Bill Cosby for the Laetare Medal?

In honoring pro-abortion politicians, an institution shows it doesn’t really take the evil of abortion all that seriously—certainly not as seriously as other forms of sexual assault against women.

Consider the following proposal: Bill Cosby for the Laetare Medal. 

For 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 awards—like most colleges and universities, they pass out so-called “honorary degrees” like candy—but 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 Aaron Neville. 

The list of past recipients is by no means perfect—the list of movies that have won Best Picture of the Year has any number of real stinkers, seen from the perspective of history—and 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.

But 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.

Why 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?

Well, 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 not Cosby?

The answer is fairly obvious: he is on trial for multiple criminal sexual-assault charges.

But 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 done—the good things; and there are plenty of them, as that Notre Dame graduation ceremony taught me years ago.

The 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. 

To 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?

Justifying 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.     

Am 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?

There 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.

And 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. 

If 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. 

There 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.

How about us? Are we as willing to speak truth to power when the risk is so much less?

I 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. 

D’Arcy 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.

That 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?

The 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.

And 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 three things.

First, you show that don’t really take the evil of abortion all that seriously—certainly 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. 

Second, 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.

And 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 society.

Dear, beloved Notre Dame, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Joe Biden

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 45 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."