Is Notre Dame ‘Bare Minimum’ Pro-Life?

ANALYSIS: The university president’s response to a pro-abortion editorial by two professors was minimal — and it’s part of a larger pattern

Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame,  participates in a discussion during The Atlantic and Aspen Institute's Washington Ideas Forum at Harman Center for the Arts on Sept. 30, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, participates in a discussion during The Atlantic and Aspen Institute's Washington Ideas Forum at Harman Center for the Arts on Sept. 30, 2015, in Washington, DC. (photo: Paul Morigi / Getty Images)

College students are often encouraged to go beyond the bare minimum in their education, to treat their studies as important endeavors in their own right, not just hoops to be jumped through or boxes to be checked.

Perhaps a similar lesson could be taken to heart by Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, in his witness to the institution’s pro-life commitments.

This past Tuesday, Father Jenkins took to the pages of the Chicago Tribune to respond to a pro-abortion op-ed published in the same paper just the day before. That editorial, entitled “Lies about abortion have dictated health policy,” was written by two Notre Dame professors, Tamara Kay and Susan Ostermann. Among other falsehoods, Kay and Ostermann claimed that abortion doesn’t “kill babies” because, at the earlier stages of pregnancy when most abortions happen, the unborn person is “too small to count” — a disturbing departure from the basic truth of the sanctity of all human life by two figures publicly representing themselves as teachers at a prominent Catholic university.

In his letter to the editor, Father Jenkins stated that while Kay and Ostermann are “of course, free to express their opinions on our campus or in any public forum,” he wrote “to state unequivocally that their essay does not reflect the views and values of the University of Notre Dame in its tone, arguments or assertions.”

What exactly are those views and values and how did the tone, arguments and assertions of the two pro-abortion professors deviate from them? Father Jenkins doesn’t say. Unlike Notre Dame alumna Alexandra DeSanctis, who wrote a blistering critique of Kay and Ostermann’s piece in the National Review, there’s no clear and emphatic statement that abortion ends a human life (a truth of science as much as it is of religion). Unlike the organization Secular Pro-Life, which compiled a Twitter thread of the falsities contained in the editorial, Father Jenkins doesn’t highlight how the two professors distort terms like “baby” and “fetus” and push lies about abortion restrictions.

Granted, a letter to the editor is a limited forum, and Father Jenkins was clearly prioritizing promptness in his response. The fact that his letter appeared in the subsequent issue of the Tribune, with no lag time between Kay and Ostermann’s truly scandalous piece and his own clarification, is laudable. Furthermore, it’s clear that Father Jenkin’s critique of the two pro-abortion professors is due to their position on the morality of abortion, which is contrary to his own, but, more importantly, to the university’s official pro-life stance.

Even so, the response feels somewhat minimal — especially considering that this isn’t the first time Kay and Ostermann have publicly spread falsehoods about abortion in their capacity as Catholic university professors, with the former even promoting abortion access on campus after it became illegal in Indiana. Even though professors can’t be removed from their posts due to the university’s academic freedom policies (which are themselves dubious according to actual Catholic teaching on academic freedom and the pursuit of truth), one might think Father Jenkins could use the opening created by Kay and Ostermann’s scandal to provide a more robust articulation of Notre Dame’s commitment to defending the sanctity of life by promoting prenatal justice in the pages of the Tribune.

But those hoping more will be forthcoming from Notre Dame and its president on this matter will likely be disappointed. Father Jenkins and the university have a track record for doing the bare minimum when it comes to articulating and advancing Notre Dame’s pro-life commitment — at least in any sort of wider public context.

Take, for instance, Father Jenkins’ statement on the overturning of Roe v. Wade this past summer, which, as current Notre Dame student Joseph DeReuil wrote for the Register, was muted in its opposition to abortion relative to the university president’s statements on other social injustices, such as racism.

Similarly, while the university’s “What Would You Fight For?” commercial campaign, which is aired during NBC telecasts of Notre Dame home football games, have featured causes like water sustainability and preventing homelessness, the series has never focused on fighting for prenatal justice.

And this isn’t due to a lack of worthy pro-life causes to highlight on campus. Notre Dame is home to the DiNicola Center for Ethics and Culture and its Culture of Life initiatives, an Office of Life and Human Dignity within the McGrath Institute for Church Life, leading pro-life legal scholars like Gerry Bradley and Sherif Girgis, and the largest pro-life student organization in the country, which is well funded by the university. Father Jenkins even joins the members of Notre Dame Right to Life for the March for Life each year.

But when it comes to being explicitly pro-life in instances that might cost the university’s reputation among its institutional peers, Notre Dame goes silent.

This isn’t true just in terms of its external witness. Even on campus, university leaders are hesitant to do anything to promote pro-life views and practices beyond the bare minimum.

Merlot Fogarty, president of Notre Dame Right to Life, has previously described the situation by saying that the university is not “doing enough to affirm a culture of life within the student body and faculty. Supporting a culture of life on campus means more than empty statements and ‘calls for dialogue.’” It requires, Fogarty says, a “revitalization of university protocol and policy.”

Unsurprisingly, the “bare minimum” approach has allowed a pro-abortion culture to fester on campus. The term “pro-life” has apparently been banned in the official student newspaper, university departments and organizations regularly host university-approved events that promote abortion rights, and the pro-abortion articles and interviews of the aforementioned Kay and Ostermann have even been promoted by the Notre Dame’s communications department. In fact, Kay is still featured as a Notre Dame “expert” on abortion, despite the fact that her understanding of the issue is diametrically opposed to reality, as the university officially sees it.

One sign that Notre Dame’s pro-life witness is decidedly “bare minimum” may be in the way Catholics reacted to Father Jenkins’ gentle pushback against university professors dehumanizing the unborn. In many corners, he received applause, a possible indication that pro-lifers have been conditioned to interpret such objectively minimal interventions as the best Notre Dame can do in terms of prophetically witnessing to the value of the unborn in a public forum.

To be sure, abortion is a multi-faceted issue in the United States, and nuance is sometimes needed to advance the pro-life cause. Alongside the fact that abortion is always the unjust taking of a human life, it’s also true that unnecessarily antagonistic language or unrealistic political strategies can do more to hurt than to help. Perhaps this is how Father Jenkins and Notre Dame justify their tepid pro-life witness.

However, moderation has its limits. Too much of it, in fact, undermines the pro-life cause, by effectively communicating that protecting the unborn isn’t especially serious, or at least isn’t as serious as the commitment to dialogue.

Which should make one pause and wonder what Notre Dame’s deepest commitments actually are. Because is “being pro-life except when it costs you” really being pro-life at all?

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at West Allis Central High School on July 23 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

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