Pro-Life Proclamations at College: Long Road Ahead on Secular Campuses When It Comes to Abortion
Catholic students and chaplains are committed to planting life-affirming message on rocky soil.
One late afternoon in mid-August, University of Kansas sophomore Ronnie-Sue Starnes was walking down Massachusetts Street in Lawrence when she saw signs in storefronts, front yards and windows supporting abortion.
“Vote No” and “My Body, My Choice” were among them. It was about 10 days after a pro-life statewide referendum had failed.
She was among about a dozen undergraduates taking part in a campus Catholic center formation exercise: walking along the busy major thoroughfare of the city trying to see people they passed the way God the Father sees them.
“It was making my heart sad. I had a feeling Jesus was saying, ‘I love you, but I want you to see how life is valued, and this life that I have given you is so, so precious,’” Starnes said in a telephone interview with the Register.
Statewide, the referendum lost by 18 points. In Douglas County, where Lawrence is, the margin was 82%-18% against it. Sentiment is similar at the University of Kansas, a public research university in Lawrence with about 24,000 students.
Starnes’ experience illustrates a problem for pro-life students and chaplains on secular college campuses: How do you bring a pro-life message to a place where most people don’t want to hear it?
Post-Dobbs, the June 24 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion is now illegal in some states. But many abortion supporters are now more dug in than ever. “People are just as hostile to pro-life [messages] as they were last year, but now there’s probably an uptick in motivation,” said Juan Pablo Moreland, 19, a sophomore at the University of Southern California who is active in pro-life activities.
Moreland is trying to make inroads. He helped found a non-religious pro-life group this past spring called Trojans for Life. He also leads missions for the campus Catholic center, which includes pro-life ministry. And he was one of about 20 students who attended the OneLife LA pro-life march this past January, and he attended a Mass last semester during which members of the Sisters of Life made a presentation encouraging students to create a culture of life and respect for pregnant women.
Still, he’s one Trojan in a big stadium on this issue.
“I’ve had a few conversations with people who have told me I’m the first openly pro-life person they’ve ever met,” said Moreland, a philosophy major from a Philadelphia suburb.
Opposition comes not just from outside the Catholic center, but also from students within it, he said. “I do get the sense among Catholics that they don’t want to embrace that part of our ministry.”
The disconnection between faith and action can be seen in Catholic students who go to a pro-abortion Women’s March on a Saturday and then come to Mass at the Catholic center on Sunday, said Father Richard Sunwoo, pastor of Our Savior parish and the USC Caruso Catholic Center in Los Angeles.
And while pro-lifers see ending Roe v. Wade as necessary and a cause for hope, it hasn’t bridged many gaps.
“If anything, the Dobbs decision made clearer the growing divide between pro-abortion and pro-life advocates,” Father Sunwoo said by email. “I have had some really great conversations where pro-life ideas are gaining ground, but this is going to be a very long moral battle to win hearts and minds.”
While abortion remains legal and common in California, it’s now illegal in Texas. Yet the law is only one piece in a pro-life puzzle. Since more women in Texas aren’t getting abortions, there are more women carrying problem pregnancies.
At Texas A&M, the goal of the Catholic ministry at the university is to identify them and get them the help they need. “Our approach this fall, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer, is a focus on helping moms who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. There are a lot of great resources to help in this area, and our desire is to be a bridge between the mom and the groups and agencies who can help them with setting up adoption or choosing to raise the child,” said Father Will Straten, pastor of the university-affiliated St. Mary’s Catholic Center in College Station, in an email message to the Register. “We also want to give this information to our students — many times, moms in unwanted pregnancies first turn to their peers for answers and guidance. We hope to do this by equipping our campus ministers, who have the most contact with our students.”
Abortion is also now illegal in Missouri. In Columbia, where the University of Missouri’s flagship campus is, the local Planned Parenthood business (which is currently temporarily closed) hasn’t performed abortions since 2018.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Father Dan Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church and Newman Center in Columbia, said he is hoping to foster “a quiet dialogue” on abortion and other hot-button issues, in hopes to form trust and enable candid conversations. “I believe a Catholic parish located on the campus of a major university is well placed to be a venue for dialogue and a deeper conversation,” Father Merz said in an email message. He is also raising money to create a “director of service and justice” position, designed to promote corporal and spiritual works of mercy and to serve as a liaison to charitable and pro-life groups, among other things.
