Anybody Need a Used Laetare Medal?

As years go, 2009 so far hasn’t been one for the ages. Our economic crisis continues to worsen (my 401ks have tanked so badly I’m thinking of putting what’s left of my retirement money into Chinese armament futures), while our government’s response consists of borrowing money to fund bankruptcy as usual. In Iowa, gay marriage is being stuffed down citizens’ throats by judicial elites — while across New England, voters are embracing it voluntarily. American guns are flooding south to Mexican drug cartels, fueling the near-civil war in that country — and offering our politicians new excuses to disarm U.S. citizens. In the midst of massive unemployment and crushing deficits, the president is pushing amnesty for illegal aliens. Swine flu is killing hundreds in Mexico, and spreading through the world (it hit the high school of my best friend’s son in Queens; he just left the hospital). Dirty Old Man of the Senate Arlen Specter just joined the Democrats, giving the Party of Death a filibuster-proof majority. Now that we live in a one-party state, we might as well go the whole hog and acclaim Obama President-for-Life. We can buy him one of those leopard-skin caps and blame all our problems on British colonialism.
Reunion with the Lefebvrites may have been scotched by a single bishop’s crackpot theories, while the Legionaries of Christ continue the slow bleed of credibility and cash. The head of the German bishops conference is propounding a heretical theory of salvation. Mel Gibson is getting divorced. Newt Gingrich just entered the Church. (I know about “Here comes everybody,” but really, folks. Why couldn’t he wait until his deathbed, like Oscar Wilde?)
Amidst such Chinese water-torture temptations to despair, I’m ready to grasp at straws. In fact, I’ve reached the point where I start making lists of awful things that actually haven’t happened — by way of keeping up my spirits. Indeed, like every beautiful spring day unspoiled by plagues of frogs, each one is an opportunity to practice the virtue of gratitude. So this week, I’d like to thank God and His Providence that:

Bubonic plague isn’t spreading down from Canada.
The U.S. dollar is more stable than the Zimbabwean dollar.
Polygamy is still illegal in Utah.
Pro-abortion warmonger Joe Lieberman didn’t join the Republicans.
Barack Obama didn’t enter the Church, bringing his toxic politics in with him.
The head of the Filipino bishops’ conference didn’t add a fourth Person to the Trinity.
Mary Ann Glendon didn’t accept Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal on the same rostrum that President Obama would be receiving an honorary degree.

In fact, this last item is more than just a straw. It’s good pretext for a party, one which I wish I could throw over in Rome — and invite Ambassador Glendon’s gifted and gorgeous daughter, Elizabeth Lev. Miss Lev works there as a journalist and teacher, and conducted me and the students of Thomas More College on a tour of the Sistine Chapel that would have done Pope Sixtus proud. I didn’t get to meet Ambassador Glendon, although I’d see her sometimes at the lovely, battered Borromini Church of San Giovanni di Fiorentini, at the Sunday afternoon English Mass said by the forthright Rev. Thomas Williams, L.C. I didn’t want to bug her, but having read Glendon for years in places like First Things, I was a trifle starstruck. And now, having read the ambassador’s principled, eloquent letter to Rev. John Jenkins of Notre Dame, I’m ready to replace the bumper sticker on my car — covering “Arm the Unborn to Guard the Border” with “Mary Ann Glendon for President.”
If you haven’t seen Glendon’s letter, stop reading this drivel immediately and click over to it, if only to see some proof in black and white that some American Catholics who operate in elite circles (she teaches at Harvard) aren’t willing to trade their souls for a mess of Irish-American steelcut oatmeal. Glendon explains in her letter that she was disturbed by the school’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to a president who flouted the Church’s teaching on an essential moral matter — and even gently pointed out to the poor soul fronting for Notre Dame’s board of trustees that the U.S. bishops have explicitly forbidden the awarding of such degrees to men with views like Mr. Obama’s. Now, Glendon is too much the lady to make this explicit, but one could read between the lines: If you can’t even hold to the standard agreed-upon by a commission of U.S. bishops, you’re probably in trouble.
Notre Dame’s craven hunger for secular esteem is hardly unique in American Catholic history. Think how giddy with joy we were when the skirt-chasing son of a bootlegging Nazi appeaser won the election in 1960 on the votes of dead Chicagoans. From the grubby, roughnecked immigrant families of eight or nine Vinnies and Patricks who’d filled the ethnic parishes and pickle factories, we’d finally made our way into the “mainstream,” to join the lapsing members of the old American elite — whose Protestant faith and natural virtues were even then dribbling down their pants leg like John Cheever’s spilled seventh martini. We’ve arrived. There goes the neighborhood.
Now Glendon’s principled decision leaves Notre Dame in a pickle. They’ve got this Laetare Medal to hand out, and nobody to accept it. The award is nothing to sneeze at; in the past it has gone to some pretty shining stars: the last great Catholic novelist we know of, Walker Percy. Jazz genius and latecoming composer of classical Catholic liturgical music Dave Brubeck. Clare Booth Luce. I’d quibble with some of the choices in other years, although they have never been disgraceful. Irish tenor John McCormack, actor Martin Sheen (who dropped the surname “Estevez” in honor of Archbishop Fulton Sheen). I can even choke down Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, and Dorothy Day. (Here comes everybody . . .)
But who will take the prize this year — the sweaty, used medal boxed up for Ambassador Glendon, on which she had to write in her gracious hand “Delivery Refused”? Its sheen will surely be Martined by the fact that whoever gets it is clearly the runner-up. What’s more, accepting what Glendon refused can only be seen as an endorsement of Notre Dame’s decision to honor the president, in defiance of the bishops and the Fifth Commandment. That is, if the person who accepts is reputable and respected . . .
Now I wouldn’t want that to happen. I can’t think offhand of a decent Catholic who’d accept the award this year, on the same stage as Obama. So instead, let me suggest a faintly dodgy, vaguely ridiculous character who’s still recognizably Catholic, but who makes no pretense of serving as an example to anyone for anything.
Yeah, I’m willing to take it.
It would mean flying to Indiana, and probably force me to miss my own school’s commencement (instead of Obama, we’re honoring Francis Cardinal Arinze), but given the resume value of a Laetare, it’s probably worth burning a free Southwest ticket — as long as they put me up in a decent hotel. I could drop by the office of pioneering neo-Classical architect Duncan Stroik, and visit one of the state’s proliferating Lincoln museums. I’d get to meet the president, and all — the man whose finger rests on the world’s largest nuclear button. That’s pretty cool.
I think, with my only accomplishments being two volumes in a series of “Bad Catholic’s” guides and a third still underway, that my presence wouldn’t send a scandalous message. In fact, as I stood there in my second-hand suit accepting a second-hand medal, perhaps the college choir could belt out “Second Hand Rose” instead of “Pomp and Circumstance.” I’d palm the medal, make a few remarks that treated the president with the respect he is rightly due. (“Americans, do you want Change?” I’d say. “Start with your underwear.”) Then I’d pocket the prize and head straight for the airport. Then TSA employees would find the thing in my pants and spend an hour doing a strip search. But at least I wouldn’t end up in Guantanamo. Some things really have Changed.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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