind the world that all authority resides with Christ, that He purchased us with His blood and that He has a right to be publicly honored by his creatures?

Three, has Mr. Boehner actually promoted peace, solidarity, the integral development of the poor, the just treatment of immigrants, and care for creation? It’s hard to find in his voting record evidence that he has.

Several weeks ago a group of Catholic academics urged their fellow Catholics to oppose Donald Trump for president. Among the reasons they listed was that Trump was simply “manifestly unfit” for the presidency. Fact is that anyone who opposes the Kingship of Christ and swears to uphold the principles of liberalism, social or economic, is manifestly unfit to hold elected office. This being the case one wonders if either man – Joe Biden or John Boehner – is worthy of the Laetare Medal.

Stephen Kokx is the host of “Church & State with Stephen Kokx on Magnificat Media.comwhich airs Fridays at 11am, 2pm, 6pm and 9pm and Saturdays at 10am EST. Follow him on twitter @StephenKokx and like him on Facebook

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