Notre Dame Has Yet to Learn Its Lesson

Published October 8, 2011

First Things

Last week, Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius imploring her to enact more robust conscience protections in the forthcoming HHS regulations for preventive services coverage under the new health care law. It’s important that conscience protections be much broader than even what Fr. Jenkins calls for, but it is good that he spoke up on the issue.

Still, several aspects of Fr. Jenkins’ letter come off as decidedly bizarre.

First, it’s somewhat odd that Fr. Jenkins chose to associate the concerns and interests of Secretary Sebelius with the university’s mission: “Of course, Madam Secretary,” he wrote, “as the daughter of a distinguished Notre Dame alumnus and faculty member, you are no stranger to our mission.” That Sebelius is a longtime darling of the abortion industry is news to no one.

The point being, if Fr. Jenkins expects his notion of a Catholic university to find purchase with Kathleen Sebelius, he’s likely to be disappointed. If he thinks her staunch abortion advocacy jives with her supposed familiarity with Notre Dame’s mission, there is cause for concern, especially given Notre Dame’s history of abetting politicians who find it convenient to exclude certain human beings from the law’s protection.

Which brings us to the second reason Fr. Jenkins’ letter is strange: he repeatedly cites President Obama’s 2009 endorsement of a “sensible conscience clause,” but now laments that HHS’s proposed conscience protections are “not the kind of ‘sensible’ approach the president had in mind.” Aren’t they though?

Despite the clear and unambiguous objections of his local bishop (and of many others), Fr. Jenkins lavished honors upon President Obama in the name of dialogue and exchange. And what was exchanged? William McGurn (himself a Notre Dame alum) wrote this at the time:

[This] was precisely the message President Obama wanted to send: How bad can he be on abortion if Notre Dame is willing to honor him?

We cannot blame the president for this one. During his campaign for president, Mr. Obama spoke honestly about the aggressive pro-choice agenda he intended to pursue-as he assured Planned Parenthood, he was “about playing offense,” not defense-and his actions have been consistent with that pledge. If only our nation’s premier Catholic university were as forthright in advancing its principles as Mr. Obama has been for his.

In a letter to Notre Dame’s Class of 2009, the university’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, stated that the honors for Mr. Obama do not indicate any “ambiguity” about Notre Dame’s commitment to Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life. The reality is that it was this ambiguity that the White House was counting on; this ambiguity that was furthered by the adoring reaction to Mr. Obama’s visit . . .

President Obama used Notre Dame for political cover, donning the blue-and-gold mantle like so much Catholic arm candy. In return, Notre Dame received the acclaim of the media and the “prestige” it craved.

The credulous Fr. Jenkins refuses to admit the cynical nature of the transaction, but it’s left him in an awkward position. The One who so convincingly professed undying admiration (or in this case, “a sensible conscience clause”)-the One whose advances seemed so sincere and were so eagerly accepted-is now more distant and unresponsive. The One, it turns out, has prior commitments.

Also curious is Fr. Jenkins assessment of the situation that HHS’s proposed regulations would…

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