Monday, April 27, 2009


William McGurn

The precipitate cause of our gathering tonight is the
honor and platform our university has extended to a
President whose policies reflect clear convictions
about unborn life, and about the value the law ought
to place on protecting that life. These convictions are
not in doubt. In July 2007, the candidate spelled them
out in a forceful address to a Planned Parenthood
convention in our nation’s capital.

Before that audience, he declared that a woman’s
“fundamental right” to an abortion was at stake in the
coming election. He spoke about how he had “put
Roe at the center” of his “lesson plan on reproductive
freedom” when he was a professor – and how he
would put it at the center of his agenda as president.
He invoked his record in the Illinois state senate,
where he fought restrictions on abortion, famously
including one on partial-birth abortion. He said that
the “first thing” he wanted to do as President was to
“sign a Freedom of Choice Act.” And he ended by
assuring his audience that “on this fundamental
issue,” he, like they, would never yield.

These were his promises as a candidate. His actions
as President – his key appointments, his judicial
nominees, his lifting of restrictions on federal funding
for abortion providers overseas, the green light given
to the destruction of human embryos for research, his
targeting of “conscience clause” protections for
healthcare workers – all these actions are fully
consistent with his promises. It is precisely this
terrible consistency that makes it so dispiriting to see
our university extend to this man her most public
platform and an honorary doctorate of laws. There
are good men and women working for an America
where every child is welcomed in life and protected by
law – and when they lift their eyes to Notre Dame,
they ought to find inspiration.


In a nation wounded by Roe … in a society that
sets mothers against the children they carry in their
wombs … we come here tonight because however
much our hearts ache, they tell us this: Our church,
our country, and our culture long for the life witness of
Notre Dame.

What does it mean to be a witness? To be a witness,
an institution must order itself so that all who look
upon it see a consonance between its most profound
truths and its most public actions. For a Catholic
university in the 21st century, this requires that those
placed in her most critical leadership positions – on
the faculty, in the administration, on the board of
trustees – share that mission. We must concede
there is no guarantee that the young men and women
who come here to learn will assent to her witness –
but we must never forget that the university will have
failed them if they leave here without at least
understanding it. That is what it means to be a

This witness is the only real reason for a University of
Notre Dame. We believe that there are self-evident
truths about the dignity of each human life, and that
this dignity derives from our having been fashioned in
our Creator’s likeness. In this new century, these
beliefs make us the counterculture. One does not
need to be a Catholic to appreciate that abortion
involves the brutal taking of innocent human life. To
argue that this is a Catholic truth, or even a religious
truth, is to overlook what science and sonograms tell
us – and to insult the Protestants, Jews, Hindus,
Buddhists, Muslims and, yes, even some atheists,
who appreciate that a civilization which sanctions
abortion as a human right is in some essential way
writing its death warrant.

Over the years, the whole idea of truth – much less
our ability to know it – has been rendered doubtful by
the slow advance of a soft agnosticism that has itself
become orthodoxy at so many universities. Not so at
Notre Dame. All across this wondrous campus, we
pass imagery that sings to us about the hope born of
a Jewish woman in a Bethlehem stable. Yet we kid
ourselves if we believe these images are self-
sustaining. Without a witness that keeps these
signposts alive, our crosses, statues, and stained-
glass windows will ultimately fade into historical
curiosities like the “Christo et ecclesiae” that survives
to this day on buildings around Harvard Yard and the
seal that still validates every Harvard degree.

For most of her life, Notre Dame has served as a
symbol of a Catholic community struggling to find
acceptance in America – and yearning to make our
own contributions to this great experiment in ordered
liberty. We identify with those who are poor and
downtrodden and on the margins of acceptance
because that is where the Gospel points – and
because we remember whence came our own
parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.


For years this university has trumpeted her lay
governance. So what does it say about the Notre
Dame brand of leadership, that in the midst of a
national debate over a decision that speaks to our
Catholic identity, a debate in which thousands of
people across the country are standing up to declare
themselves “yea” or “nay,” our trustees and fellows –
the men and women who bear ultimate responsibility
for this decision – remain as silent as Trappist
monks? At a time when we are told to “engage” and
hold “dialogue,” their timidity thunders across this
campus. And what will history say of our billions in
endowment if the richest Catholic university America
has ever known cannot find it within herself to mount
a public and spirited defense of the most defenseless
among us?

In the past few weeks, we have read more than once
the suggestion that to oppose this year’s speaker and
honorary degree is to elevate politics over the proper
work of a university. In many ways, we might say that
such reasoning lies at the core of the confusion. As
has become clear with America’s debates over the
destruction of embryos for scientific research, over
human cloning, over assisted suicide, and over other
end-of-life issues, abortion as a legal right is less a
single issue than an entire ethic that serves as the
foundation stone for the culture of death.

With the idea that one human being has the right to
take the life of another merely because the other’s life
is inconvenient, our culture elevates into law the
primacy of the strong over the weak. The discord that
this year’s commencement has unleashed – between
Notre Dame and the bishops, between members of
the Notre Dame community, between Notre Dame
and thousands of discouraged Catholic faithful – all
this derives from an approach that for decades has
treated abortion as one issue on a political scorecard.
This is not the road to engagement. This is the route
to incoherence, and we see its fruit everywhere in our
public life.

Twenty-five years ago, on a similar stage on this
campus, the then-governor of New York used his
Notre Dame platform to advance the personally-
opposed-but defense that countless numbers of
Catholic politicians have used to paper over their
surrender to legalized abortion. Eight years after
that, the school bestowed the Laetare Medal on a
United States Senator who had likewise long since
cut his conscience to fit the abortion fashion.