“I would certainly hope that one of the benefits of having this be a full-time position is the promotion of a culture of life (at all stages of development), and a culture of compassion,” Father Merz said.
Building a culture of life requires emphasizing “the Catholic understanding of the dignity of every human person — that we are worth saving and loving in the eyes of God,” said Father Jake Anderson, pastor and director of St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center in Minneapolis, which serves the University of Minnesota.
“We do regular teachings on the dignity of the person and seek to eradicate the spiritual poverty present in many modern minds that our worth is in what we achieve and not what we receive,” Father Anderson said in an email message.
That doesn’t come primarily from imparting information, but rather from building relationships among students that differ from “what they experience elsewhere,” he said.
“Within the community here at the Newman Center, we have many young people living in common and have a shared way of life … prayer, worship, laughter, discipline, formation of the mind. … [A]ll of this is rooted in the encounter with Christ,” Father Anderson said.
“This encounter happens for many of them at our fall retreat. If a student comes on fall retreat, the odds are heavily favoring them being ‘caught’ by attraction to Jesus, the Eucharist and the whole Catholic life. We can teach people all we want (and this is good), but until they are caught, the teaching does not go very far against the grain of a relentless culture of individualism and the enthronement of self-will.”
The recent referendum vote in Kansas led to harsh confrontations. A pro-life Catholic college student going door-to-door reported being knocked down by a resident in Leawood on July 31, leading to an arrest on a misdemeanor battery charge.
Opposition to pro-lifers has typically been less dramatic at the University of Kansas, but still at times pointed.
“Our students who use the Catholic center have reported being shamed quite a bit by their peers leading up to the primary vote,” said Father Mitchel Zimmerman, director and chaplain of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, which serves University of Kansas students. “People would say, ‘I can’t believe you’re one of them.’”
Father Zimmerman didn’t sugarcoat the decisive pro-abortion victory in the state on Aug. 2.
“I think it was very revealing, kind of where we are — putting the rights of adults, and personal autonomy and privacy, and to put yourself, first,” Father Zimmerman told the Register in a telephone interview. “… The Catholic worldview is not dominant — and in some ways, it’s not even competitive.”
Yet the Catholic center doesn’t just run up the white flag.
For students who come to Mass and take part in Catholic center activities such as monthly adoration, Father Zimmerman said: “We’ll continue to form them into being pro-life and what pro-life means.”
For others, he wants to try to reach as many of the reachable as he can.
Father Zimmerman puts students into five categories: Those who love the Catholic center and participate in it; those drifting away from the faith for no particular reason and open to being invited back (what he calls “low-hanging fruit”); those raised Catholic but who have decided not to practice the faith; those who don’t really know what the Catholic faith is; and those who hate the faith.
The Catholic center offers aggressive, if purposely non-threatening, outreach programs. One is called “Slow Drip”: Catholic students offer free coffee, pastries and bagels from 8 to 11am on Fridays to anyone who wants to join in eating and conversation.
Another is called “Good Company” — or Good Co, for short. The name is purposely un-Catholic-sounding. Students from the Catholic center invite people from outside their social circles to a small dinner, with food provided by the center. There’s no hard sell, and biting political issues like abortion rarely, if ever, come up. But the idea is to make a connection with people who don’t have one.
“We’re trying to fight that inoculation and isolation,” Father Zimmerman said.
Starnes, 20, a psychology major from Texas who is a member of Jayhawks for Life, sees Good Co as an indirect way of building a culture of life, simply by making people feel welcomed and loved.
She uses her outgoing personality to try to break through the gloom and the EarPods she often encounters on her way to class.
“The majority of students on campus look super sad. They don’t want to be here. It just hurts my heart,” Starnes said.
“All of us are here for a reason, and I just want people to understand that.”