Who’s pro-life at Notre Dame?

The question here is whether, as to right-to-life issues, Father Jenkins' administration displayed, in the board's words, an 'unfailing commitment to the University's Catholic character.'
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By Sycamore Trust

By Sycamore Trust

March 19, 2015 (SycamoreTrust.org) -- On January 22, the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, some 500,000 pro-lifers participated in the Washington March for Life, the largest pro-life event in the world. They included Notre Dame's largest delegation, 569 students, together with 88 from St. Mary's, and 35 from Holy Cross. They were accompanied by dozens of faculty and staff, including Notre Dame's president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

But you don't need us to tell you this good news. The university takes care of that. Our task is to assess what it means for the university's Catholic identity.

This is especially significant right now because, in recently reappointing Fr. Jenkins, the trustees emphasized his "unfailing commitment to the University's Catholic character." We will examine the administration's pro-life record with that in mind.

The March

This year, as in the past, the March was notable for student participation. Notre Dame's delegation was its largest. The dedication of some smaller schools was striking. Christendom College, a four time March leader, closed for two days so that the entire student body could attend. Franciscan University also closed and sent over 800 students and others associated with the school. Mount St. Mary's sent 250 students;  300 students from Benedictine College drove 1,100 miles; and some 200 Ave Maria University students came from Miami. Catholic University hosted over 1,200 visiting students and sent about 500 of its own to the March.

Participation in this inspiring event can have a lasting impact on participants. More broadly, a vibrant pro-life presence enriches the religious culture on campus. Still, pro-life projects can't make a university Catholic. That depends on the faculty. Pro-life activities at Notre Dame are part of what Professor Alfred Freddoso meant by the school's "Catholic neighborhood" in his description of the university as "something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood."

At the same time, the "neighborhood" is especially important at Notre Dame because of its weakness as a Catholic "school."  Dr. Freddoso observed, "It is here [the neighborhood] that virtually all of a student's moral and spiritual formation, if any, will take place."

Pro-Life at Notre Dame

The pro-life community at the university, while not large, is dynamic.

The Center for Ethics and Culture, the student Right to Life club, the Institute for Church Life, and University Faculty for Life at Notre Dame ("Faculty for Life") are the centers of pro-life activity. The Center and the student club were largely responsible for the success of the March. (Thanks are due as well to St. Agnes parish of Arlington, VA, for hosting the students again as it has for many years.)

We understand, however, that fewer than 10% of the faculty belong to Faculty for Life, and the proportion of active students is almost surely smaller.  The club does not have a membership list, but even if all those at the March were active they would constitute about 6.5% of undergraduates and 4.5% of all students. Still, the club is one of the largest and most active student organizations.

The Notre Dame pro-life movement got its start in the mid-1970's. John Ryan ('79), an early leader (and Sycamore supporter), has recounted the origins, including the first March and the role of Professor Charles Rice, in an interesting reminiscence.

Many deserve credit for the movement's later growth. We cannot list them all, but that doesn't mean we should overlook them all. They include Dr. David Solomon, president of Faculty for Life and founder and long-time director of the Center for Ethics and Culture, together with former associate directors Elizabeth Kirk (a Sycamore board member) and Angela Engelsen; Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., the founder of Notre Dame Faculty for Life; Professor Carter Snead, current director of the Center, and his associate director Dr. Ryan Madison; Dr. John Cavadini, director of the Institute for Church Life and his assistants, first Mary Daly ('10) and now Jessica Keating ('13); Professors Gerard Bradley, Phillip Bess, Dan Costello, Walter Nicgorski and Daniel Philpott and Brett Perkins and Laura Hollis, officers and board members of Faculty for Life and Faculty Senate representatives; and alumnus Bill Dotterweich  ('58), an indispensable supporter. Our apologies to many we have doubtless missed.

How about the administration?   

In receiving Sycamore Trust's special alumni award in 2013, Bill Dotterweich said: "The administration talks a good right-to-life game, but often falls short where the rubber meets the road."

Let us see. We now review the record. It is long. We ask your indulgence. Details are in our linked prior bulletins.

  • Father Jenkins and Millennium Promise. We open on a high note: Father Jenkins's 2009 departure, upon our suggestion, from the board of an organization that supported abortion. It has been largely and steeply downhill from then.

  • Abortifacients and contraceptives to students.  Most recently, the administration offered students a health plan that results in the provision to them of free abortifacients and contraceptives. Predictably, abortions and contraceptions will result. This radically undermines the university's pending lawsuit against the Obamacare employee contraception mandate, which was     already on shaky ground. What began as a praiseworthy move against the mandate has morphed into a blameworthy and scandalous action.

  • Student defection and teaching default. A 2008 report by the highly respected Higher Education Research Institute disclosed that the proportion of pro-choice Notre Dame students rose over four years at Notre Dame from 31% to 42%. Yet there is no required instruction on life issues.

