Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress while Vice President Joseph Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listen, at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 24, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
In recognition of their leadership, civility and dedication to our nation, the University of Notre Dame will present two Catholic officials from opposing political parties — Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner — with its 2016 Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics. The award will be presented at Notre Dame’s 171st University Commencement Ceremony on May 15 (Sunday).
“We live in a toxic political environment where poisonous invective and partisan gamesmanship pass for political leadership,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president. “Public confidence in government is at historic lows, and cynicism is high. It is a good time to remind ourselves what lives dedicated to genuine public service in politics look like. We find it in the lives of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner.
“While both have been loyal and committed partisans, they were leaders who put the good of the nation ahead of partisan victory, seeking through respectful dialogue honorable compromise and progress. Speaker Boehner’s resistance to a simple reductionism made him suspect in his own party; Vice President Biden reminded his fellow Democrats that those in the other party are ‘our opponents, not our enemies.’
“In 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.”
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware and his law degree from Syracuse University College of Law. At age 29 he became one of the youngest people ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Soon after his election, his wife and infant child were tragically killed in an automobile accident, yet he persevered in caring for his family as a single parent and in serving in the Senate. He represented Delaware for 36 years before his election as vice president in 2008.
In the Senate, Biden served as chairman or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years and played an integral role in the 1994 Crime Law and the Violence Against Women Act. He also served for 12 years as chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helping to guide issues and legislation related to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, post-Cold War Europe, the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
As the nation’s 47th vice president, Biden oversaw the $840 billion stimulus package in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and leads the Ready to Work Initiative, among many other initiatives.
Boehner is from southwest Ohio, the second child in a family with 12 children and modest means. After graduating from Xavier University, he worked in business and served in the Ohio legislature. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, serving the 8th District of Ohio, and was re-elected 10 times.
Among House Republicans, Boehner served as conference chairman, minority leader and majority leader. He also served as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee where he authored several reforms, including the Pension Protection Act and a school choice voucher program for low-income children in Washington, D.C.
Boehner became Speaker of the House in January 2011 and was re-elected in January 2013 and January 2015. He stepped down as speaker and resigned from Congress last fall.
The Laetare (pronounced lay-TAH-ray) Medal is so named because its recipient is announced each year in celebration of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent on the Church calendar. “Laetare,” the Latin word for “rejoice,” is the first word in the entrance antiphon of the Mass that Sunday, which ritually anticipates the celebration of Easter. The medal bears the Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”).
Established at Notre Dame in 1883, the Laetare Medal was conceived as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that antedates the 11th century. The medal has been awarded annually at Notre Dame to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Among the previous recipients of the Laetare Medal are Civil War Gen. William Rosecrans, operatic tenor John McCormack, President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, actor Martin Sheen and jazz composer Dave Brubeck.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, will deliver the principal commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Other honorary degree recipients are civil rights activist Diane Nash, Notre Dame Board Chair and business leader Richard C. Notebaert, musician Arturo Sandoval, Cardinal Donald Wuerl and American Council of Learned Societies President Pauline Yu.