Sent by Father Peter Pilsner of the Archdiocese of New York:
Dear Fr. Jenkins,
I am writing to express my objection to the invitation of President Barack Obama to give the commencement address at Notre Dame and to receive an honorary doctorate. Yes, I have read the quotes by you and Charles Lennon, saying that this is an opportunity for "engagement" with the President, or for starting a national conversation on the subject of abortion. I find this explanation thoroughly unconvincing and, indeed, out of date.
There was perhaps a time, in the mid-seventies and early eighties, when the implications of Roe v. Wade were not fully understood, and one might make the case that one could separate the politician from his views, and honor the politician for his worthy accomplishments, while at the same time showing tolerance for his pro-choice stance, in the hopes of a constructive engagement in dialogue. If such a time ever existed, or such a defense could be made, the time is long past.
In the thirty-six years of abortion since Roe, much has come to light about the nature of abortion and the harm it has caused to our country. Consider, for starters, these three developments: First, we know far more about the life and humanity of the unborn child than we ever did. Back in the seventies, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the one-time abortionist and atheist, could say that the new science of fetology forced him to change his view of abortion and eventually become pro-life. If such was true in the seventies, how much more so today, with 3-D sonograms and surgical procedures performed on unborn children. Nor is knowledge of the humanity of the unborn child limited to medical professionals. Who has not seen a sonogram of a child in utero proudly displayed by expectant parents? The status of the fetus as a human being is now so commonly accepted, that pro-choice arguments have shifted from the attempt to deny the humanity of the fetus to the consideration of reasons why, in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, it might be necessary to cause the death of an innocent person. Thus when a politician identifies himself as pro-choice, he is not expressing uncertainty about the human status of the fetus, or the role of law in view of that uncertainty. Such uncertainty is no longer tenable. Rather, he is embracing the idea that in some cases, human life is not inviolable. This is a frightening step forward for the culture of death.
Second, today we can understand the harm abortion does to women in ways we could never have conceived immediately after Roe. The claim that abortion is a simple and safe surgical procedure, generally beneficial to women, is a gross lie. The sense of grief, loss, spiritual alienation, guilt, and trauma experienced by post-abortive women is profound, and has become manifest to us thanks to the public testimony of hundreds of women proclaiming the same
message: abortion hurt them far more than it might have helped them. Any political leader who calls himself pro-choice today can do so only by failing to listen to these women, or by listening but failing to extend compassion.
Third, there is ample evidence that in spite of the demand for "safe and legal" abortion, the actual practice of abortion in our country is not safe. With respect to this particular procedure, and especially in clinics that do this procedure exclusively, women are routinely subjected to unprofessional treatment and low standards of care. The reason is that pro-choice politicians, in the name of the right to choose, have protected abortion clinics from professional oversight, resulting (after thirty-six years) in systemic malpractice.
To me these three developments are not abstractions. Over the last twenty years of my priesthood, I have worked with women who have needed healing after abortion, and have heard countless stories detailing the depth of their pain and sorrow, the ever-present sense of loss and guilt, and the many years they have spent weighed down by the knowledge of what they have done. And as if this were not enough, I have also ministered to numerous teenagers who suffer from abortion in other ways - girls forced into abortions they did not want, boys tormented by the loss of a son or daughter by abortion, and both boys and girls struggling with self-worth, because they learned that their father wanted them to be aborted, or because their own mother told them she wished she had aborted them. And I could go even further and write about young people who feel great loss, because they know of brothers, sisters, or cousins who were aborted, or about parents who experience deep regret, because they see the harm suffered by their daughter following upon the abortion they forced her into. The destruction wrought upon our nation by thirty-six years of abortion goes far beyond the lives lost. It has corrupted consciences, devastated the spiritual and psychological health of millions, and eroded respect for life as a foundational cultural value.
Considering these effects of abortion on our country, I am pressed to ask: by what logic does Notre Dame bestow honors upon a man like Barack Obama, who has made common cause with this evil? To state his position thus is no exaggeration. He is not a person with moderate or evolving opinions on this matter. He is a true believer, so fully committed to protecting the availability of abortion, that for him, the death of children born alive after an attempted abortion is not too high a price to pay. Nor is Barack Obama passive in his support for abortion or content with the status quo. He is an active, aggressive advocate for the pro-choice cause. Already he has paved the way for U.S. tax dollars to fund abortions in foreign countries by overturning the Mexico City policy. He has pledged to sign the most extreme pro-choice legislation ever proposed (FOCA) and thus establish abortion without restriction as the law of the land. Add to this his efforts to remove conscience protection for doctors who refuse to perform abortions, and his flippant dismissal of serious moral concerns regarding embryonic stem cell research, and it becomes clear that Barack Obama is ready to place at the service of the culture of death the power of the highest office in the land.
Again, by what logic does Notre Dame bestow academic honors upon him? Does he deserve this simply because he is the president of the United States, as if simply being elected makes him worthy of honor, regardless of what he does or promises to do? How much injustice must he be responsible for before Notre Dame decides not to invite him? How much evil must happen with his active cooperation before Notre Dame decides not to honor him?
It is said that the invitation and the honorary doctorate serve the purpose of engaging Barack Obama in dialogue. This too is beyond credibility. Is there some special power in the halls of Notre Dame that will warm his heart toward respect for human life, when he has given no genuine indication of openness to this in any of his statements or speeches? Has giving honors and awards to pro-choice politicians ever resulted in changing their hearts and minds? Can we even imagine a politician saying, "I was once adamantly pro-choice, but after receiving honors and awards from the Catholic Church, I was forced to re-think my position"? Such is hardly possible. But it is very possible, and indeed quite common, for politicians to receive recognition from Catholic institutions, to flaunt their status as loyal Catholics in their election campaigns, and to give nothing in return, in terms of support for the Church's efforts to defend human life.
Finally, please consider what this invitation is doing to the church in the United States in terms of scandal. As I understand it, the concept of scandal, going back to the New Testament controversy of eating meat sacrificed to idols, is that sometimes a Christian must refrain from doing something innocent, if many in the Christian community will regard it as wrongful. A Christian should give up his right to something legitimate, rather than offend the consciences of one's fellow Christians, even if they are incorrect in taking offense. By this standard, even if one could argue that there is nothing objectionable about inviting Barack Obama to Notre Dame, does not the resulting division within the church and firestorm of opposition tell you that Catholics are scandalized? When a political leader's advocacy for abortion fails to disqualify him for receiving an honorary doctorate, does that not (at the very least) create the appearance that at Notre Dame, respect for human life is a matter of little significance? How many bishops and thoughtful Catholics will need to express opposition to this invitation, before it becomes clear that scandal is present?
It seems to me that Notre Dame has created for itself a crisis and a turning point. Either it will reclaim its Catholic identity at the price of disinviting President Obama, or it will continue its present course and compromise its Catholic identity beyond repair. I pray for the former. But if it turns out to be the latter, I will quite openly tell any senior at our high school who is considering Notre Dame, that he or she should not regard it as a genuinely Catholic institution of higher learning.
Fr. Peter R. Pilsner
Religion Department Co-Chairman
Cardinal Spellman High School
Bronx, New York