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Bishop's Column

June 2009

Bishop Charles Michael Jarrell
Bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana

Perhaps everyone is tired of reading about the controversy surrounding the graduation ceremony at the University of Notre Dame. Statements of support and cries of criticism have been numerous and strong. The issue of abortion continues to provoke strong reactions from many quarters, even 36 years after the Roe v. Wade decision. Even though media attention has passed, I believe it is important to reflect on the meaning of the whole event.  Similar events are bound to occur in the future.

It seems that the immediate question was not the morality of abortion or even its legality. Of course, these issues are at the basis of the whole debate. Without them, there would have been no debate. But the immediate question was the propriety of a Catholic institution conferring an honor on a politician or public personality who supports abortion rights. The decision of Notre Dame to invite President Barack Obama to deliver the graduation address and to receive an honorary degree was the cause of the controversy. It was a debate about a prudential judgment made by the University.. I believe the University made the wrong judgment. I believe it missed an opportunity to provide witness to the sanctity of human life as understood by the Catholic Church and as proclaimed by the University itself. The world needs such witness today. I support the decision of Bishop John D’Arcy, Bishop of South Bend, to give witness to the sanctity of human life by not attending. I applaud Dr. Mary Ann Glendon who was chosen to receive the prestigious Laetare Medal, but declined the honor in order to give witness to the sanctity of human life.

President Obama addressed the controversy directly and said that people who differ in their beliefs should still engage one another in mutual respect.  He said that in the abortion debate, the two sides should seek common ground. I agree with his remarks. Mutual respect is important. With regard to common ground, I should note that it does not mean compromise. Catholics do share common ground with the President on many issues, especially in the area of social justice. On the issue of abortion, Mr. Obama said that both sides should “work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions…” Both sides will probably agree on that goal, but there will be differences on the means of achieving it.

I hope the President continues to reflect on this goal of reducing the number of women seeking abortions. Why does he wish to pursue this goal? Is it possible that all human beings have a voice of conscience which judges
abortion to be an unspeakable crime? Abortion has been legal in the United States for 36 years, but people are still uneasy about it. Reducing the number of abortions is a worthy goal, but it is inadequate. When Mr. Obama
looked at the torture of prisoners, he did not say that the number of tortured prisoners should be reduced. He moved to eliminate it all together.  One could hope for the same attitude toward abortion.

Another thought concerns the issue of science. Mr. Obama has said that science should be returned to its rightful place in public policy decisions.  He was talking about climate change accusing the previous administration of ignoring the conclusions of scientists. One might hope that scientists would be consulted on the nature of human embryos. Scientists will say that it is a being, which simply means something that is. They will say that it is human, citing the evidence from genes and chromosomes. They will say that it is living, since given the proper conditions, it will grow and develop.

Could we not say that science compels us to call the embryo a living human being? Could we not then go beyond science and conclude that innocent human beings deserve the protection of law in the United States?

Despite all that has taken place, I believe that we should remember that the University of Notre Dame is a Catholic institution and that it provides a great service to the Church and to society. It continues to deserve our
respect and support, even if we differ on the prudential judgment made with regard to the graduation.

In businesses around Acadiana, one sees small signs which read, “Ici on parle français” (Here we speak French). Perhaps in all of our churches, homes, schools, and institutions, we need similar signs which read, “Ici on ne tue pas les enfants” (Here we do not kill our children).

Most Reverend Michael Jarrell, D.D.
Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana

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