Notre Dame Should Be a Witness for Human Life
(Hat tip: Feddie)
Bill McGurn delivered this powerful speech earlier this evening at the University of Notre Dame:
... The precipitate cause of our gathering tonight is the honor and platform our university has extended to a President whose policies reflect clear convictions about unborn life, and about the value the law ought to place on protecting that life. These convictions are not in doubt. In July 2007, the candidate spelled them out in a forceful address to a Planned Parenthood convention in our nation’s capital.(emphasis added)
Before that audience, he declared that a woman’s “fundamental right” to an abortion was at stake in the coming election. He spoke about how he had “put Roe at the center” of his “lesson plan on reproductive freedom” when he was a professor – and how he would put it at the center of his agenda as president. He invoked his record in the Illinois state senate, where he fought restrictions on abortion, famously including one on partial-birth abortion. He said that the “first thing” he wanted to do as President was to “sign a Freedom of Choice Act.” And he ended by assuring his audience that “on this fundamental issue,” he, like they, would never yield.
These were his promises as a candidate. His actions as President – his key appointments, his judicial nominees, his lifting of restrictions on federal funding for abortion providers overseas, the green light given to the destruction of human embryos for research, his targeting of “conscience clause” protections for healthcare workers – all these actions are fully consistent with his promises. It is precisely this terrible consistency that makes it so dispiriting to see our university extend to this man her most public platform and an honorary doctorate of laws. There are good men and women working for an America where every child is welcomed in life and protected by law – and when they lift their eyes to Notre Dame, they ought to find inspiration.
So tonight our hearts carry a great sadness. But we do not come here this evening to rally against a speaker. We come to affirm the sacredness of life. And we come with a great hope: That a university founded under the patronage of Our Lady might be as consistent in the defense of her principles as the President of the United States has been for advancing his. In a nation wounded by Roe … in a society that sets mothers against the children they carry in their wombs … we come here tonight because however much our hearts ache, they tell us this: Our church, our country, and our culture long for the life witness of Notre Dame.
What does it mean to be a witness? To be a witness, an institution must order itself so that all who look upon it see a consonance between its most profound truths and its most public actions. For a Catholic university in the 21st century, this requires that those placed in her most critical leadership positions – on the faculty, in the administration, on the board of trustees – share that mission. We must concede there is no guarantee that the young men and women who come here to learn will assent to her witness – but we must never forget that the university will have failed them if they leave here without at least understanding it. That is what it means to be a witness.
This witness is the only real reason for a University of Notre Dame. We believe that there are self-evident truths about the dignity of each human life, and that this dignity derives from our having been fashioned in our Creator’s likeness. In this new century, these beliefs make us the counterculture. One does not need to be a Catholic to appreciate that abortion involves the brutal taking of innocent human life. To argue that this is a Catholic truth, or even a religious truth, is to overlook what science and sonograms tell us – and to insult the Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and, yes, even some atheists, who appreciate that a civilization which sanctions abortion as a human right is in some essential way writing its death warrant.
Over the years, the whole idea of truth – much less our ability to know it – has been rendered doubtful by the slow advance of a soft agnosticism that has itself become orthodoxy at so many universities. Not so at Notre Dame. All across this wondrous campus, we pass imagery that sings to us about the hope born of a Jewish woman in a Bethlehem stable. Yet we kid ourselves if we believe these images are self-sustaining. Without a witness that keeps these signposts alive, our crosses, statues, and stained-glass windows will ultimately fade into historical curiosities like the “Christo et ecclesiae” that survives to this day on buildings around Harvard Yard and the seal that still validates every Harvard degree.
With the idea that one human being has the right to take the life of another merely because the other’s life is inconvenient, our culture elevates into law the primacy of the strong over the weak. The discord that this year’s commencement has unleashed – between Notre Dame and the bishops, between members of the Notre Dame community, between Notre Dame and thousands of discouraged Catholic faithful – all this derives from an approach that for decades has treated abortion as one issue on a political scorecard. This is not the road to engagement. This is the route to incoherence, and we see its fruit everywhere in our public life.
Twenty-five years ago, on a similar stage on this campus, the then-governor of New York used his Notre Dame platform to advance the personally-opposed-but defense that countless numbers of Catholic politicians have used to paper over their surrender to legalized abortion. Eight years after that, the school bestowed the Laetare Medal on a United States Senator who had likewise long since cut his conscience to fit the abortion fashion.
Today we have evolved. Let us note that the present controversy comes at a moment where the incoherence of the Catholic witness in American public life is on view at the highest levels of our government. Today we have a Catholic vice president, a Catholic Speaker of the House, a Catholic nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, and so on. These are America’s most prominent Catholics. And they have one thing in common: The assertion that the legal right to terminate a pregnancy – in the chilling euphemism of the day – must remain inviolable.
For those who think this a partisan point, let us stipulate for the record one of the curiosities of the Republican Party. Notwithstanding the party’s prolife credentials, at the level of possible Presidential contenders, the most prominent pro-choice voices in the GOP arguably belong to Catholics: from the former Republican mayor and governor of New York, to the Republican Governor of California, the Republican former governor of Pennsylvania, and so on. Notre Dame must recognize these realities – and the role she has played in bringing us to this day by treating abortion as a political difference rather than the intrinsic evil it is.
Ladies and gentlemen, the unborn child’s right to life represents the defining civil rights issue of our day – and it ought to be a defining civil rights issue on this campus.
This is not a popular witness. In our country, those who take it must expect ridicule and derision and a deliberate distortion of our views. In our culture, so many of our most powerful and influential institutions are hostile to any hint that abortion might be an unsettled question. And in our public life, one of the most pernicious effects of the imposition of abortion via the Supreme Court is that it has deprived a free people of a fair and open debate. Notre Dame remains one of the few institutions capable of providing a witness for life in the fullness of its beauty and intellectual integrity – and America is waiting to hear her voice.
In her most public witness, Notre Dame appears afraid to extend to the cause of the unborn the same enthusiasm she shows for so many other good works here.
If, for example, you click onto www.nd.edu, you will often find a link for the Office of Sustainability, which happily informs you about all the things Notre Dame is doing to be green-friendly. You will find another link that defines the university with a series of videos that ask, “What would you fight for?” Each home game during the football season, NBC broadcasts one of these videos. They are more than a dozen of them – each highlighting members of the Notre Dame community who are fighting for justice, fighting for advances in medicine, fighting for new immigrants, and so forth.
Imagine the witness that Notre Dame might provide on a Fall afternoon, if millions of Americans who had sat down to watch a football game suddenly found themselves face to face with a Notre Dame professor or student standing up to say, “I fight for the unborn.”
[Read the whole thing]
UPDATE (24 April)
You can also read the full text of the speech at the website for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, which co-sponsored last night's event with The Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life.