When I first heard the news that Mary Ann Glendon declined the Laetare medal this morning, I must admit that I was a little disappointed. For selfish reasons, I wanted Glendon to make a strong speech at Notre Dame supporting the sanctity of human life. I wanted to hear the crowd respond in a very favorable manner. I wanted to see the stunned or confused look on President Obama's face at the conclusion of her remarks.
However, after giving it some thought, I have concluded that Glendon made the right decision. Though a chance to rebuke a sitting President is a once in a lifetime opportunity, other considerations are more important. First and foremost, it became increasingly obvious that Notre Dame was essentially using Glendon's receipt of the Laetare medal to justify their decision to invite President Obama to give the commencement address. Many Notre Dame officials felt that honoring her would at least give them a figleaf of respectability among traditionalist and conservative Catholics.
As of this morning, that figleaf is gone. Notre Dame officials will be forced to justify the decision to honor President Obama on its own merits.
Furthermore, Glendon's refusal to receive the Laetare Medal sends a message that is more powerful than any petition, letter, or statement by a Bishop. The message is clear. Believing Catholics are not a cheap date. We are not going to allow Catholic universities to openly defy church teachings in exchange for some recognition, applause, or even a chance to respond to a sitting President. We insist that our colleges and universities must be held to a higher standard and must remain true to their Catholic identity. When they act in ways that are contrary to their Catholic identity, there will be consequences. Many Ann Glendon's decision has succeeded in imposing real tangible costs on Notre Dame—this sends a powerful signal to other Catholic colleges and universities.
It should be noted that the conduct of Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins throughout this ordeal has left much to be desired. Father Jenkins has rescinded his invitation to dialogue with student leaders who disagreed with Notre Dame's decision to invite President Obama. In his response to Glendon, he makes no effort to engage her arguments. He simply expresses disappointment and states that Notre Dame will simply select another individual to receive the Laetare Medal. One would expect a similar press release if one of Notre Dame's deans or administrators had decided to step down or take a job at another school.
Father Jenkins clearly does not deserve to have Mary Ann Glendon attend this spring’s commencement.
Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.