Last wednesday’s news that Cardinal Timothy Dolan will be this year’s commencement speaker at Notre Dame had me kicking myself for graduating a year too soon. The importance of this decision goes without saying.
That the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the most outspoken defenders of both the right to life and the right to conscience, will be speaking at Notre Dame is both telling and unsurprising. Yes, unsurprising. There is surely a “Notre Shame” Bill of Particulars, which catalogues each transgression from the Land o’ Lakes Statement to the latest liberal resolution of the Faculty Senate—and deservedly gives pride of place to the 2009 commencement honoring President Obama. But this obscures a critically important fact: great pro-life things are happening at Notre Dame.
This fact should be increasingly clear to pro-life observers. Notre Dame’s most public pro-life witness with the broadest implications came the day after last year’s commencement, when Fr. Jenkins announced that the school would seek relief from the HHS abortifacient and contraception mandate in court after months of failed negotiations with the White House. Notre Dame, Card. Dolan’s Archdiocese, and 41 other plaintiffs—brought simultaneous actions against Secretary Sebelius and other officials which are continuing to this day in 12 different federal courts.
Narrower in its exposure but still important was Notre Dame’s presence this year at the March for Life, where it had the honor of leading the March with 500 students (a record number for the school) and over 100 faculty and staff (including President Jenkins). While the number this year may have been a record, it was not unusual. Each year Notre Dame sends hundreds of enthusiastic students and faculty to the March—well before I studied at Notre Dame I would see dozens of “Irish Fighting for Life” sweatshirts on the DC Metro every January.
The growing scope of Notre Dame’s participation in the March is no coincidence given the support it gets from the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture – a premiere institution of learning and scholarship dedicated to “shar[ing] the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition through teaching, research, and dialogue, at the highest level and across a range of disciplines.” Among other things, the Center supports student and faculty participation in the March as well as undertakes a (growing) host of other pro-life initiatives at Notre Dame. For example, the Center runs the Vita Institute (an intensive intellectual “bootcamp” that offers training to pro life leaders in science, law, theology, philosophy, public policy, social science, and public relations), Notre Dame’s Evangelium Vitae Medal, a “Bread of Life” dinner and lecture series, and the school’s University Faculty for Life chapter. The Center also advises the large and active undergraduate Right to Life club.
As the Center’s Director Carter Snead (a professor in Notre Dame’s Law School) proudly notes, this is only the beginning. Prof. Snead is a widely published bioethics scholar—for whom I worked as a research assistant during law school—and is no stranger to pro-life law and policy, having served as General Counsel to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics—work that made him a member of a bona fide endangered species for years: an open and actively pro-life professor without tenure. (He was granted tenure and promoted to full professor in 2011.) Under his directorship the Center is expanding to establish a new pro-life summer internship program to place students at groups like the USCCB’s Pro-life Secretariat and the excellent Women’s Care Center. It is also developing a pro-life policy communications initiative to better harness the ability of top pro-life intellectuals to influence the public discourse through papers, monographs, testimony, and media events.
But even the great work of the Center for Ethics and Culture fails to capture the full scale of the pro-life moment at Notre Dame. There is, for example, a university-wide Adult Stem Cell Initiative, which seeks to harness Notre Dame’s abilities as a top research university in a way that serves as a model for scientific advancement that respects the dignity of life. There was a (very well attended) Mass for Down ’s syndrome Awareness Day. Pro-life student groups are some of the biggest on campus. Strongly pro-life faculty members are assuming more and more leadership roles in the school.
The list could go on, but this should make it clear: pro-life Notre Dame is doing good things. I am hopeful that Cardinal Dolan’s presence in South Bend this May will help highlight that fact.
Michael Fragoso writes from northern Virginia. He is a graduate of Notre Dame Law School where he was president of its pro-life student group, Jus Vitae. Prior to law school he worked in Washington, DC, on bioethics and pro-life issues.