In June 2000, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion in the Stenberg v. Carhart case, striking down the right of states to limit which forms of infanticide they will tolerate. The text of the decision makes for grim reading, as Breyer describes the mutilation of a living human being and his extraction from the mother’s womb with cold precision.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia compared the decision to the Dred Scott case, remarking that the method “is so horrible that the most clinical description of it evokes a shudder of revulsion.”
According to Breyer, the Constitution allows the drawing of a “child up to the head” into the cervix before terminating that child’s life, and individual states do not have the right to say otherwise.
It was not a surprising decision from a justice who has consistently voted to support abortion in his 14 years on the Supreme Court.
On Oct. 29, Breyer is expected to be in New York, at a dinner in his honor. The institution honoring him? Fordham University, which describes itself as “the Jesuit university of New York.”
The Fordham Stein Prize, which Breyer is expected to receive, is presented annually by Fordham University School of Law’s Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, recognizing someone who “exemplifies outstanding standards of professional conduct, promotes the advancement of justice, and brings credit to the profession by emphasizing in the public mind the contributions of lawyers to our society and to our democratic system of government.”
In the official announcement of the award, William Michael Treanor, dean of Fordham Law, noted, “Justice Breyer has devoted his life to the public good. He was a brilliant, influential, and path-breaking scholar. His government service before taking the bench was of the highest quality. As a jurist, his opinions have been marked by thoughtfulness, balance, rigor, and a commitment to justice and liberty.”
This is not the first time Fordham has honored a pro-abortion Supreme Court justice. In 2001, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was awarded the Fordham Stein Prize; her record of abortion advocacy is as consistent as Breyer’s.
Seven years later, however, the playing field has changed. A combination of surging orthodoxy among young Catholics, rapid communication thanks to blogs and e-mail, and the rise of the Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog of the nation’s 224 Catholic colleges and universities, is altering the dynamics on Catholic campuses.
“We were disappointed to see the university, which claims devotion to the faith and to the truth, so blatantly ignoring the essential teachings of the Church,” said Sheldon Momaney, president of Fordham’s Respect for Life club. “The right to life is the most basic right, from which all other human rights descend, and therefore, must be defended above all other principles.”
Respect for Life outlined their concerns in an open letter to Jesuit Father Joseph McShane, Fordham’s president, requesting that the award not be presented to such a prominent pro-abortion figure. The letter was signed by numerous campus leaders and pro-life advocates.
As the letter states, “We make this request for the fundamental reason that Justice Breyer’s role in public life, in terms of his repeated and influential work in favor of legalized abortion, has placed him in a position of complacency with grave moral evil, and leaves him in a position of irreconcilable conflict with the fundamental teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and by extension, those of the university, in its role as one of this nation’s leading Catholic universities.”
Father McShane has not met with the group, and no one affiliated with Fordham University would speak with the Register. The university declined to issue a general statement on the controversy. Father McShane, as well as Kate Spencer, vice president of communications, and various faculty members would not comment.
“We’re not going to be speaking on this issue,” said Bob Howe, Fordham’s director of communications.
Some notable pro-life faculty members were addressing the matter internally and declined to comment on the record.
Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register that Cardinal Edward Egan was surprised to learn that Justice Stephen Breyer would be the recipient of this year’s Fordham-Stein Ethics Prize.
“He has spoken to the leadership of Fordham University about this matter,” Zwilling said. “As a result of these discussions, the cardinal is confident that a mistake of this sort will not happen again.”
Catholics are paying more attention to orthodoxy on campus, in part, thanks to the efforts of the Cardinal Newman Society. Patrick Riley founded the organization two years after graduating from Fordham, where he witnessed the decline in Catholic identity almost 20 years ago.
Riley is livid about his alma mater’s choice to honor Breyer. “In their quest for secular prestige, Fordham officials are prepared to abandon the university’s commitment to ‘the promotion of justice’ and ‘the protection of human rights’ by honoring a champion of abortion rights and infanticide.”
In fact, the honor is a clear defiance of the will of the bishops of the United States. In their 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made their opposition to honoring pro-abortion figures quite clear: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
Jesuit Father Robert Araujo, visiting professor of law at Boston College, who has also served as an advisor to the Holy See, thinks Fordham Law needs to take a second look at the bishops’ statement.
“This instruction does not restrictively apply to only Catholic candidates for honors, awards and platforms: It applies to any person,” he said. “Nonetheless, Fordham Law School has before it the extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate that it is a Catholic institution and that the Stein Prize, which was established to honor ‘distinguished Americans whose dignified and dutiful careers in the law persuasively demonstrate the pervasive and positive contributions of the legal profession to American society,’ is intended for those whose words and deeds enhance, not frustrate or defeat, the truths which the Church teaches so that the common good may be fulfilled.”
Thomas McDonald is based
in Medford, New Jersey.