Bishop Criticizes University Honor for Biden, a Supporter of Marriage Equality

Sometimes, it seems, that some church leaders go looking for an argument where one should not happen.

Bishop Kevin Rhodes of Indiana’s Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese has criticized the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, for awarding its highest honor to Vice President Joe Biden, in part because of Biden’s support for LGBT equality.

Vice President Joe Biden

According to LGBTQ Nation, the University of Notre Dame decided to give its Laetare medal to two Catholic politicians, Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner–two men who hold very different political opinions.  According to a university press statement the Laetare Medal is given at commencement exercises to Catholics “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

Rhoades wrote to Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the university president, expressing his displeasure at the decision to honor Biden.  In a statement describing his communication with Jenkins, Rhoades objected to the choice of Biden because of his pro-choice and pro-marriage equality views:

“I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal, even if he/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. I also question the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage. The 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.”

What makes Rhoades’ criticism even more problematic is that he acknowledges that the university had a good intention in choosing to honor these opponents, one Democrat and one Republican at this time of political rancor.  Rhoades stated:

“Father Jenkins made it clear to me that in recognizing Vice-President Biden and Speaker Boehner, Notre Dame would not be endorsing the policy positions of either, but rather, would be honoring them for their public service in politics. 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. I appreciate Notre Dame’s efforts to encourage civility, dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation in political life.”

The problem with Rhoades’ kind of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that different Catholics may take different routes to solving social problems.  Many avenues exist to address a variety of social problems.  Praising people whose lives and service have been exemplary is one way to heal wounds.  The fact that the university explicitly disavowed any support for particular positions of either recipient should be enough to make it clear to people what the university is praising about the men, and what it is not.

Yet, Rhoades believes that only his approach is appropriate. and that the conferral of the medal on Biden would send a bad message:

My principal concern about this whole matter is scandal. In honoring a ‘pro-choice’ Catholic who also has supported the redefinition of marriage, which the Church considers harmful to the common good of society, it can give the impression to people, including Catholics in political office, that one can be ‘a good Catholic’ while also supporting or advocating for positions that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings.

Besides the fact that the accusation of “scandal” has become meaningless, Rhoades fails to recognize that, in fact, millions of U.S. Catholics have supported marriage equality in good conscience and with no harm to their faith or spiritual lives.

In the news story, Jenkins responded to Rhoades criticism by noting that he and the bishop don’t always agree, adding:

“I’m gratified that he acknowledged, in his words, ‘Notre Dame’s efforts to encourage civility, dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation in political life.’”

In an interview Jenkins gave before Rhoades’ criticism became public, he further explained the rationale of his decisions:

“One thing I hope we do at the University is we try to bring our students to understand they can disagree but they need to talk to one another, reason with one another, and despite differences, they should always respect the other person and not demean.

“Unless we do that, we cannot work together, we cannot serve the common good. We are just in this gridlock of antagonism that is all too common today.”

Rhoades’ opposition seems to fall under the single-minded “obsession” with sexual issues that Pope Francis has warned bishops against.  Pope Francis has shown the example many times that he can meet with leaders and individuals with whom he may not always agree.  Rhoades’ objection seems to be an objection to political positions, something which the university said did not factor into its decision.  In doing so, the bishop has threatened to turn an exercise in reconciliation into a fiasco in the type of political fighting that was trying to be defused.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    Rhodes is like so many conservatives – either you believe as they believe or get out of the church. That is sad!

  2. Anton
    Anton says:

    It seems to me that Rhoades is the one who is sending the bad message. Jesus was kind to the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, lepers, prostitutes as well as Pharisees and scribes, even though he criticized the latter two. Will Rhoades oppose Notre Dame for giving Jesus the Laetare medal, too? And how about Pope Francis, who washed the feet of women and non-Catholics? Young and old Catholics are writing off the likes of prelates like Rhoades and even membership in the Catholic church. But I like the response given to a man who told his pastor that the reason he no longer goes to church is that it is full of hypocrites. The pastor’s response: “that’s true, but there’s always room for one more.”

  3. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I remember that Pope Francis said shortly after his elevation to the papacy that he did not want the bishops to pick fights.

  4. Larry
    Larry says:

    Knee jerk cultural warrior polishing his resume. He has made his position public so that his sinecure will be protected if the winds turn conservative again.

  5. Nick
    Nick says:

    I’m mostly just offended by the bishop’s godawful writing skills. In terms of style alone, this letter would not have made it past any professional copyeditor worth his salt.


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