Abortion and ND, Act 2

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Catholics believe God draws the good from all things, so I wonder: At what other university did an entire student body receive a seminar on the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life — and specifically on the “intrinsic evil” of abortion — of the quality that Notre Dame’s students got this spring?

Granted, much of this happened grassroots, and I’m thinking here of the prayers and the academic panels and the respectful demonstrations organized by the students, not the circus sideshow conducted at the Main Gate and in campus airspace. University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, and the administration, meanwhile, took their lumps all spring for asserting the University was officially pro-life. A few professors and not a few off-campus critics drew up a press-release litany of examples offered to the contrary: the Mario Cuomo speech in 1984 and the ’92 Moynihan Laetare among others.

More to the point, many at Sunday’s reverent but forceful Mass and pro-life rally on South Quad took the administration to task for what it’s not doing. They want an “unambiguously” pro-life Notre Dame, and they seem to want it top-down, but their case begged an unanswered question: What to do?

Now, I’m Catholic and pro-life and I came to work here three years ago with the same kind of hokey awe for the place and its mission with which Mr. Smith went to Washington. (In both cases, please note, the hokey awe was born out of genuine love.) Even so, I’m not sure how universities are ever unambiguously pro-anything. They’re not advocacy organizations. They’re primarily houses of scholarship where learning and, I hope, Truth itself are pursued with precision and passion. And I can’t think of a better description of what actually took place at Notre Dame in the wake of the invitation to President Barack Obama.

Commencement Sunday came and went without Our Lady falling off the Golden Dome, and it produced a surprising consensus. Everyone from President Obama to the intrepid Notre Dame history professor Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, agrees the abortion debate isn’t over. Not in Washington, D.C. Not at Notre Dame.

How to begin

So let’s start by taking everyone at their word.

Father John Jenkins’ remark that Mr. Obama arrived on campus aware that “we are fully supportive of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life” was so quickly drowned in a sea of applause that the audience couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence: “and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”

Mr. Obama didn’t pander. He acknowledged that differences over legal access to abortion were “irreconcilable” but outlined shared goals: Improved access to adoption. Support for women in troubled pregnancies who need assurances of postnatal care and parenting help so they can make the choice for life. Conscience protections for health workers.

Many of my pro-life friends dismiss this as mere talk. Why? He said it at Notre Dame, Catholic America. But let’s hold him to it. And if he can truly accomplish those three goals before the next election, shout “Hallelujah!” from the housetops.

Count Father Miscamble among the skeptics wary of both the White House and the Dome. University administrators “will have a chance to show through future deeds and in very practical ways Notre Dame’s commitment to the pro-life cause,” he told some 2,000 participants at the rally on South Quad. “Let us hope and pray that they take up this opportunity. But we cannot rely on them. As we have seen, on their own, their commitment will never be more than tepid.”

Maybe so, maybe not. But if my fellow pro-lifers’ strategy is limited to potshots at University administrators, well, experience teaches that such skepticism fulfills itself. It seems to me, having reported on campus life for three years, they might want to take a (begrudging?) page from the playbook written by student environmentalists.

For years campus greens jeered at administrators they accused of dragging their feet on recycling programs and sustainable practices for supplying campus with food, water, heat and light. Then, two years ago, students dropped the adversarial posture for the collaborative and did their homework. They identified promising concepts, collected data, ran the numbers and presented workable ideas to the Dome. Voilà. We got game day recycling, the Office of Sustainability and a series of biannual “Green Summit” brainstorming sessions that bring students, faculty and administrators together.

A similar story explains the revival of the Tridentine Mass on campus. But it’s clearly a lesson not all campus activists have learned.

Academics and students are idea people. Administrators make things happen. So if everyone does their jobs, maybe something actually will.

The South Quad talks were light on specifics, but Father Miscamble shared a few ideas with me via email. Among them: 1) An unequivocal ND pledge not to be linked with research requiring the destruction of embryos to harvest stem cells; 2) A “major” commitment to support the Center for Ethics and Culture’s new Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life; 3) Outreach to pro-life students in prayer gatherings and at activities like the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.; and 4) A “Fighting for Human Life” ad during NBC broadcasts of Irish home football games.

Bigger steps

Notre Dame could go further.

Some, including rally speaker Lacy Dodd ’99, have suggested creation of a haven on campus for students who become pregnant. It could be similar to the Women’s Care Center that former philosophy Professor Janet Smith founded in South Bend in 1983. It would be a place where these young women could meditate on their future, build a community of care and maybe even live together while they stay healthy — and in school.

Notre Dame students love to serve: What about a robust volunteer placement program through the Institute for Church Life or its Center for Social Concerns that trains students to staff crisis pregnancy centers across the nation?

Need to keep up with the University’s sky-high academic ambitions? Try a research, teaching and policy shop à la the Higgins Labor Studies Program. Attract world-class scholars to focus explicitly on those life issues — abortion, genocide, euthanasia, capital punishment, torture, slavery, prostitution and others — termed “infamies” by the Second Vatican Council and again by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.

Or even an explicit undergraduate minor program in human life studies like the University currently offers for poverty studies or the Catholic social tradition.

But this is just a lowly associate editor talking off the cuff. If you have any serious ideas or serious thoughts about the ones mentioned here, please share them.


John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. He earned a master’s degree in history from ND in 2000.

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