The controversy over the University of Notre Dame’s honors to pro-abortion President Obama at its May 17 commencement has led some pro-life advocates to question whether the university is pro-life — or even Catholic.

But it appears Notre Dame is trying to take the high ground.

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, announced in a Sept. 16 e-mail to the university community that he plans to attend the March for Life in Washington next January and hopes to offer a Mass for Life there. He also recently formed a Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life. 

Father Jenkins praised Women’s Care Center, “the nation’s largest Catholic-based pregnancy-resource center, on whose foundation board I serve.”

Charles Rice, professor emeritus of law at Notre Dame, wrote an open letter on Sept. 21 to Father Jenkins, expressing appreciation for his efforts but questioning their sincerity and effectiveness. He suggested that Notre Dame permit an on-campus office of the Women’s Care Center.

That actually is under discussion. Women’s Care Center’s president, Ann Murphy Manion, a 1977 Notre Dame graduate, said that “the Women’s Care Centers had some meetings with Father Jenkins recently, and I think he is very sincere about wanting to do more in the area of pro-life, do more to affirm life. And one of those initiatives … might be a campus presence, although that has not been finalized.”

She thinks “that there is a need for life-affirming services; I guess the question would be whether or not that ought to be on campus or off campus. We currently serve Notre Dame students.”

Manion also mentioned the “need for more awareness” on campus of life issues from a positive perspective. She is a strong believer in “one-on-one care” and thinks Father Jenkins is more of that mind in his approach to pro-life work.

The Women’s Care Center was founded by Janet Smith, who at the time was a Notre Dame professor. She said that when she was getting the project started, “Notre Dame did give a remarkable amount of help.”

Nevertheless, many believe Smith was denied tenure at Notre Dame because of her outspoken opposition to the university’s invitations to dissident theologian Hans Küng and pro-abortion politician Mario Cuomo as well as her support for the Church’s teaching on contraception.

Rice noted the absence from the task force Father Jenkins formed of anyone associated with the Notre Dame organizations that have been vocally pro-life, including the Center for Ethics and Culture, the Notre Dame Fund for the Protection of Human Life, and ND Response, the student group that protested the honors given to Obama. Rice concurred with William Dempsey of the Sycamore Trust, which monitors and promotes Catholicity at the university: “It is hard to resist the inference that this is a move toward marginalizing the center and the fund, neither of which receives any university support the way it is.”

The Notre Dame 88

Much of the reaction to Father Jenkins’ e-mail referred back to the protests on campus before and during Obama’s visit — and the question of whether Father Jenkins can or should drop charges against 88 persons who were arrested.

Rice took Father Jenkins to task over Notre Dame’s statement that the protesters were arrested for trespassing and not for expressing their pro-life position.

“That is misleading,” he said. “This is not an ordinary case of trespass. … Those 88 persons … were arrested not because they were there, but because of who they were, why they were there and what they were saying. Other persons with pro-Obama signs were there but were not arrested and not disturbed. Serious legal and constitutional questions are involved.

“It would be a mockery for you to present yourself now at the march, even at the invitation of Notre Dame students, as a pro-life advocate while, in practical effect, you continue to be the jailer, as common criminals, of those persons who were authentic pro-life witnesses at Notre Dame,” Rice wrote.

Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said the university has no response to Rice’s open letter.

One of those arrested was Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion who has become pro-life and a Catholic. She reacted strongly to Father Jenkins’ announcement that he plans to attend the March for Life, an event that exists, ironically, because she was the original “Jane Roe.” But she declined comment other than to express the hope that he will ask the prosecutor to drop the charges.

Meanwhile, a website called applauded the university president’s efforts, but asked, “Why protest outside the White House, when you now have an open dialogue with President Obama?”

In a Sept. 21 posting, concluded by challenging Father Jenkins to fund the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture which established it.

The post also asked, “When can we expect you to humbly and sincerely approach Bishop [John] D’Arcy to request his counsel on how Notre Dame can atone for its insult to his authority and heal the damage done by its willful disregard of, and disassociation with, the Catholic Church?” has confirmed $13.9 million withheld in previously planned donations to the university because of the Obama invitation.

Father Jenkins is trying to bring healing to the situation. He concluded his e-mail, “Regardless of what you think about [the Obama invitation], I hope that we can overcome divisions to foster constructive dialogue and work together for a cause that is at the heart of Notre Dame’s mission.”

It remains to be seen whether Father Jenkins’ initiatives play out as positive steps forward or lead to more awkward and problematic situations.

Thomas Uebbing writes from

South Bend, Indiana.