William McGurn, former speech writer for George W. Bush, spoke at Notre Dame on April 23, to affirm and be a witness to the “sacredness of life.” He noted that no human right is safe when the right to life is denied, and that the unborn belong to no political party.
McGurn explained to CNA that his talk "outlined the kind of witness for life that Notre Dame is called to be, and that in many ways only Notre Dame can be.” In light of the recent news that Professor Mary Ann Glendon has turned down the Laetare Medal, McGurn noted that she “has given what we call a teaching moment, and the hope is that courageous action will help call Notre Dame back to the university it was meant to be."
McGurn, an alumnus of Notre Dame began his lecture by acknowledging the university’s invitation to President Obama to give the commencement address at this year’s ceremony. However, McGurn explained, he did not come to Notre Dame to “rally against a speaker, he came “to affirm the sacredness of life.”
“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,” McGurn said, launching into his address.
What does being a witness mean? he asked. “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 today, this requires leaders to share in that mission.
We must admit, he said, that 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.”
“This witness is the only real reason for a University of Notre Dame,” McGurn continued. Catholics believe that there are “self-evident truths about the dignity of each human life, and that this dignity derives from our” creation in the image and likeness of God.
These beliefs make us “countercultural,” he pointed out. However, “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” non-Catholics and even non-Christians “who appreciate that a civilization which sanctions abortion as a human right is in some essential way writing its death warrant.”
He explained that the idea of truth “has been rendered doubtful by the slow advance of a soft agnosticism that has itself become orthodoxy at so many universities.” This has not yet occurred at Notre Dame, McGurn argued, but he warned that “without a witness,” “our crosses, statues, and stained- glass windows will ultimately fade into historical curiosities.”
McGurn also acknowledged that the Notre Dame community has become successful, but with that success comes responsibility.
Notre Dame's Leadership
“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…remain as silent as Trappist monks?” he asked.
“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?”
He went on to discuss Pope John Paul II who stated 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 rest.”
“Maximum determination,” repeated the ND alum. “Ladies and gentlemen, the unborn child’s right to life represents the defining civil rights issue of our day – and it ought to be a defining civil rights issue on this campus.”
“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,” he said.
He then recognized the strong witness that is alive at Notre Dame. It can be seen in the pro-life teachers, the new Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life and the students who attended the annual March for Life.
“Unfortunately, people across this nation – and perhaps even here at this university – know little of these things” because “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 here.”
After acknowledging that war, capital punishment and other issues deserve “more serious treatment,” McGurn noted that the “debate over these prudential judgments loses coherence if on the intrinsic evil of abortion we do not stand on the same ground.”
McGurn urged prolifers to begin dialogue with professors and classmates. “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 life’.”
He continued: 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.”
Right now, the former presidential speech writer urged, “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.”
Drawing his lecture to a close, McGurn asked encouraged his audience: “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.”
He concluded, “let us pray that our beloved university becomes the Notre Dame our world so desperately needs: a witness for life that will truly shake down the thunder.”
In a Q & A session following his address, McGurn was asked if he was calling on Fr. Jenkins to resign. He answered that he didn’t want to go there. “If Father Jenkins resigned and President Obama did not come, my problem would remain: the school's lack of a witness for life.”