Culture of Life
Notre Dame Wrestles With Tolerance-of-Abortion Questions
Some faculty support inclusion of clinic literature at campus women's center
BY William Murray
November 22-28, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/22/98 at 1:00 PM
University of Notre Dame officials want to ensure that the school's catholicity runs deeper than the surface. Many Americans can recognize campus landmarks such as the Golden Dome—on which stands a statue of the Virgin Mary—and “Touchdown Jesus,” an enormous mosaic on the side of the school's library near the football stadium.
Despite protests from some faculty members, Notre Dame officials last May placed the university's Women's Resource Center (WRC) on probation for two years for providing students with literature from a local abortion clinic.
“Official recognition by the university is contingent on an organization's not violating Church teaching,” explained Notre Dame spokesman Michael Garvey.
On April 16, undergraduate student Catriona Wilkie visited WRC and picked up a pamphlet for the Michiana Abortion Clinic in nearby Niles, Michigan. The brochure listed prices for abortions according to the unborn child's gestational age, and it had a map to the clinic, she said.
Wilkie also found what she called “propaganda brochures” from abortion-industry groups such as National Abortion Rights Action League, which listed “pro-choice” and “anti-choice” arguments.
WRC has distributed abortion information since at least the fall of 1995, claimed Maureen Kramlich, a Notre Dame law student who received her undergraduate degree at the university. During a 1995 student activities night, Kramlich picked up information with the telephone number and address of the Women's Pavilion, a nearby South Bend, Ind., abortion clinic. “The description of what the clinic does said nothing about abortion,” she recalled. “It said something like ‘provides birth control, Pap smears, and other gynecological services.’
Helping a person to obtain an abortion is a grave offense, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2272): “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life.”
Although university officials want to preserve Notre Dame's Catholic identity, some faculty members and students have opposed their actions.
On Oct. 12, about 40 people, including 10 or more faculty members, attended a forum to support WRC, said Ava Preacher, assistant dean of Arts and Letters. “There was a consensus among those present that the WRC is perhaps being held to a different standard than other clubs, and that the stated violation of (Notre Dame's student handbook), of which they have been accused, is at best vague and arbitrarily applied,” she said.
Daniel Sheerin, a classics professor, argued that WRC's probation was an “act of censorship.” During the meeting, “I found particularly useful the suggestion that this controversy is a manifestation of a fundamental difference of opinion about whether the university's goal is to provide religious formation or education,” he told the Register.
The Notre Dame Faculty Senate's Student Affairs committee plans to issue a report about the probationary status of the WRC in December or January, said Preacher, who is the committee chairwoman. “Given that the investigation is in progress, I am not prepared to discuss the status of it at this point.”
Parents of prospective students complained at Notre Dame last spring following the publication of an exposé on the WRC in the student publication Right Reason. Their outcry led to administrative action against the WRC.
John Imler, assistant director of admissions, said he notified the Student Activities office about the “problematic situation created by the WRC and visiting parents' reaction to it.”
Imler recalled speaking with WRC officials about how the abortion literature “ran counter both to the university presented by admissions and to that expected by parents and families coming to us,” before he wrote the letter. After Student Activities became involved and sent a letter to WRC, the university placed the center on probation.
The WRC incident “demonstrates that Catholic campuses are under siege by secularizing forces that are both overt and covert,” said Luke White, editor in chief of Right Reason.
The school's handling of WRC “provides an excellent case study of how the administration of Notre Dame is still very willing and able to protect its Catholic character,” the undergraduate remarked. “Where other Catholic universities have failed, Notre Dame has succeeded due to the fortitude of administrators who aren't afraid to be vilified for preserving Notre Dame catholicity.”
But one faculty member had the opposite interpretation. “It is certainly a very serious error of educational judgment for a university to prohibit the collection of any kind (of) information that is legally available (for instance, in the telephone book),” said Mary Rose D'Angelo, a theology professor at Notre Dame, who attended the Oct. 12 forum.
“It's also very imprudent to suggest that Catholic teaching is so weak that students may not even collect information that reflect other perspectives,” D'Angelo said.
Notre Dame spokesman Garvey disagreed. “This has nothing to do with academic freedom. The university does-n't want to extinguish free speech. This is a case of an official university group that receives funding that we collect from student fees. This is not the case of a dispassionate debate about abortion.”
Garvey attributed the WRC situation to an “oversight problem, rather than maliciousness. (WRC officers) have been very cooperative” with Notre Dame's administration. “In some respects, as passionate an issue as abortion is, there's less here than meets the eye.”
Other observers are more skeptical.
While applauding the university's response to the WRC, Mo Fung, executive director of the Falls Church, Va.-based Cardinal Newman Society, pointed out that “there are still many problems at Notre Dame. They had to know they were sending a message” with the appointment of former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) to a visiting professor position. Bradley consistently voted for abortion rights legislation during his political career.
But Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Jenky, of the Fort Wayne-South Bend (Ind.) diocese where Notre Dame is located, was quoted by Right Reason earlier this year as saying the Bradley appointment did not concern him much because the Princeton graduate is a visiting professor. Bishop Jenky is a member of the Holy Cross order which runs Notre Dame, and a former rector of the Sacred Heart Basilica on campus.
But Charles Rice, a Notre Dame law professor, called Bradley's appointment “indefensible”: “It sends a message to the students that it is acceptable and even commendable for a legislator to support abortion.” The university's announcement of Bradley's appointment, Rice pointed out, touted his record as a national leader in tax reform, international trade, pension reform, community building, and building race relations, but did not mention abortion.
The Pro-Life Action League, run by alumnus and former Notre Dame instructor Joseph Scheidler in Chicago, rented two planes with banners to fly over Notre Dame stadium during the Sept. 5 Notre Dame-Michigan game. The banners read “Dump Bradley” and “Bradley supports abortion.”
According to a Pro-Life Action League press release, Bradley answered a Scheidler question during a Sept. 3 campus lecture by stating that he “stands by” his voting record on abortion, including his support of President Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban.
“Can we have a serious Catholic university that is on the cutting edge of academic teaching and research? I'd say ‘yes,’” said Fung, whose Newman Society promotes Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. “There's room for non-Catholics at a Catholic university, but you need to have 100% of the faculty committed to the university's mission.”
William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.
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