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An Open Letter

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May 2009

To: Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame

I spent much of January in South Bend, which gave me a chance to tour the campus. Notre Dame’s gorgeous grounds, unified architecture, well-stocked bookstore, and famous stadium are impressive. Yet I was far more impressed with the many symbols and signs of our faith. The image of Christ the Teacher adorning the library. The statue of Notre Dame, Our Lady herself, atop the golden dome. The grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, where students pray at all hours of day and night, even in the snow. The Basilica, where Mass draws a sizeable crowd even at 5:00 p.m. on a Wednesday.

But faith seems lacking in ND’s decision to award an honorary law degree to President Obama. It’s hard to imagine that the decision was a product of prayer, a call from Christ to honor someone spending his career advancing the culture of death. President Obama is doing far worse than taking controversial positions on subjects like war and capital punishment, about which the Church does not speak in absolutes. He is actively promoting an absolute moral evil: the lawful destruction of innocent human life.

Your honoree’s record speaks for itself. He repeatedly opposed legislation to save born-alive aborted babies. He views the birth of an unwanted baby as a punishment inflicted on her mother. He is giving U.S. funds for abortion programs overseas, like China’s force-abortion program. He has authorized the killing of human embryos for research. Cloning of humans for body parts can be expected. He opposes parental notification measures and federal funding of crisis pregnancy centers, but he supports reinstating partial birth abortions. He is ending conscience protections for health care providers. He has promised pro-abortion judges. The list is unending.

Notre Dame has thumbed its nose at the U.S. bishops’ mandate that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” Is it really because of his “inspiring leadership?” He was on the job for weeks, maybe just days, when ND extended the invitation. Besides, leadership must be viewed in context. ND wouldn’t honor a leader who wants to reinstate human slavery to solve unemployment. Or would it? As for the desire to start a dialogue, our new president wouldn’t discuss abortion with the Pope. Why would he discuss it with you?

And what about the needs of ND’s graduates and their families? Several years ago, a few seniors gave a parting gift to their Catholic high school. They broke into the building and desecrated the chapel. The priests were heartsick. Those close to them had belittled their faith. Imagine how your grads feel. Their school has tossed them an honoree whose actions belittle their most basic beliefs. And what of the parents who have scrimped and saved to give their children a Catholic education, only to get a moral dilemma thrown at them as thanks. ND has sacrificed their dream day for its own. Love does just the opposite. No wonder so many will skip the ceremony in protest.

Ah, yes, the protests. One ND student says that the prospect of protests makes him “embarrassed to be Catholic.” Perhaps he needs to reflect on that photo hanging in the school bookstore, the one of Dr. Martin Luther King and former ND president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. King was in Chicago in 1964 for a civil rights rally. Chicago’s Catholic mayor and cardinal declined invitations to attend. Hesburgh accepted. He understood the call to witness to Jesus. That call can lead to ridicule, rejection, anger, and even persecution. But if we are to call ourselves Catholics, we must answer. Those protesting ND’s actions understand. ND may speak Catholicism; they are living it.

King and Hesburgh joined hands to sing the anthem of the civil rights movement: We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day. Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome some day. It should be the anthem of the pro-life movement because defending the unborn has become the greatest civil rights issue of our time. I pray that come graduation day the protesters sing it so loudly that all at ND, and all people, hear it. We shall overcome the policies of this president and all others who so willingly do so much evil to the unborn, to women, and to our culture.

And we shall overcome the attitudes of those who have prevented meaningful change. At the invitation of ND’s Fr. Richard McBrien, in 1984 Catholic governor Mario Cuomo spoke on campus about religion and politics. Cuomo declared that it was proper to be personally pro-life but politically pro-choice, to abhor the killing of the unborn all the while voting for laws that will continue it. Cuomo’s speech wrongly provided cover to Catholic politicians supporting pro-abortion legislation and to Catholic voters supporting them. It has allowed politics to shape Catholic witness to our faith rather than the reverse. It remains the single biggest reason why our Church is so badly divided and why legal abortion is alive and well. But we shall overcome that, too.

We shall overcome because Christ overcame. Christ the Teacher became Christ the Crucified and is forever Christ the Victorious. We witness to Him, not an evildoer. In Christ, pro-life shall overcome – with or without Notre Dame’s help.

Right now, Fr. Jenkins, it looks to be the latter.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2009. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us on the web at

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