Students walk on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in this 2007 file photo. (CNS photo/Matt Cashore, courtesy of the University of Notre Dame)
the following proposal: Bill Cosby for the Laetare Medal.
those who don’t know, the Laetare Medal, called this because the recipient or
recipients are announced each year on Laetare Sunday, is the University of
Notre Dame’s highest award. It’s their Catholic “medal of honor.” The university
has other distinctions it awardslike most colleges and universities, they pass
out so-called “honorary degrees” like candybut the Laetare is (or is supposed
to be) special. Past recipients include notables such as Clare Boothe Luce,
Sargent Shriver, Dorothy Day, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, actress Helen Hayes,
Justice John Noonan, novelist Walker Percy, Sr. Thea Bowman, Dr. Edmund D.
Pellegrino, jazz musician Dave Brubeck, poet Dana Gioia, and last year, singer
list of past recipients is by no means perfectthe list of movies that have won
Best Picture of the Year has any number of real stinkers, seen from the
perspective of historyand no list of award winners will ever please everyone; we
are, after all, a fallen, sinful people, so everyone has done something they’re
probably not proud of or shouldn’t be proud of. But none of this should detract
from the significance of the Laetare if for no other reason than the
presentation of such awards tells us as much about the institution awarding
them as it does about the recipients.
back to Bill Cosby. I once heard Bill Cosby give a graduation speech after he
had been awarded one of those honorary degrees. It was by turns hilarious and
deeply inspiring. I think the graduates and their families counted themselves
lucky that they were blessed with an interesting and entertaining speaker,
rather than the usual run-of-the-mill former chairman of the board of the
university or some other rich industrialist droning on about something-or-other,
another in a long line of entirely forgettable graduation speeches. I still
remember Cosby’s speech and the sense of joy and purpose it clearly brought to
the crowd. That was years ago, however. Oddly enough, it was at Notre Dame. I
don’t think they’d want Cosby now. In fact, I’m fairly certain of it.
not? Isn’t he someone who blazed new trails and pioneered new possibilities for
African-Americans in American media? Didn’t he work tirelessly for education in
the black community and to promote social change? Sure. That’s why Notre Dame
game him an honorary degree. The chairman of the board of the university read
out a long and impressive list of accomplishments, as I recall. So why not Bill
Cosby for the Laetare?
for one thing, he’s not Catholic. But let’s say that, in a spirit of ecumenism,
we get past that little problem. (You look at the list of past recipients, and
it makes you wonder how many were really practicing
Catholics anyway.) So, setting aside for the moment the religion question, why
answer is fairly obvious: he is on trial for multiple criminal sexual-assault
wait, you might say, there is a simple misunderstanding here. We wouldn’t be
giving him the medal for those
things. We’d be giving him the medal for the other things he’s donethe good things; and there are plenty of
them, as that Notre Dame graduation ceremony taught me years ago.
absurdity of that argument would be obvious, and not only would no serious
person find it acceptable, many people would likely be offended by it. Why? Because
if it weren’t already clear to the university, it would be made abundantly
clear to them by thousands of women across the country, that awarding the
Laetare Medal to Bill Cosby would only demonstrate their lack of seriousness
about the crime of sexual assault against women.
award him a medal of “honor” and distinction when he may be guilty of criminal
sexual assault (and note, he hasn’t been convicted yet) is to say that sexual
assault doesn’t really matter all that much; it gets “balanced out,” as it
were, by some other “good” things. So no
matter what else he’s done in his life that might be wonderful, you
wouldn’t give him a medal of “honor” even on the chance he might be guilty
of sexual assault. What would it say about you if you did?
giving such a person a medal would be something like giving Nazi architect
Albert Speer a medal of distinction for his architectural designs and saying,
“Yes, we know he was a Nazi and that he used slave labor, but we’re not
awarding him for that.” It would be
like awarding a medal to the amazingly talented Leni Riefenstahl, the
groundbreaking woman film-maker who made Triumph
of the Will, the infamous Nazi propaganda film that was one of the most
brilliant documentary films of its time, with the explanation: “Okay, sure, her
film was for the Nazis; but still, it was pretty amazing” (which it was), “and
besides, she wasn’t really a deeply
committed Nazi or anything” (which likely she wasn’t), “she just went along
with them and did their bidding in this one way.” Tell that to a Jewish
survivor of Auschwitz or Dachau. No sane person would make such an award, and
no one to my knowledge ever has made
such an award, precisely because of the images we all have of those camps, the
barracks, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the showers, the crematoria, and
the mass graves.
