As I watched the characters of Catherine and Hal interact two weeks ago when the play “Proof” was performed at Notre Dame, I couldn’t help but connect lingering questions from the play to the university community. After surrendering herself to Hal in a passionate one-night stand, Catherine expects Hal to leave her. When he proves her wrong by staying, she shows him a brilliant mathematical proof she has written. When Hal refuses to believe she created the proof herself, he in turn demands proof of its authenticity from Catherine. His demand for “proof” reveals that any trust previously established between Catherine and him was insufficient. The exchange of “proofs” between Catherine and Hal suggests that their relationship is not built on any firm foundation.
When trust is missing in a relationship, then “proof” of all kinds is necessary to keep it going.
That the university calls its community the “Notre Dame family” presumes a certain level of trust between administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni. As president of the Right to Life group this year, I’ve come to understand the extent to which trust within the Notre Dame family was damaged by university’s decision to honor President Obama in 2009.
This past October, a host of news sources posted the $120 million plunge in donations to the university during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. The university’s continued prosecution of the “ND88” protestors has led many to see the university as vindictive or inconsistent in its pro-life position. In August and September, rumors circulated that former Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Bill Kirk was fired partly for his show of support to those students and faculty who opposed the university’s honoring of a pro-choice president.
Since 2009, administrators and other members of the university community have taken many steps to strengthen the university’s support for the pro-life cause. I want to suggest that these steps should not be seen repeatedly as “proofs,” which sustain a relationship weakly at best, but instead as reasons to restore confidence in the university’s support for the pro-life movement in our culture.
In the year following the 2009 commencement, University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, created the Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life, which was co-chaired by Associate Professor of Theology John Cavadini and Professor of Law Margaret Brinig. The Task Force precipitated the release of a definitive statement and a set of principles regarding the support of life and created an expansive list of recommendations that promise to further the pro-life culture on campus by raising awareness for care and service for pregnant students, facilitating student pro-life efforts, and paving the way for pro-life curriculums and research opportunities.
As University Spokesman Dennis Brown explained to THE ROVER, many of these recommendations have since been put into practice. To start, the university created an institutional statement “affirming the university’s commitment to the defense of human life in all its stages.” The university also established its Principles for Institutional Charitable Activity, which provide an avenue for the university to support pro-life organizations, and to avoid supporting organizations whose principles violate the Church’s teaching about the sanctity of life.
Today, the work of the Task Force continues through the university’s establishment of the Office of University Life Initiatives (ULI), coordinated by Mary Daly, a 2010 graduate of the university who served as president of Right to Life and editor-in-chief of THE ROVER during her time at Notre Dame. As Daly explained to THE ROVER, ULI is a “joint project” of the Office of the President and the Institute for Church Life, directed by Cavadini.
“A position and committee like this, if not the first, it is one of the few of its kind,” commented Daly, adding, “I commend Fr. Jenkins and last year’s Task Force for Supporting the Choice of Life for creating this position and committee. It is a robust step in Notre Dame’s continual affirmation of its commitment to upholding the dignity and sanctity of life.”
One of Daly’s latest projects as coordinator of ULI include collaborating with the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts to designate 2-3 grants to be awarded through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to students who wish to pursue summer research on life-related issues. Daly explained she has also been working with the Office of Student Affairs to “improve resources for pregnant and parenting students, especially the general campus awareness of these resources.” She is working to start a Pregnant and Parenting Student Assistance Fund. Her office co-sponsored Sexual Assault Awareness Week.
For the past two years, Fr. Jenkins has traveled with a large group of Notre Dame students (just under 400 students in both years) and faculty to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. The Office of the President generously supported the student contingent’s trip.
Other examples of the university’s public affirmation of its pro-life position include pro-life petitions at dorm Masses and Masses in Sacred Heart Basilica, and for the Gospel of Life Seminar, a Center for Social Concerns seminar that takes students to Washington, DC in order to introduce them to professional pro-life work.
Though the focus of this editorial is the university’s institutional support for the pro-life movement, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture has also gone above and beyond the call of duty in supporting the pro-life culture at Notre Dame.
In response to the 2009 controversy, the Center started the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life. Each semester the Center hosts a Bread of Life dinner for students, at which a faculty member delivers a lecture on life issues and students discuss the lecture with faculty over dinner. The Fund also generously supported the student Right to Life group when it traveled to the March for Life. In the spring semester of 2010, Director of the Center and Associate Professor of Philosophy David Solomon co-taught a 400-level joint theology/philosophy seminar with Professor Cavadini, titled, “The Gospel of Life.”
Perhaps the biggest project of the Center for Ethics and Culture is its newly-created Project Guadalupe, an educational project geared toward students who have completed their bachelor’s degrees and seek a background that will prepare them for professional pro-life work. Project Guadalupe includes both a summer institute, called the Notre Dame Vita Institute, and a master’s program. As Assistant Director for the Center Angela Pfister explained to THE ROVER, the first summer institute will be held this summer as a “two-week, intensive, interdisciplinary educational program on beginning of life issues.”
Pfister also pointed out that the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life awarded its inaugural Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal to Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in April.
Finally, I’d like to highlight the improved support for pro-life faculty at the university, which is offered primarily through the newly-established University Faculty for Life chapter, led by Professor of History Fr. Wilson Miscamble, CSC. “The formation of a Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life is a positive development from the Obama visit,” Fr. Miscamble commented. He added that the chapter now has more than 30 members and “connects with a larger group of over 200 pro-life faculty and staff. The group brings together faculty and staff from across departments and colleges to engage in discussion of pro-life issues and to contribute in various ways to building a culture of life on campus and beyond.”
Fr. Miscamble said he hopes the chapter’s existence will encourage pro-life faculty to support pro-life efforts at the university. “I hope that our UFL chapter will encourage further involvement and commitment on pro-life initiatives from an ever-increasing number of faculty,” he said. “We plan to collaborate with groups like the Right to Life Club and in support of the efforts of the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life and the Office of Life Initiatives.”
It is possible to see the university’s public shows of support for the pro-life cause skeptically. One could argue that the university is simply trying to protect its reputation. Worse yet, one could argue that the university cares more about its image than a genuine commitment to the pro-life movement. Regardless of whether these claims have any truth to them, the university’s efforts reveal a vigor that is essential for strengthening a culture of life at Notre Dame.
So, the question ultimately is whether we can see these efforts merely as “proofs,” or whether we can put forth a firm confidence in these visible signs from the university. It is important to remember that we must always be, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “patriots” of the university:
“Can he [the patriot] hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist?”
We must not forget that though we have a responsibility to censure the university for its faults, we have a greater responsibility to love Our Lady’s University for what it is: Catholic.
Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.