On Notre Dame, Law Degrees, and Catholic Politics

Law Student Coalition Calls for Renewed Pro-Life Commitment

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By Genevieve Pollock

SOUTH BEND, Indiana, APRIL 8, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The founder of a new law student coalition at Notre Dame stated that the university's decision to honor President Barack Obama at this year's spring commencement points to a deeper problem of Catholicism in the United States.

Mariangela Sullivan, founder and director of Notre Dame Action Coalition, shared with ZENIT her views about the "decades-old elephant in the closet:" the issue that many Catholics privately disagree with abortion while publicly supporting it.

Today the Notre Dame Action Coalition sent out a letter announcing its Festival of Life, an initiative that not only responds to the decision of Father John Jenkins, the university's president, to honor President Obama, but also invites Catholics nationwide to renew their pro-life commitment.

In this interview with ZENIT, Sullivan explains the issues, the event and its goals.

Q: Why do you think the university's decision to honor President Obama has drawn such international attention?

Sullivan: Make no mistake, the controversy surrounding Father Jenkin's invitation bringing President Obama to Notre Dame is not about Father Jenkins or President Obama or Notre Dame.

Like a couple whose marriage is suddenly on the rocks over a burned pot roast, the troubles at issue here run much deeper than a single incident at a single moment in time.

The reality is that Catholicism in America has quietly become a house divided, and now with one very public act, Notre Dame has dragged into view a decades-old elephant in the room: American Catholics no longer oppose pro-choice politicians.

As the White House shrewdly noted when it fielded the first wave of outrage, half of American Catholics voted for Barack Obama. Home run, Mr. President, as usual.

The White House is aware of the true crux of the issue, and so should we be: Catholicism in America -- as well as the entire pro-life movement -- is a house divided. Indeed, many who say they are pro-life are part of the new president's constituency. The choir is not the choir anymore.

A university identifies with a religion that recognizes that fetuses are people. A president makes it a priority to defend through law the choice of women to have fetuses killed. The same university gives to the same president an honorary doctorate of law.

Unlike American voters exercising their civic duties in the privacy of town libraries and city halls, Notre Dame has no cubicle, no curtain. She is the flagship Catholic education institution in the United States; her votes are anything but private.

And the fact that she has chosen to award President Obama an honorary law degree has had the effect of ripping the curtain off the voting booths of all the Catholics in the country, shining light on the division that runs like a canyon straight through the middle of them. Thus the outrage. Thus the feeling that salt has been poured in a wound.

Q: What are the reasons behind the fact that so many Catholics voted for Obama in the national elections?

Sullivan: Like any decision made privately by thousands of people, the answer is both complicated and unknowable.

Political life can be challenging for a Catholic; the truths we embrace do not align smoothly with either major political party. The patience to uncover and reflect on the philosophies and records of individual candidates is necessary to cast a Catholic vote.

That kind of in-depth inquiry is unfamiliar to modern American culture, in which everyone is entitled to her uninformed opinion. Catholics, of course, are not immune to that.

Just a casual look at the Catholics I know can tell us something about how the Catholic vote worked this year. Some believed, in good faith, and without much attention to facts, that the president would honor his promise to find moderate common ground and unity between the parties.

Others factored environmental policy, or health care policy, or economic policy most heavily in their decision-making calculus. Others, dissatisfied with the candidates, settled for various but important victories, like the prospect of ending torture, or the possibility of increased aid to the poor.

Others voted on emotional grounds -- they felt the "hope" that swept the nation. Others didn't have a decision-making calculus at all.

The famous Catholic vote did not appear as a bloc in the last election. Our voting was as divided as we are, and there were significant shifts toward Obama among the traditional conservative Catholic vote

Q: Is there a division among Catholics on the life issue? How can this be overcome?

Sullivan: There is certainly division. The action of Father Jenkins only served to point out an existing source of division and confusion: what exactly is the Catholic role within American citizenship?

A large section of the Catholic population is now floating away from the old pro-life mother ship, on a raft Americans have been steadily constructing for some time.

That raft was launched here at Notre Dame, when Governor Mario Cuomo of New York popularized the most baffling position in the abortion debate: being privately pro-life but publicly unopposed to abortion.

The logic of the pro-choice position is easy to grasp -- though based in error: A fetus is not a person with rights, and therefore can be legally killed. Equally simple is the pro-life view: A fetus is a person with rights, and therefore cannot be legally killed.

The increasingly trendy view for Catholics, however, is a logical house of horrors: A fetus is a person, has rights, and can be legally killed.

This is why it is true that all the pro-life Supreme Court justices in the world could not end abortion. As a wise professor here told me, even as we try to bring the law to the just defense of human life, the transformation that will ultimately end abortion can only be one of hearts and minds.

To that end, I founded ND Action for the particular purpose of reaching beyond Notre Dame to the hearts and minds of the wider American community. The group's focus and energy is entirely devoted to carrying out that purpose.

ND Action is composed of law students who see the scope of the controversy at issue here as much, much larger than Father Jenkin's decision. We are also collaborating with ND Response and the entire coalition of pro-life students.

Q: What is your law student coalition doing to reach the Catholic community?

Sullivan: We find ourselves at a crossroads for Catholicism in America. Many Catholics believe that unborn children are persons with rights, and yet do not oppose their legal termination.

We are calling for renewed dedication among American Catholics, and all human-rights-loving Americans, to defend innocent human life at all stages.

We invite the nation to join with Notre Dame in a two-day Festival of Life here on campus during Commencement Weekend 2009. From the campus of Our Lady's University, through peaceful prayer and solidarity, we will unequivocally proclaim that the protection of innocent human life must be enshrined in law.

The message that goes forth from Notre Dame at this time must revolve not around Father Jenkins, but around American Catholicism, and must go to the heart of the issue, rather than a single symptom of it.

Our message is one of renewal and truth, and aims to remind all American Catholics of their duty to defend human life at all stages. This occasion at Notre Dame is a rebirth in our commitment to defend human rights.

Q: What is the main issue at stake here?

Sullivan: In the grand scheme of things, Notre Dame's 2009 commencement decision will fade from national view. But what the two sides of the Catholic population say to one another in the light of this controversy will have staying power and long-term effects.

If we hold that Notre Dame was wrong to honor a man with this view of the law, in regard to life, do we implicate ourselves as well? Conversely, if we hold that our president's views merit an honorary law degree from the University of Notre Dame, are we living our Catholic convictions?

The stakes are high; the feelings run deep. The danger is that, rather than address the disease of our internal divisions, Catholics will focus only on the single symptom at hand.

If we address only the controversial commencement, the heart of the issue will never be reached. It must be reached. We all know what becomes of a house divided. So, American Catholics who are floating away on the Cuomo-Pelosi-Biden raft, I ask you to take a thoughtful look at the truths of Catholicism regarding human life. If upon reflection you find that you're in the wrong place, start swimming.

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For more information: NDAction@gmail.com