Notre Dame and Emily’s List

During the firestorm that followed the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama two commencements ago, the university’s president, Father John Jenkins, wrote a letter to the Class of 2009 explaining his position. He stated his sadness that the honors bestowed on Obama had been taken as “ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching.” Notre Dame, he asserted, “was unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death.”

Remember those words: “unequivocally committed” with no “ambiguity in our position.” How are these words reconciled with the university’s announcement that Roxanne Martino has been elected to the board of trustees? For it turns out that Martino, an accomplished businesswoman and ND alumna, has given more than $25,000 over the years to Emily’s List.

Emily’s List is not just any group. The New York Times recently called it a “fundraising powerhouse.” Arguably, it is one of America’s best known and most prominent political organizations in the country. And it is dedicated to abortion rights.

What was Notre Dame’s response? The chairman of the university’s board of trustees, Richard Notebaert, sent out an email to fellow trustees, saying that Martino is “fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.”

Notebaert went on to say that Martino “has through the years contributed to organizations that provide a wide range of important services and support to women. She did not realize, however, that several of these organizations also take a pro-choice position.”

He’s not the only one putting that line out there. Now Father Jenkins has chimed in, sending some concerned alumni an email from “the Office of the President” that is almost word for word the same as Notebaert’s. One forwarded to me reads as follows:

“Ms. Martino (along with her husband, Rocco) is a Notre Dame graduate, and she is fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of life.”

“She has through the years contributed to organizations that provide a wide range of important services and support to women. She did not realize, however, that several of these organizations also take a pro-choice position. This is not her personal position, and she will now review all of her contributions to ensure that she does not again inadvertently support these kinds of activities in the future.”

Father Jenkins has two big problems here. The first is his declaration that Martino was unaware that the organizations she donated thousands of dollars to “also” take a pro-choice view, in addition to providing a wide range of “important services and support to women.” When asked to provide backup for that statement — e.g., an example of a service that Emily’s List provides in addition to its agitation for abortion— Notre Dame’s communications office forwarded me an answer from Notebaert. In it, he reasserted that Martino supports Church policy, that she was “unaware of the specific objective of Emily’s List,” and that his and Father Jenkins’ statements about other “important services” for women applied to a group, and did not apply to Emily’s List. That admission, of course, suggests that his and Father Jenkins’ earlier notes were highly misleading — and deserving of a similar clarification.

For as Notebaert’s message confirms, Emily’s List exists for one reason and one reason only. Click the home page of its website, and it asks you in big capital letters — some in red — to “HELP US ELECT PRO-CHOICE DEMOCRATIC WOMEN.”

If you continue onto the “What We Do” section inside the website, it goes on to say, “We’re a full-service political team with a simple mission: to elect pro-choice Democratic women.” Let’s underscore those words: simple mission. Let’s just say Emily’s List is admirably clear about what it does, and leaves no room for ambiguity.

Let’s say, however, that, nevertheless, Martino was, as Father Jenkins and Notebaert tell us, shocked, shocked to learn that Emily’s List had anything to do with abortion (which would make her one of the most unaware people in America). Is this a person whose judgment you want on a board of trustees? According to FEC (Federal Election Commission) records, Martino has given the group more than $27,000 starting in 1998 — with her most recent contribution of $5,000 in December.

At this point, the question of judgment goes far beyond Martino. What does it say about Notre Dame’s chairman of the board and its priest-president that they would send out the dissembling emails they have? And what does it say about the continued presence on this board of Bishop Daniel Jenky, a Holy Cross priest who is also bishop of Peoria, Ill.? He is the only bishop on the board.

When asked whether he worried that when bishops remain on the boards of Catholic institutions that are all too willing to flout the bishops’ teaching, they might be undermining their own authority and credibility, Bishop Jenky declined to comment.

In their 1998 statement “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” the U.S. Catholic bishops contrasted Sir Thomas More with American politicians today who “safely keep their heads.” It’s a fair point. Let me, a layman, add, however, that we surely would have more Thomas Mores if we had more Bishop John Fishers.

In many ways, after all, the Martino situation is worse than the Obama invitation. President Obama was at least not a Catholic — and was not being invited into the governing authority of the university. Nor was there the kind of bald attempt to rewrite facts that we have here, in an effort to fudge the clear and unambiguous message sent by Martino’s long and considerable material contributions to a pro-choice America.

Plainly, Father Jenkins and Chairman Notebaert are calculating that the Notre Dame trustees and the larger Notre Dame community are either too unaware or too apathetic to see through the spin. Of course, these are the same people who didn’t anticipate the enormous reaction to the Obama honors.

William McGurn, a Notre Dame alumnus, was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from June 2006 until February 2008. He now writes “Main Street” at the Wall Street Journal.