Civility, Dialogue, and Catholic Mission: A Proposed Framework for Notre Dame

Author: Center for Ethics and Culture

Prompted by the recent public discussion surrounding the 2016 Laetare Medal, the following memorandum offers a possible framework for how Notre Dame might, in the future, promote civility in public life and engage in dialogue with public figures (including the President of the United States) with whom we have strong disagreements, while also bearing witness to all the goods at the core of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission.


Civility, Dialogue, and Catholic Mission: A Proposed Framework for Notre Dame
Prepared by: Carter Snead, Professor of Law & Director, ND Center for Ethics and Culture

This memorandum is offered in the spirit of civility, collegiality, and deep affection for Notre Dame, its students, faculty, staff, leadership, alumni, and friends. It was prompted by the recent public discussion regarding the 2016 Laetare Medal. It is, however, a document that looks primarily to the future. It is meant to offer a framework within which Notre Dame can pursue multiple important goods simultaneously and with maximal success. That is, it offers a possible way forward that will allow Notre Dame: to promote civility in public life (a virtue sorely needed at this moment in our nation’s and world’s history); to engage in robust and respectful dialogue and exchange with intellectuals and public figures (including the President of the United States) with whom we strongly disagree on fundamental principles; and to bear clear, courageous, and unfaltering witness to all the manifold goods at the core of Notre Dame’s distinctive Catholic mission. To that end, the memo will briefly summarize the relevant background facts, offer an analysis, and conclude with a discussion of proposed recommendations.


On March 5, the University of Notre Dame announced that it would award the 2016 Laetare Medal jointly to Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. The Laetare Medal is, of course, the oldest and most prestigious award conferred on American Catholics. It is given to those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” 

The announcement stated that, “[i]n 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.”

This clarifying disclaimer was necessary, as both Boehner and Biden have supported laws and policies that conflict with principles and goods affirmed by the Catholic Church and Notre Dame. For example, Speaker Boehner has been criticized in the past for supporting a budget that cut funding for federal programs meant to serve the poor and needy. He has also been criticized for not adequately pursuing a humane and comprehensive solution to the challenges of immigration, despite his public promises to do so. Boehner also supports the death penalty.

For his part, Vice President Biden has supported laws and policies gravely at odds with principles of basic justice affirmed by the Church and Notre Dame. Vice President Biden’s overall public record reflects a consistent commitment to denying unborn children the protections of the law, both in the context of abortion and embryo research. Vice President Biden also supports capital punishment and sponsored a law (passed in 1994) expanding its use.

During the first decade of his nearly 40-year career in the Senate (he was elected in 1973), Vice President Biden adopted a relatively moderate “pro-choice” stance towards abortion. Since then, however, with very few exceptions[1], he has voted against nearly all proposed limits on abortion and has opposed other efforts to extend legal protections to unborn children. For example, he voted against: (i) the Child Custody Protection Act and the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (both making it illegal for people to take children across state lines to obtain an abortion without parental involvement); (ii) laws banning abortion on U.S. military bases and in Indian Health Programs; (iii) the Mexico City Policy (forbidding U.S. taxpayer funding for organizations that perform abortions overseas); (iv) the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (offering protection to unborn children who are the victims of violent crimes); and (v) a law including unborn children in the SCHIP program (a federal matching program to provide healthcare funds to low-income children and their families). He has opposed stripping Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, of federal funding.

Most importantly, the Vice President is a vigorous supporter of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that declared a fundamental right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution. Roe is often mischaracterized as simply legalizing abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, while allowing substantial regulations during the third trimester. In fact, Roe ushered in one of the most radically permissive abortion regimes in the developed world, mandating that abortions be available throughout all nine months of pregnancy for virtually any reason. This is the result of both the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence of fundamental rights and Roe's (and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton’s) requirement that any limit on abortion include a “health exception” that has been defined so broadly as to encompass any aspect of a woman’s well-being (including economic and familial concerns), as determined by the abortionist. As a practical matter, the Roe regime has mandated that abortion be available throughout pregnancy—up to the moment of childbirth—whenever a pregnant woman persuades an abortionist that the abortion is in her interest. At its core, Roe stands for the proposition that the U.S. Constitution categorically excludes unborn children from the most basic protections of the law—namely, from the private lethal violence of abortion.

Vice President Biden used his powerful post on the Senate Judiciary Committee to resist all judicial nominees who might reverse the decision and return the matter to the states for resolution through the political process. His successful efforts to stop the nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 transformed the judicial confirmation process into a highly acrimonious and, frankly, broken system that has corrupted national politics ever since. Vice President Biden opposed the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts and led a historically unprecedented filibuster attempt against Justice Samuel Alito, on the grounds that they might vote to overturn Roe. By his own account, preserving Roe v. Wade is one of Vice President Biden’s highest priorities.