  • The Obama calamity. The university's widely assailed action in conferring honors upon President Obama, the Church's most formidable adversary on abortion, was denounced by 83 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, led by Notre Dame's own Ordinary, the Most Rev. John M. D'Arcy. Surely this tsunami of episcopal disapproval stands alone in the annals of Catholic higher education.

  • The Aftermath.  The university supported a criminal trespass prosecution of pro-life demonstrators (the "ND88") protesting the honoring of Obama. It took two years for the university to stop the prosecution. In contrast, as Sycamore Trust discovered, the university had simply ushered pro-gay and anti-war trespassers off the campus.

  • The university's pro-life declaration and the March. In the wake of the Obama debacle, the administration announced a pro-life policy and Father Jenkins became the first Notre Dame president to attend the 37-year old March for Life, a practice he has continued. Both actions are welcome, but the circumstances suggest that they be judged in terms of what the administration does during the other 364 days of the year.

  • "I'd do it again." In discussing the Obama controversy just before the pro-life policy was announced, Father Jenkins declared, "I'd do it again."

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  • Obama award dissenters.  Dr. David Solomon was a principal speaker at the rally organized by students protesting the honoring of Obama. Bill Kirk, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, was the only senior administrator present. His wife Elizabeth Kirk was faculty advisor to the student club. Thereafter, Dr. Solomon was ousted as director of the Center for Ethics and Culture, Bill Kirk was dismissed after 21 years of loyal service; and Elizabeth Kirk left with her husband, who is now Vice President and General Counsel at Ave Maria University.

  • Scuttling the Fund for the Protection of Human Life.  This sorry episode began when Vice President Lou Nanni signed an agreement with Bill Dotterweich establishing this Fund with an independent board. Contributions were made through the university. In three years, the Fund raised large sums and did more for the pro-life cause than had ever been done before. Then the administration broke its word by refusing to accept further contributions. It said it wanted control. The Fund's projects were moved to the Center for Ethics and Culture. Fortunately, Dr. Solomon's successor as director, Professor Carter Snead, is strongly pro-life. But the administration foreclosed independent initiatives and sidelined important pro-life leaders who had directed the Fund and had criticized the honoring of Obama: Dr. Solomon, Father Miscamble, and Elizabeth Kirk.

  • Father Jenkins, "epistemic humility," and abortion. In a remarkable address at Emory University, Father Jenkins urged "those with faith" to exercise "epistemic humility" in political debate over such issues as "abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and same-sex marriage." That is, the Church might change its position. He pointed to the Church's reversal on usury and the Ptolemaic explanation of the universe. (See address sections I and IV (2).) This may help explain the other items in this list.

  • Evangelium Vitae Award dinner. It may not be as high profile as the March, but Notre Dame's major pro-life celebration is the annual award dinner that was instituted by the embargoed Fund and is carried on by the Center for Ethics and Culture.  Neither Father Jenkins nor Provost Burish nor Vice President Affleck-Graves has ever attended.

  • Pro-abortion website. The university provides Internet support for a women's faculty website that advertises most, if not all, major pro-abortion organizations.

  • The Board #1.  In 2011, Roxanne Martino, a long-time contributor to a major pro-choice organization, was appointed to the board. Under a storm of withering criticism led by Sycamore Trust and the Cardinal Newman Society, Ms. Martino resigned.

  • The Board #2.  Most recently, Father Jenkins endorsed the appointment of  Katie Washington as trustee even though she had publicly opposed the religious liberty lawsuits of Catholic institutions like Notre Dame against the Obamacare abortifacient/contraceptive mandate. In this case a Sycamore Trust petition was bootless.

  • The Board #3 and embryonic stem cell research. Notre Dame has announced it will conduct only adult stem cell research, not embryonic stem cell research ("ESCR"), and it ran a "What Would You Fight For" football spot on its ESCR research. All to the good, but consider:

  1. The administration has not run a pro-life spot despite repeated requests, including one in the Wall Street Journal ("A pro-life TV ad by Notre Dame during the football championship would send a powerful message") by Bill McGurn ('80), then WSJ columnist and now editorial page editor of the New York Post.
  2. Dr. Marye Anne Fox, a prominent promoter of public funding for ESCR, served as trustee until recently. She has been the Graduate School commencement speaker and was then awarded an honorary degree.
  3. Notre Dame wants to become the only Catholic member of the Association of American Universities, another proponent of tax money for ESCR.
  4. What of the classroom? Scientists overwhelmingly (93%) favor government support for ESCR, and only 37% of the science faculty was even nominally Catholic in 2007, the last year for which data are available. (The university stopped disclosing these data as Sycamore began reporting them.) More, one of the school's most prominent moral theologians publicly supports ESCR.
  5. The university gave  a major ESCR player, General Electric,  Notre Dame's "Outstanding Leadership Award" and its CEO an honorary degree when he delivered a commencement address.

We will examine other aspects of Father Jenkins's tenure in a future bulletin. The question here is whether, as to right-to-life issues, his administration displayed, in the board's words, an "unfailing commitment to the University's Catholic character." What do you think?

Reprinted with permission from Sycamore Trust

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