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Glendon declines to accept Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal

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5/1/2009

Mary Ann Glendon is pictured in Rome in 2008 while serving as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. In an April 27 letter to Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, Glendon said she can not accept the Laetare Medal or part icipate in the university’s May 17 commencement ceremony that will include President Barack Obama. CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Citing concerns about plans to honor President Barack Obama “in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops,” former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon has turned down the prestigious Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame.

In an April 27 letter to Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, Glendon said she will not participate in May 17 commencement exercises during which the award is presented. The letter was posted on the blog of the magazine First Things.

Glendon described Obama as “a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice” and said the decision to present him with an honorary degree violated the bishops’ 2004 request that Catholic institutions not honor “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Obama supports legal abortion and his administration recently proposed new regulations that would expand the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research. Both are in direct conflict with Church teaching.

The Laetare Medal is presented annually to an American Catholic for outstanding service to the Catholic Church and society.

A spokeswoman for the Indiana university confirmed April 27 that Glendon, who served as ambassador from 2007 until earlier this year, was the first person to accept and then later decline the award.

Father Jenkins offered a two-sentence response on the university’s Web site.

“We are, of course, disappointed, that Professor Glendon has made this decision,” his statement said. “It is our intention to award the Laetare Medal to another deserving recipient, and we will make the announcement as soon as possible.”

Jennifer R. Psaki, a White House spokeswoman, said Obama also was disappointed by Glendon’s decision, “but he looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas.”

“While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position, and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country,” Psaki added.

Glendon, professor of law at Harvard Law School, wrote that she thought the bishops’ request is “reasonable” and does not seek to “control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite speakers and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes.” As a result, she wrote, “I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.”

Glendon said she was also concerned that the university had issued “talking points” that implied that her acceptance speech for the award would “somehow balance the event.”

She quoted two statements from the university:

-- “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

-- “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

Glendon wrote that a commencement is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families.

“It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision -- in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops -- to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice,” the letter said.

In light of reports that other Catholic institutions also are choosing to disregard the bishops’ request, Glendon expressed concern that Notre Dame’s example “could have an unfortunate ripple effect.”

Glendon concluded her letter by saying that she would release it to the media without making any other comment “at this time.”

The university has been under nearly constant criticism since announcing March 20 that Obama would speak at the commencement. Bishops, clergy, alumni and conservative Catholic organizations have mounted a campaign seeking to have the university revoke the invitation to the president. However, some students have been reported to be enthusiastic about and supportive of the president’s upcoming appearance on campus.

Other students, including some graduating seniors, have voiced strong objections to the decision to honor Obama.

“Father Jenkins has put some of his students into a position of moral dilemma as to whether they should attend their own graduation,” said a statement by a coalition of student groups. “The lack of concern for these devoted sons and daughters of Notre Dame, who love this university and the Catholic principles on which it was built, is shameful.”

The Laetare Medal has been awarded by the university since 1883 and is the university’s oldest and most prestigious award. Past recipients include President John F. Kennedy; Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan; death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille; and Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Last year’s recipient was actor and political activist Martin Sheen.

The following is the text of Mary Ann Glendon’s letter.

April 27, 2009

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

President

University of Notre Dame

Dear Father Jenkins,

When you informed me in December 2008 that I had been selected to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, I was profoundly moved. I treasure the memory of receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1996, and I have always felt honored that the commencement speech I gave that year was included in the anthology of Notre Dame’s most memorable commencement speeches. So I immediately began working on an acceptance speech that I hoped would be worthy of the occasion, of the honor of the medal, and of your students and faculty.

Last month, when you called to tell me that the commencement speech was to be given by President Obama, I mentioned to you that I would have to rewrite my speech. Over the ensuing weeks, the task that once seemed so delightful has been complicated by a number of factors.

First, as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:

-- “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

-- “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision--in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops--to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.

Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.

It is with great sadness, therefore, that I have concluded that I cannot accept the Laetare Medal or participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony.

In order to avoid the inevitable speculation about the reasons for my decision, I will release this letter to the press, but I do not plan to make any further comment on the matter at this time.

Yours Very Truly,

Mary Ann Glendon