In his public comments about abortion, Vice President Biden has said that he, as “a matter of faith,” accepts Church teaching on when human life begins. But he nevertheless refuses to support any legal protections for the unborn child against abortion, on the grounds that the United States is a religiously pluralistic society.[2] Here Vice President Biden fundamentally misunderstands the argument regarding the injustice of abortion. That is, the Church (along with many other individuals and institutions, religious and secular) opposes the legality of abortion based on principles of equal justice under the law, informed by modern embryology. Because the unborn child is, biologically speaking, “one of us,” it is gravely unjust to exclude her from the law’s most basic protections. The failure of the state to recognize the unborn child as a rights-bearing subject of the law’s protections is not “neutrality,” as Vice President Biden would have it. It is rank discrimination of the deadliest kind.

Vice President Biden is also an ardent supporter of federal funding for research that requires the use and destruction of living human embryos (e.g., embryonic stem cell research). He even voted against a bill to ban all forms of human cloning. On this issue, Vice President Biden appears not to be concerned with respecting pluralism. Rather, he supports an aggressive policy of coercing federal taxpayers to fund speculative scientific research (for which there are ample sources of state and private funding) that depends on and creates incentives for the destruction of human beings at the embryonic stage of development.

He is also part of a presidential administration that has, by administrative regulation, forced Catholic universities, charities, and social service agencies to facilitate access to contraceptives, including drugs and devices that may (according to FDA labeling) function by causing the death of a newly conceived human embryo.

Simultaneous with the announcement of the Laetare Medal, a favorable article praising the choice was published in the National Catholic Reporter. Several articles published thereafter have criticized the decision. Most prominently, Notre Dame’s ordinary, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, issued a public statement praising Notre Dame’s efforts to promote civility in public discourse but ultimately concluded that it is not appropriate for Catholic universities to honor public officials (like Vice President Biden) that advocate and vote for abortion rights and same-sex marriage. More recently, 89 Notre Dame students signed an open letter in The Observer, criticizing the award on similar grounds.


It is clear that, in awarding the 2016 Laetare Medal to Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, the university meant to communicate two important messages. First, the award itself was meant to elevate the good of civil discourse. Second, by including the disclaimer that the award was not meant to signal Notre Dame’s endorsement of the recipients’ policy positions, the university tried to eliminate any confusion about its own core commitments as a Catholic institution, including its devotion to the unborn, immigrants, and the poor, as well as marriage, the family, civil society, and religious freedom.

My judgment is that the university’s effort to use the vehicle of the Laetare Medal to advance these goods all at once was, regrettably, not successful. Despite the disclaimer, reasonable people of good will were confused, saddened, and even angered by the award. Why so? The reason, I believe, lies in the public meaning of the Laetare Medal and the unique context of commencement.

The Laetare Medal is understood to be Notre Dame’s most significant recognition of an exemplary American Catholic.  According to Notre Dame’s archives, it is “not only the highest award Notre Dame bestows, but also the highest honor American Catholics can receive.” On the centennial of the Laetare Medal in 1983, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., wrote, “Our nation will always need—and it will be salutary to recognize—the kind of men and women who have worn the Laetare Medal, persons of excellence and faith who exemplify best what it means to be both American and Catholic.” 

The unique context of commencement also contributes to the likelihood of confusion. It is a highly emotional setting in which graduates and their families come to celebrate the students’ transition to being alumni. It is a time of celebration when the Notre Dame family focuses on everything that the university is and represents. It is not an occasion with subtle or complex meaning. It is a time when passions are excited and sentiments run high—usually to good ends.

Thus, given the rich history and symbolism of the Laetare Medal, it is understandable that the university’s disclaimer would be insufficient. And it was reasonable to infer, as many did, that the university was praising and associating itself with the public positions of the recipients, even when these squarely contradict the principles of human dignity and the common good at the core of the Church’s social teachings. Reasonable observers concluded, despite Notre Dame’s disclaimer, that the university was simply celebrating these men as exemplary models for Catholics in public life. 

Still other reasonable people of good will interpreted this year’s Laetare Award as a sign that Notre Dame does not take seriously enough its professed commitments to human dignity and the common good. They questioned, for example, why a public official who consistently votes to deny the equal protection of the law to an entire segment of the human family would be eligible for the Laetare Medal. Still others wondered how elected officials who support the death penalty and inadequately recognize the needs of immigrants and the poor could be eligible for Notre Dame’s highest award for American Catholics. Is it enough that such officials be committed to the goods of civility and compromise on other matters—especially when the recipients are not particularly well known in Washington, D.C., for pursuing compromise or for their consistent fidelity to civil discourse?

