SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Through passing resolutions, signing petitions and writing op-eds in the campus newspaper, pro-life faculty members and students at the University of Notre Dame are criticizing the university’s decision to award Vice President Joe Biden with the prestigious Laetare Medal.
And now, the pro-life community at Notre Dame is also sounding alarms about a recent talk on campus delivered by former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who gained notoriety in 2013 for filibustering legislation that required new safety regulations for abortion facilities in that state.
Several student groups, including the College Democrats and the Progressive Student Alliance, sponsored Davis’ talk on April 4, which coincided this year with the feast of the Annunciation.
The university’s Gender Studies Department was a co-sponsor, and posted an online advertisement, which was subsequently taken down as the controversy on campus grew.
Dennis Brown, a spokesman for the University of Notre Dame, told the Register that the university for many years has had an “open-speakers policy,” which means that any group can invite a speaker of its choosing to campus.
“We have hundreds of lectures and events in the course of a year, and we certainly do not endorse the views of all,” Brown said. “Many speakers do not agree with the Church on various important matters, yet we believe that our students, while encountering a range of views in a campus environment that nurtures and informs their faith, can learn to think critically and make judgments in accord with that faith.”
Brown added that the Catholic position on the sanctity of life is “quite rightfully and forcefully articulated on a consistent basis” through speakers, presentations, awards, events and other forums on campus.
However, William Dempsey, chairman of the Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned with the university’s Catholic identity, criticized the university’s administration for how it handled the Davis situation.
In a statement provided to the Register, Dempsey said: “What is really telling is how the gender studies department billed Wendy Davis as a heroine for her campaign in the Texas Legislature against pro-life legislation. Then they tried to cover up by pulling the notice after we had publicized it. How embarrassing!”
The Gender-Studies Perspective
Mary Celeste Kearney, the director of the Gender Studies Program, told the Register in an email that the program was a co-sponsor “in name only” and said it was not involved in the planning or creation of publicity materials for Davis’ talk.
The notice that had been posted on the Gender Studies Program’s website described Davis as “a passionate advocate for women’s health care and other national issues which threaten our individual freedoms.” The notice also credited Davis’ 13-hour filibuster for temporarily blocking “devastating legislation seeking to limit women’s access to abortions and reproductive health care in the state of Texas.”
The Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit with the stated mission to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” shared a cached version of the web notice. Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, believes the university “absolutely could have done something” to stop Davis’ talk.
“The purpose of a university is in part to help students learn how to think critically,” Reilly told the Register. “There is no educational manual that will suggest that bringing in advocates who are politically-minded, and in this case radicalized on these issues, is a necessary or even helpful way of doing that.”
Dempsey added that the Davis situation was “unsurprising,” in view of the university’s decision to honor Biden, a Democrat and a lifelong outspoken Catholic who supports policies that are at odds with the Church’s moral teachings on life and the sanctity of marriage.
Said Dempsey, “People will naturally think that if Notre Dame thinks Biden is one of the most outstanding servants of the Church there can’t be much wrong with his discarding these important Church teachings.”
Notre Dame will also present former House Speaker John Boehner with the Laetare Medal during commencement ceremonies on May 15. Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the university president, said the two are being honored for their public service and commitment to civility in the midst of a coarsening political culture.
Calling for Reconsideration
But pro-life student leaders and faculty members have called on the university to reconsider its decision, noting that Biden supports Roe v. Wade, arguing that he cannot force his personal acceptance that life begins at conception on other people. He also has embraced homosexual rights and praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that legalized same-sex “marriage.”
For his part, Boehner, a lifelong Catholic and Republican, has been criticized for his support of the death penalty.
The university will honor Biden and Boehner seven years after President Barack Obama received an honorary degree and delivered a commencement speech at Notre Dame that sparked pro-life protests and objections from dozens of bishops.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades, the current bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said it was wrong for Notre Dame to honor any “pro-choice” public official with the Laetare Medal, since direct abortion is “gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching.”
In a statement provided to the Register, Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble, president of the Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life, said the university’s awarding the Laetare Medal to Biden was an “assault” on the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 2004 statement “Catholics in Political Life,” which instructed that Catholic institutions should refrain from honoring those “who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” with “awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
“At a time of some national challenge, when moral seriousness and truthful speech is needed, the university administration offers an embarrassing gimmick apparently designed to make Notre Dame seem ‘relevant,’” Father Miscamble said. “Instead, the award to Vice President Biden simply cheapens the significance of the Laetare Medal. It also damages Notre Dame’s commitment to the pro-life cause, both on campus and beyond it.”
On April 1, the Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life unanimously passed a resolution requesting the university to rescind its award of the 2016 Laetare Medal to Biden. The resolution accuses Notre Dame of choosing to honor power at the expense of truth and adds that it is “never uncivil to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable and defenseless among us.”
Meanwhile, the Notre Dame Right to Life Club published a statement in The Observer, the campus newspaper, asking the university to live up to its Catholic identity and reconsider its decision, adding: “How can we bestow ‘the most prestigious award for Catholics in America’ to leaders who fail to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, a basic element of justice and a fundamental truth of the Catholic faith?”
The Sycamore Trust has also launched an online petition expressing support for Bishop Rhoades and urging the university to adopt a policy to preclude the Laetare Medal from becoming a source of scandal and division. The petition says Biden has been “unfaithful to his obligation as a Catholic public official and accordingly does not qualify for recognition by a Catholic institution, especially one as influential as Notre Dame, for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society.’”
More than 2,600 people from across the United States and other countries, including Italy and the United Kingdom, have signed the petition.
“It’s very interesting to see that people are signing this from all over the world,” said Allison Gower, the petition campaign manager. Gower told the Register that the Sycamore Trust launched the petition on March 15 to rally support and plans to present the petition to the university.
“The people who have signed this are very shocked, and they’re upset,” Gower said.
Reilly, of the Cardinal Newman Society, said Catholic higher education overall is improving, but added that that there are some universities that seem to be going in the opposite direction.
Said Reilly, “It’s a clear indication that certain universities have been caught in this lie about academic freedom, and that’s what is preventing them from asserting their Catholic mission. There are certain institutions that simply can’t get out of this cycle because they have given up the means of dealing with it.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.