I guilty of making the argumentative fallacy which has come to be known as argumentum ad Hitleram? If we were still
simply talking about Bill Cosby, then perhaps I would. But let’s say instead of
Bill Cosby, we were talking about a politician who had consistently supported
the killing of literally millions of unborn children, even in the last minutes
before their birth, in flagrant contradiction of the firmest and severest
teachings of the Catholic Church? A man like, say, Joe Biden? Would it
be possible to award that man a medal
of “honor” without communicating to the whole world that abortion just isn’t
all that bad; that it’s just another “issue,” and on such “issues,” men and
women of good will can disagree?
are many such issues, and it is a problem of modern public life that so many
people have elevated nearly every political issue that divides us to a level of
ultimate, near-religious significance. People argue now about childhood
vaccinations, circumcising babies, and using non-genetically modified foods
with the fervor once reserved in an earlier age for debates over
transubstantiation, infant baptism, and the filioque
clause in the creed.
yet, to say that not every issue
should be granted the significance of the Holocaust is not to say that no issue should. If you are a Catholic
university, guided by Catholic moral principles, then you simply must not bestow honors on a slave owner
or a politician who supports slavery, or a politician who supports mass murder
of innocent human beings.
you’re unclear on this, I suggest reading St. Ambrose’s letter to the emperor
Theodosius refusing him Communion after the emperor had ordered hundreds of
thousands of citizens from the rebellious city of Thessalonica be herded into a
stadium and slaughtered. When you have no power, you may not be able to stop
the slaughter, but you damn well don’t look the other way and then reward the
people guilty of it as though it didn’t happen.
was actually a lot at stake in his decision. It was not many years before that
Christianity had been illegal and Christians killed by the score in Roman
persecutions. And Theodosius’ predecessors in power had been devoted Arians;
Theodosius was one of the first emperors who was not. Prudence might have dictated
that Ambrose not “rile things up” by choosing to deny the emperor Communion
upon his return to Milan. But St. Ambrose shows us a Catholic prelate who was
willing to speak truth to power and who was not willing to withhold his
condemnation out of fear of losing favor from someone in power.
about us? Are we as willing to speak truth to power when the risk is so much
know a sad story in this regard. At a certain point after the story of the sex
scandals in Boston broke, dramatized recently in the movie Spotlight, it
became clear that the one man who had spoken out boldly against passing these
child molesters along from parish to parish was John D’Arcy, the man who by the
time the scandal broke, was bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Indeed, John
D’Arcy had likely been shuttled away to this relatively poor, sprawling
Midwestern diocese in the rust belt precisely because of his opposition to the
powerful forces running affairs in Boston.
never mentioned his heroic stance, even after the scandal broke. But Notre Dame
did. They would parade him in front of graduating classes for several years
with the comment that “Here was a man who spoke truth to power,” and “things
would have been much better if the people in charge had listened to John
D’Arcy.” Very true.
went on until 2009, the year that the University of Notre Dame decided to give
an honorary degree to Barack Obama, despite the US bishops’ directive that
Catholic universities should cease awarding honors to people involved in or
publicly supportive of abortion-on-demand. The president of the university told
the media that he had “consulted with” people within the Church and that they
had told him this wouldn’t run afoul of the USCCB directive. At this point, Bishop
John D’Arcy wrote a heartfelt and deeply poignant open letter to the university,
saying, in effect: you talked to someone in the Church? I am your bishop. Why didn’t you talk to me?
answer, of course, was that he wouldn’t have given them the answer they wanted
to hear. He was a man who, as they well understood, was willing to speak truth
to power. So Notre Dame, who just months before, had been touting John D’Arcy,
saying “if the powerful men in Boston had only listened to him,” were now shutting
him out precisely because of what they knew he would tell them.
now Notre Dame is set to award the Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden, a
man whose record on abortion could hardly be worse. He is not slightly in favor it; he has often been
one of abortion’s strongest supporters in the Senate. When you award a man with
this record your highest honor, what do you say about yourself? At least these
you show that don’t really take the evil of abortion all that seriouslycertainly
not as seriously as other forms of sexual assault against women, which is
precisely what abortion is, since you would never
consider awarding any honor at this point to Bill Cosby.
you show you don’t care about the US bishops and their directives against
honoring politicians who support abortion. One wonders about such institutions
whether they fully understand that such flagrant disrespect for the bishop’s
authority will make them look utterly hypocritical when they demand that businesses
and governments abide by USCCB directives on social justice, immigration, and
disarmament. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you
undermine authority, you can’t turn right around and appeal to it.
third, you show that you’re just so insecure in yourself and the value of what
you do that you just can’t stop yourself from “sucking up” to the
powers-that-be. And what this tells people is that you care more about your
access to power and privilege than you do about the moral witness you make in
beloved Notre Dame, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole
world…but for Joe Biden?