In short, the Laetare Medal is not a sufficiently fine-grained means of communication, nor is commencement a sufficiently nuanced context, for the university to convey the complex meaning it intended this year. As a result, there was public confusion about the relationship between the Medal and Notre Dame’s firm commitments. 

What Notre Dame does matters to people around the world in a way that the actions of other great universities do not. The hurt that this announcement has unintentionally caused is, then, regrettable primarily because it has inadvertently opened the door to a false impression about Notre Dame’s commitments. Notre Dame is genuinely committed as an institutional matter to all the great goods affirmed by the Church. Notre Dame is unabashedly pro-life and pro-family. Notre Dame cares very much for the poor, the immigrant, the condemned, and the marginalized. It is an institution—unlike many other academically great colleges and universities with religious roots—that takes seriously these goods and lends its own voice on their behalf worldwide. Because of the confusion this year regarding the Laetare Medal, these deeper truths about Notre Dame have likewise become obscured for many reasonable people of good will.

Moreover, the confusion and hurt is regrettable because they have obscured the core message of civility in public discourse that animated this year’s Laetare Medal. All of the oxygen in the public conversation has been consumed by considerations regarding Notre Dame’s Catholic character and the meaning of the award. All other messages and meaning have been crowded out.

Accordingly, I would suggest that, going forward, Notre Dame should explore alternative modes of accomplishing the three important goods of (i) promoting civility in public discourse; (ii) engaging in robust and respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree; and (iii) bearing witness to our distinctive Catholic character.


There can be no doubt that Notre Dame is well positioned to show the nation and the world how public servants and people in private life can cooperate, collaborate, or just simply disagree in a civil manner such that our discourse is elevated and our shared life together is improved and made richer. Similarly, there can be no doubt that, as a university, Notre Dame can and must engage with ideas and individuals with whom we have even very strong disagreements about fundamental human questions. Finally, as a Catholic university, we must bear proud and consistent witness to the truths that we profess along with the Church. How, then, might we pursue these great goods simultaneously and with maximal efficacy?

In thinking about this, I was led to reflect on my experience leading the U.S. delegation to UNESCO during the negotiation of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. I learned very quickly that, for civility and compromise to be possible, it is first necessary to create the background conditions for such engagement. It is imperative to “bring the temperature down” so that parties can come to the table free of agitation, not threatened by old and longstanding wounds, both real and perceived. Once this is accomplished, each party is able to relax, recognize the shared humanity of their interlocutors, and actually listen to and hear what the other has to say. Without these background conditions, civility, compromise, and even simple communication are not possible.

Applying this experience to our present circumstances, I would suggest that Notre Dame should disentangle the project of promoting civil discourse and modeling respectful engagement with those with whom we disagree from the emotionally charged context of the Laetare Medal and commencement. When people perceive the public stakes to be so high, it is very difficult for even those with the best intentions to engage productively with whom they disagree.  As discussed above, the public meaning and deep feelings associated with this award and this event are not well suited to reduce temperatures and create the conditions necessary for attending to complex and sometimes difficult lessons about civic discourse.

Instead, the crucial lessons about civility and respectful and robust intellectual engagement would be better received and more prominently featured in stand-alone events. For example, the Center for Ethics and Culture is in conversation with a benefactor about creating a recurring and high-profile lecture series on civility that will ultimately be published in our newly relaunched series with Notre Dame Press. We would welcome the opportunity to work closely with the administration on such events. Moreover, the university could sponsor a “Presidential Conversation” every four years, in which we invite the President of the United States (whoever he or she may be) to address the Notre Dame community and engage in dialogue.  The Center for Ethics and Culture, of course, would welcome the opportunity to cosponsor such an event. This would elevate Notre Dame’s profile and show that we are open and enthusiastic about engaging all leaders in respectful discourse and exchange of ideas. 

These are just a few possible ways in which Notre Dame can, going forward, be a beacon of civility and respectful exchange without any confusion or pain, and with maximal success. The essential fact is to recognize that we can achieve the goods of civility and exchange without adding to the mix emotional factors like awards and honors. The Center for Ethics and Culture, as always, remains at the service of Notre Dame to assist in this and any initiatives meant to project the Blessed Mother’s university’s voice into elite academia and the global public square in the name of human dignity and the common good. 

[1] Most notably, Vice President Biden supported a federal ban on partial-birth abortion (a particularly grisly form of abortion procedure typically used at later stages of pregnancy) and has supported some (though not all) limits on the federal funding for abortion.

[2] As mentioned in n. 1, Biden has supported one restriction on a particular abortion procedure (partial-birth abortion), but has never supported a limit on abortion as such.