An Open Letter to Father Jenkins
President of the University of Notre Dame
I pray God that you, and the Trustees and Faculty of the University of Notre Dame will reconsider your decision to extend an Honorary Degree to Barack Obama, and that you will withdraw your invitation to him to speak at the University’s Commencement exercises in May. As leaders in the American Catholic community do you not hold to the Church’s teaching with regard to the inviolable sanctity of human life, and against the heinous practice of abortion?
The issue at stake in the fight against abortion is starkly simple: Are all human beings created equal, or not? It is the same issue that was at stake in the fight against slavery and racial discrimination.
As an American who subscribes to the self-evident truths our country was founded upon, I answer the question in favor of equality. As a descendant of enslaved Black Americans, I believe that any other answer would invalidate the struggle for justice to which so many Americans of all races gave their lives.
Given that the principle at stake is the same as that which demanded opposition to slavery, I have always had a simple test when dealing with any question involving abortion. I ask myself what I would do or say if slavery was the issue in question. I recommend this test for your consideration. Ask yourself whether you would invite as a Commencement speaker an individual who abused the authority of office to provide Federal funding for the purchase of slaves. Would you consider it honorable for the University to confer an honorary degree on an individual who issued executive orders allowing US funds to be used to support slave markets? Would you let the University be used to give stature to a politician who supported the position that ownership of slaves is a matter of individual choice?
I hope and assume that the answer to all of these questions is no. Since you have chosen to answer otherwise where abortion rather than slavery is at issue, you must see a moral difference between enslaving grown people and killing nascent ones. Or else you see a moral difference between the nascent child in the abortuary and the slave on the auction block. As a Black, Catholic, prolife American, I challenge you to explain the difference to me and to everyone like me. Perhaps you make a distinction because the child is more helpless, more imperatively incapable of voluntary wrongdoing, more explicitly acknowledged by Christ to be the subject of His special regard? (Matthew 18:6, Luke 17:2) Or perhaps it’s because some refuse to recognize the nascent child’s humanity?
Whenever someone raises the latter objection I remember a speech Frederick Douglass made in which he felt compelled to make arguments for the humanity of black Americans because, he said, “A respectable public journal, published in Richmond Virginia., bases its whole defence [sic] of the slave system upon a denial of the Negro’s manhood.” You see, people once raised a question about that, which supposedly Catholic Christians (including some no doubt from my home state of Maryland) probably used at that time to justify their commerce with slaveholders; their willingness to hold in honor those who practiced or defended slavery; or even their own willingness to hold slaves themselves.
When I read of slavery in my youth I could not understand why so many tolerated such evil for so long. I asked God to help me never in my life to be such as they were. Once I fully understood the nature of the abortion issue, I was moved to stand against abortion and the slaughter of innocent life as I would have wanted all people of conscience and goodwill to stand against slavery and the rape of my forbears’ liberty. When people suggest that Barack Obama shares some heritage with me, I know better. For the truest test of that heritage is not the color of someone’s skin, but the determination of their heart, never to stand silently by while God’s fundamental law of justice is denied to persons whose only crime is the unjustly despised appearance of their humanity.
I know that the Catholic Church today is guilty of no such dereliction. The Holy Father, the clergy, and millions of the laity have joined together in prayer, and work and sacrifice to bear witness against the wrong of abortion, to bear witness against a false idea of choice that betrays God-given liberty. Your University bears the name of the Blessed Mother of Christ, who honored God’s will for human life though it could have meant her own dishonor in the minds of her contemporaries. Even if, as you say, Obama’s visit does worldly honor to you and your colleagues, what is more consistent with her example: to seek honor at the expense of God’s truth, or to forego it if need be, in obedience to His loving will.
I realize that such a decision is not so much for thought as for prayer. So I ask that you give prayerful consideration to the plea that is on my heart, and on the hearts of millions like me. This may well be a teaching moment for Obama and other politicians like him. But sometimes one deed speaks more certainly of truth than many words could do. Thus spoke the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Are we not called to act as He did? Perhaps the best Commencement speech of all would be the testimony of silence, in which, perhaps for the first time, someone who needs to hear it will hear the voice of Rachel, weeping. (Matthew 2:18)
With Pleasing Hope for Life,
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