Why should we care about what the University of Notre Dame does or doesn’t do? The answer is that it holds itself out as the leading Catholic college in the United States – of 200 that have survived in a world where tax dollars support over 600 four-year colleges. Indeed, it says it is the leading, or one of the leading, Catholic colleges in the world. And by “leading,” we’re not talking about football.
The words of the title of this essay come from the lyrics of a 1927 song that reappeared in covers made famous in 1948. What four-leaf clover, that one-in-10,000 phenomenon of nature, has Notre Dame looked over? He’s Joseph M. Scheidler, Notre Dame Class of 1950, one of the world’s foremost leaders of human rights, the retired founder and executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. Notre Dame has passed him over yet again this year for its Laetare Medal.
Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, called Laetare Sunday (laetare is Latin for “rejoice”), the University announces the name of the individual to whom it will award its Laetare Medal, its highest award. The award is given at commencement ceremonies. This year it was Sunday, May 17.
In addition to being Catholic and American, awardees must be alive. There are no posthumous awards. (An exception was made in 1990 in the case of Sister Thea Bowman who died between the time of the announcement and the ceremony.) Previous awardees have included President John F. Kennedy (1961), operatic tenor John McCormack (1933), novelist Walker Percy (1995), Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1995), labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins (2001), jazz composer Dave Brubeck (2006), actor Martin Sheen (2008), Senator Moynihan (1992), Sargent Shriver (1968) and his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1988), and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean (1996). In its first 18 years, four medalists were women and they were awarded the medal in their own right, not as wife.
The University has been unafraid of making controversial awards, such as those to Frances Tieran (a literary advocate of the Confederacy, 1909), and Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker, 1972). A full list can be found here: http://archives.nd.edu/research/facts/laetare.html This year’s medalist was Aaron Neville, a Grammy Award-winning singer.
Persons associated with the University are not barred. Members, or former members, of the faculty included scientist Rev. Alfred Zahm, the 1925 medalist, law professor (1960-66) John T. Noonan, Jr., in 1984 (who among other things authored A Private Choice: Abortion in America in the Seventies (1979)), and professor of history Philip Gleason in 1999. Chairs of the board of trustees, who were also benefactors, received the medal: the late Donald Keough (1993), 1951 alumnus Andrew McKenna (2000), Thomas Carney and his wife (1986) and Edmund Stepan and his wife (1983). And the late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, long-time president of the University, received it in 1987.
Among the living 80 million American Catholics, why should Joseph M. Scheidler receive this Medal? I am reminded of an award once received by now-Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was said at the time that the award did not so much honor her as that she honored the award by accepting it. Giving Mr. Scheidler the Laetare Medal would honor the Medal.
The first recipient was named in 1883. The University describes it as the “oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.” It is given to those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” The medal bears the Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”).
No Catholic institution of higher learning needs to be reminded that, as then Pope Benedict XIV wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritatis in Veritate (Charity in Truth), truth is a great charity: “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity…” (para. 1); “A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion…” (para. 4).
We can hope that thousands, indeed tens of millions, of American Catholics live lives that defend the truth, “ennoble the arts and sciences, illustrate the ideals of the Church and enrich the heritage of humanity.” Among all these millions, why Mr. Scheidler? Because he led a movement from 1980, full-time, without any personal benefit, to which he gave, in the words of our Declaration of Independence, his life, his fortune and his sacred honor. His passionate lifelong work, his heroic witness, for unborn children, for their mothers and fathers, and for all of us, has illustrated the ideals of the Catholic Church and enriched humanity.
He worked to save lives. He worked to protect the human right to life, the right of the unborn and the right of each of us not to be denied life by the government’s failure to protect life based on condition of dependency. While governments around the world talk about “the responsibility to protect,” Joe Scheidler has been acting on that responsibility here in the United States, day in and day out.
There are many roles in the pro-life movement: caregivers to pregnant women and newborns, counselors to pregnant women, adoptive parents and adoption agencies, marchers on January 22, benefactors, administrators, lawyers, lobbyists, legislators, and more. Joe Scheidler has been a leader and an activist: counselor and protestor outside abortion clinics, organizer of conferences of abortion providers who spoke of their conversion to pro-life, confronting abortionists and their supporters.
Because of this work, and while doing this work, he was the lead defendant in a lawsuit lasting 28 years, from 1986 to 2014, in which he pledged his home as collateral and in which his case was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court three times, a truly exceptional development (510 U.S. 249 (1994), 537 U.S. 393 (2003), and 547 U.S. 9 (2006)). He was sued under RICO, the federal anti-racketeering law. A history of the lawsuit is here: http://prolifeaction.org/about/nvs.php Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his life was one of civil disobedience. And like Dr. King, he expected arrests and trials and jail.
No doubt Notre Dame would be more receptive to honoring Joe Scheidler if Scheidler had been involved in politically correct issues such as homelessness, prison rape, poverty, domestic violence, racial justice, humanitarian aid to victims of natural disasters or war, medical research. The University’s advertisements during televised football games end with the tagline “We’re the Fighting Irish, fighting for/against X, Y, and Z.” Abortion has never been one of the subjects of the ads.
Joe Scheidler protested Notre Dame’s decision to grant an honorary degree to President Obama, an extremist on abortion, at the 2009 commencement. And the Laetare Medal for that year was refused by its pro-life awardee, Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard professor of law, the first time that the Medal had been refused. Yet, Notre Dame could still be magnanimous in awarding Joe Scheidler its Laetare Medal -- just as Father Hesburgh was willing to testify in Scheidler’s behalf at his trial and just as Father Hesburgh invited a severe critic of his, a student named Martin W. Rodgers, to work in the Admissions Office to increase the number of minority students. Rodgers is now a trustee of the University.
Father Hesburgh passed away at age 97 on February 26, 2015. He had exercised his fatherhood as a Catholic priest for 71 years and as the University’s president for 35 years of them. Joseph M. Scheidler, now age 87, has exercised his fatherhood, as a parent of children born to his marriage, in admonishing abortionists and their supporters, in warmly welcoming converts, as a leader of a movement of individuals across our entire land devoted to life, as the protector of millions of women and girls who would do harm to themselves, and as the guardian of millions of unborn young.
Notre Dame must not look over Joseph M. Scheidler another year.
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is an attorney who practices in the Washington D.C.-area.