The Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life is a bold initiative to create a financial support system for pro-life activity at the University of Notre Dame and beyond.
Spearheaded by David Solomon, founder and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, the fund is planned as a multiphase attack on the culture of death.
Recently, Solomon spoke about the fund, life issues on campus, and the fallout from President Obama’s controversial appearance at the 2009 commencement.
What was the inspiration for the Fund to Protect Human Life?
A group of us here at the Center for Ethics and Culture met for lunch once a month for a year trying to think about something to enliven the pro-life activity on campus. We were struck by the fact that very few students become pro-life after they come here. The pro-life activists are, for the most part, students who arrive here already pro-life. In fact, we have some data to suggest that students became less pro-life in their moral commitments during their four years at Notre Dame. We finally decided on a fund that could promote and help create specific activities related to the pro-life cause.
Why do you think students become less pro-life on campus?
It’s difficult to say. Many of the most politically and culturally engaged entities at Notre Dame are reluctant to talk openly and forcefully about the unborn. A lot of that has to do with the history of the Catholic Church in the last quarter century. Much of the talk is about engaging global poverty, capital punishment, war and the many issues related to gender matters, and especially homosexuality. A concern for the unborn is not on the primary agenda of the most visible agencies at Notre Dame.
How will the fund work, and what will it do?
Our first goal is to really invigorate the participation of students in the March for Life. It’s been difficult for our pro-life club. They have no money for the cost of going to the march, so we’re subsidizing them and offering $250 to defray the costs for any faculty member who will attend. We’re also sponsoring lectures throughout the year.
Our most exciting project, however, is Project Guadalupe. Beginning this spring, we’re introducing a new course that will be jointly taught by myself, John Cavadini, who is the chair of theology, and Elizabeth Kirk, who is a constitutional lawyer. It’s an undergraduate course about the philosophical, theological and legal aspects of the abortion issue. Next summer we’re going to put in place a two-week seminar for 25 or so advanced undergraduates and mid-career professionals. They’ll come to the campus for a two week “boot camp” to explore the deep academic issues about life matters: philosophical, theological, social, scientific, biological and legal.
This will be a kind of outline for a course of study which we hope to deploy in the third stage of Project Guadalupe. Students will get two summers of training, with a master’s in education at the end. We want to have volunteers for two years to spend two summers on the Notre Dame campus being trained in what one needs to know to be active in the pro-life movement. Accompanying this will be two years of volunteer work, during the academic year, in crisis-pregnancy centers, diocesan life offices and Catholic schools around the country where they can energize local activity. We hope to get it started in the summer of 2011.
Do you see the fund and this model spreading beyond Notre Dame?
Absolutely. Notre Dame has the biggest and best collection of bright and highly motivated Catholic undergraduates anywhere in the world, and we should be preparing them to take these ideas and develop them in lots of other places. We’re already working with people from Notre Dame alumni clubs around the country to develop service opportunities.
My sense, from many people around the country, is that many pro-life Catholic parents are very disappointed about the education their children are getting in the Catholic school on these issues. What we’re doing on life issues in Catholic high schools can be done much better than it is. We hope to make that part of this project, and develop better curricular materials, better textbooks and more highly trained teachers to help the Spirit move through Catholic schools.
Did the controversy over Notre Dame’s invitation of President Obama to campus have any effect on life issues at the university?
It’s difficult to say. Certainly, in the short run, the Center for Ethics and Culture was in the center of protest activities against President Obama being given an honorary degree. Although students organized the on-campus protests, we supported them and largely funded the big rally. We had 3,500 people for a beautiful Mass at 11am. We had a rally afterwards with six speeches. We wanted to have a reasoned response to what we thought was a huge mistake by this university, and the press utterly and completely ignored us.
The administration has taken a number of steps since May. They’ve founded the Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life, chaired by Professor Cavadini from theology and Professor (Margaret) Brinig from the law school, who are certainly pro-life stalwarts. Father Jenkins is coming to the March for Life in Washington, something a president of Notre Dame has never done before. One might think that’s part of the response to what happened.
I’m told that the people who were responsible for making the invitation to President Obama were really shocked by the response. I find that amazing. You would think that, if a corporate administration made a mistake of such monumental magnitude, somebody should be held responsible for it. I think people in the central administration understand now that people actually care about these issues. That might be a valuable thing for Notre Dame to discover.
Christian higher education, and not just Catholic higher education, has lost its way in the 20th century, and Notre Dame is in trouble in various ways. I get phone calls almost every day from parents, serious orthodox Catholics, whose kids have just been accepted to Notre Dame. They worry if they can trust Notre Dame to educate their children.
I always say: “If you have a kid smart enough to get into Notre Dame, you’re almost guilty of child abuse if you don’t send them.” The resources at Notre Dame for serious students to learn and become better Catholics are almost limitless. It’s a dangerous world everywhere, whether they’re at Notre Dame or Steubenville. There’s reason to think that this mistake might have opened some people’s eyes to what’s going on in the real world.
Notre Dame still has plenty going for it. I’m hopeful, but we have a lot of work to do, and that’s one reason we created the fund. I think the events in the spring, although they were difficult for us at the time, have left us in a better position now than we were before the events. There’s a more truthful approach to the problem. Some people are more aware of the true attitudes of those who have loved and supported Notre Dame for a long time.
What are your thoughts about the state of life issues in America one year after the election of President Obama — and their impact on the health-care debate?
The bishops have been remarkable about speaking forcefully on these issues. I’m very proud of the way they stood up and challenged these unbelievably awful proposals for incorporating abortion into health-care reform. I think the community here at Notre Dame, for people who have ears to hear, discovered President Obama’s real attitudes towards abortion. He’s a master at presenting this front of being reasonable and moderate on abortion, while the actions he’s taking are quite extreme. I think it was an educational moment last spring, and in that way it does have a connection to the kind of steely-eyed look many of us are taking towards health-care reform and its relationship to the life issues.
Thomas L. McDonald writes from Medford, New Jersey.