Today we have evolved. Let us note that the present
controversy comes at a moment where the
incoherence of the Catholic witness in American
public life is on view at the highest levels of our
government. Today we have a Catholic vice
president, a Catholic Speaker of the House, a
Catholic nominee for Secretary of Health and Human
Services, and so on. These are America’s most
prominent Catholics. And they have one thing in
common: The assertion that the legal right to
terminate a pregnancy – in the chilling euphemism of
the day – must remain inviolable.

For those who think this a partisan point, let us
stipulate for the record one of the curiosities of the
Republican Party. Notwithstanding the party’s prolife
credentials, at the level of possible Presidential
contenders, the most prominent pro-choice voices in
the GOP arguably belong to Catholics: from the
former Republican mayor and governor of New York,
to the Republican Governor of California, the
Republican former governor of Pennsylvania, and so
on. Notre Dame must recognize these realities – and
the role she has played in bringing us to this day by
treating abortion as a political difference rather than
the intrinsic evil it is.

In his writings, Pope John Paul II noted the awful
contradiction of our times, when more and more legal
codes speak of human rights while making the
freedom to deprive the innocent of their lives one of
those rights. Several times he uses the word
“sinister” to characterize the enshrinement of abortion
as a legal right. And he states that all pleas for other
important human rights are “false and illusory” if we
do not defend with “maximum determination” the
fundamental right to life upon which all other rights


This is not a popular witness. In our country, those
who take it must expect ridicule and derision and a
deliberate distortion of our views. In our culture, so
many of our most powerful and influential institutions
are hostile to any hint that abortion might be an
unsettled question. And in our public life, one of the
most pernicious effects of the imposition of abortion
via the Supreme Court is that it has deprived a free
people of a fair and open debate. Notre Dame
remains one of the few institutions capable of
providing a witness for life in the fullness of its beauty
and intellectual integrity – and America is waiting to
hear her voice.


My friends, the good news is that the witness for life is
alive at Notre Dame. We see this witness in the good
work of teachers here in this room. We see this
witness in the new Notre Dame Fund to Protect
Human Life. I have seen this witness in a very
personal way, on the cold gym floor of a suburban
parochial school on the outskirts of Washington –
where 200-plus students spent a freezing January
night just so they could raise the Notre Dame banner
at the annual March for Life. These are but a handful
of the wonderful things going on at this campus. And
we know that this witness exists too in the other,
unheralded acts of love designed to ensure that the
unwed sophomore who kneels before the Grotto with
an unexpected pregnancy weighing on her mind has
a better choice than the cold front door of a Planned
Parenthood clinic.

Unfortunately, people across this nation – and
perhaps even here at this university – know little of
these things. And they do not know because the
university keeps this lamp under a basket. In her
most public witness, Notre Dame appears afraid to
extend to the cause of the unborn the same
enthusiasm she shows for so many other good works

If, for example, you click onto, you will
often find a link for the Office of Sustainability, which
happily informs you about all the things Notre Dame is
doing to be green-friendly. You will find another link
that defines the university with a series of videos that
ask, “What would you fight for?” Each home game
during the football season, NBC broadcasts one of
these videos. They are more than a dozen of them –
each highlighting members of the Notre Dame
community who are fighting for justice, fighting for
advances in medicine, fighting for new immigrants,
and so forth.

Imagine the witness that Notre Dame might provide
on a Fall afternoon, if millions of Americans who had
sat down to watch a football game suddenly found
themselves face to face with a Notre Dame professor
or student standing up to say, “I fight for the unborn.”

Even more important, imagine the larger witness for
life that would come from putting first things first. So
often we find support for abortion rights measured
against decisions involving war, capital punishment,
and so on. All these issues deserve more serious
treatment. But the debate over these prudential
judgments loses coherence if on the intrinsic evil of
abortion we do not stand on the same ground. What
a challenge Notre Dame would pose to our culture if
she stood united on this proposition: The unborn
belong to no political party … no human right is safe
when their right to life is denied … and we will accept
no calculus of justice that seeks to trade that right to
life for any other.


Tonight I ask our prolifers to open up the dialogue to
your professors and classmates. Invite them in. Say
to them: “Brothers! Sisters! We are not perfect, and
we will be much improved by your participation. We
are holding a place for you on the front lines. Come
join us – and let us walk together in our witness for

I appreciate that for some people, the idea of Notre
Dame as an unequivocal witness for the unborn
would be a limit on her work as a Catholic university.
The truth is just the opposite. The more frank and
forthright Notre Dame’s witness for life, the more she
would be given the benefit of the doubt on the many
judgment calls that the life of a great university
entails. At this hour in our nation’s life, America
thirsts for an alternative to the relativism that leaves
so many of our young people feeling empty and
alone. This alternative is the Catholic witness that
Notre Dame was created to provide … that Notre
Dame is called to provide … and that in many ways,
only Notre Dame can provide.


My young friends, this night I ask you: Make yours
the voice that affirms life and motherhood. Be to
those in need as the words of our alma mater: tender
… strong … and true. And in your every word and
deed, let the world see a reflection of the hope that
led a French-born priest in the north woods of Indiana
to raise Our Lady atop a dome of gold.

God bless you all.


“A Notre Dame Witness for Life”
William McGurn
April 23, 2009

Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture

The Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life

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