NOTRE DAME, Indiana, November 17, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Wandering among crowds of professors, scholars, and students at the University of Notre Dame for the 12th annual conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture (CEC) for the first time, one can get a little overwhelmed.

Sit down with a Baptist scholar with a thick Southern accent, and he may just start talking to you about the richness of Catholic social teaching, and Marian tradition.

Or you might just run into the “Orthodox posse,” a group of Eastern scholars often hovering near ethicist Tristram Engelhardt, who may buy you a scotch and ask just why exactly you haven’t converted to the true faith.

In any event, the first thing that’s clear is that the CEC annual Fall conference is no ordinary scholarly conference. The second, is that this conference forms an intellectual catalyst for advancing the culture of life virtually unparalleled at any other university in America. 

This year’s conference, “Radical Emancipation: Confronting the Challenge of Secularism,” drew upon words of Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005 warning against the encroachment of militant secularism. 

Near the shadow of the Golden Dome, several presentations probed questions about the sanctity of life, sexuality, and moral ethics. One particularly eclectic panel consisted of a paper on the ethics of Live Action’s undercover sting operations against Planned Parenthood. Another discussed the temptation of abortion when a child has been diagnosed with a fatal anomaly. 

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But perhaps even more important were discussions on renewing the Christian intellectual atmosphere: a panel of university presidents on Friday discussed “the language of comeback” for Christianity at American campuses. 

Ralph Wood of Baylor University told LifeSiteNews.com that the effect of the conference on other Christian colleges universities has been “unbelievable.”

“We go back [to our institutions] and say, look what can happen,” said Wood, whose says his own school was turned around by the example set at Notre Dame. “Rather than surrender our Christian convictions ... we can go back now and see that our distinctiveness lies in the way in which we can make Christianity the core.”

Founding director David Solomon, a Protestant who joined the Notre Dame community in 1968, explained simply that he began CEC in response to key John Paul II encyclicals that “had the goods on the modern world,” and which touched him deeply.

“I couldn’t see why the University didn’t immediately reorganize itself around these encyclicals writings,” he said, to chuckles from the audience (Notre Dame had infamously joined the Land O’ Lakes statement, which emancipated major Catholic universities from the authority of the Catholic Church, in 1967.)

“And since it truly wasn’t going to do that,” he said, “I thought we should try to do it on our own.”

A crisis of identity

Since its inception, the CEC community has grown into its role as a silent haven for what some call the true spirit of Notre Dame, whose reputation for authentic Catholic intellectual life has become shaky at best.

The biggest blow to that reputation in recent memory was the honor bestowed on Barack Obama in 2009, an event that dramatically split the Notre Dame community, with a large crowd of students leaving their friends and classmates behind to attend a protest ceremony in the Grotto, instead of the official commencement ceremony. Among many others who recalled the event at last weekend’s conference was Bishop emeritus John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who described the gravity of the scandal. 

“Irish politics a generation after [the Easter Rising] consisted of, ‘where were you in 1916’? Well, it’s like that: where were you the day Obama came?” he said.

Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble, whom Solomon pegged as Notre Dame’s moral backbone, told Kathryn Jean Lopez in August that the school “certainly has not” recovered from the Obama honor. “Notre Dame’s honoring of a president who is deeply committed to the terrible abortion regime which prevails in the United States today damaged its reputation and credibility as a Catholic university,” he said. “Notre Dame is still struggling to overcome the harm done.”

That struggle included noticeable damage-control measures by the administration to rebuild a pro-life image, including attending the 2010 National March for Life in Washington and setting up a Task Force on Supporting the Choice on Life. Miscamble expressed gratitude for those measures, but said that they didn’t represent the real renewal at Notre Dame.

“The main pro-life efforts on campus continue to be those pushed by the students and by those faculty associated with the Center for Ethics and Culture, some terrific folk in our law school and the Faculty for Life group,” he said.

Other reactionary measures were less helpful, and even shook Notre Dame’s pro-life leadership to its core: friends of the Center were devastated when Bill Kirk, the only administration member to stand with pro-life students against Obama’s visit, was abruptly sacked by school leadership despite a long and dedicated service to the University. 

And despite being the largest and most successful in its history, with over 500 registrants, this year’s conference was unmistakably bittersweet thanks to another blow: David Solomon, whose larger-than-life personality formed the gravitational center of the CEC community, was informed by Notre Dame officials last year that his time with the Center was to come to an end.

“David Solomon had the courage to speak in opposition to Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama. This stance certainly seems to have led to recriminations against him,” said Miscamble. 

“The administration seems to want to neuter the person who has been the leader of our pro-life efforts at Notre Dame. It is little short of a disgrace.”

A rebirth to pro-life

Yet CEC leaders uniformly expressed relief and excitement that officials had wound up selecting as a replacement someone whom Solomon called the “best possible result that we could have”: law professor O. Carter Snead, the former general counsel for the President’s Council on Bioethics and a faculty member at Notre Dame since 2005. 

Thanks to the survival of CEC, Notre Dame will continue to witness the development of another boon to the pro-life movement on its home soil: the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life. Also chaired by Solomon, this fund was established in September 2008 under CEC’s administrative purview “to educate Notre Dame students in the rich intellectual tradition supporting the dignity of human life.” The fund lies at the center of Notre Dame’s self-renewal as a leading advocate for the life of the unborn. 

“Many alumni and friends of Notre Dame who have become disaffected with the administration … have found, in the fund, a vehicle whereby they can continue to financially support their beloved university,” alumnus William Dotterweich told Kathryn Jean Lopez.

Among the Fund’s initiatives is Project Guadalupe, a pro-life and service-based educational program aimed at developing pro-life curriculum, an interdisciplinary master’s program for pro-life leadership, as well as the Notre Dame Vita Institute, which was held for the first time this summer. The Institute is a two-week summer program fostering pro-life leaders in areas including medicine, education, politics, and family apostolates. 

The Fund is also responsible for the Evangelium Vitae Medal, whose inaugural recipient last year was Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of the US Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro Life Activities.

For all the negative coverage surrounding Notre Dame in the pro-life world, friends of the University say that the success enjoyed by CEC and its conference would not have been possible anywhere else.

“It’s because Notre Dame is such an intellectual powerhouse that it’s able to draw the biggest names in the academic world,” said alumnus Rocco Galizio. Ralph Wood of Baylor said Solomon simply recognized all the true spirit of Notre Dame could offer the culture of life. 

“He saw that we’re doing something good at Notre Dame, but it’s got to be larger than Notre Dame,” said Wood. “It’s got to reach out to everybody.”