Academic freedom, cancel culture, and the proper ends of higher education have been much in the news lately. Recently, a video of law students at Stanford University shouting vulgar epithets at a sitting federal judge and refusing to let him speak (with the acquiescence, perhaps even approval of one of the law school’s associate deans) has gone viral, prompted much discussion, and elicited an apology to the judge from the university’s president. He noted that the behavior of the students and academic staff were inconsistent with Stanford’s policies relating to academic freedom and freedom of expression.
For a Catholic university, the matter is even more complex, because alongside obligations to pursue truth for the sake of itself, advance knowledge, and educate students, there is the responsibility to explore the religious and theological dimensions of the questions under study, provide service, and form students and cultivate the university community in a way that reflects the Catholic Church’s understanding of and commitment to the dignity of the human person, justice, mercy, and the common good.
As the shepherd of a diocese that includes several Catholic institutions of higher learning, it is my unique obligation to teach and bear witness on these important questions, and a recent controversy surrounding the invitation of an “abortion doula” to Notre Dame to advocate for abortion prompts me to dedicate today’s column to the issue.
Lecture series on reproductive justice
By way of background, Notre Dame’s Gender Studies Program and John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values are hosting a series of lectures entitled “Reproductive Justice: Scholarship for Solidarity and Social Change.” They define reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The series features “scholars and advocates whose work at the intersections of reproduction with medicine, law, history, and culture promises a deeper understanding of the issues and histories underlying current debates.”
It is clear from the past and planned events in this series that the organizers are not conducting a neutral inquiry or exploring the debates within this field. The voices featured (including abortion providers and advocates) consider abortion itself to be an essential tool for pursuing justice, equality, and fighting discrimination. The lecture series is meant to persuade and form hearts and minds for “social change,” which is why many of its invited participants are activists rather than academics.
In fact, the lecture series appears to be an explicit act of dissent from Notre Dame’s admirable institutional commitment to promoting a culture of life that embraces and affirms the intrinsic equal dignity of the unborn, pregnant mothers, and families. (To their credit, the organizers of the lecture series admit as much, and as required by university policy, email event registrants a list of Notre Dame’s numerous resources and events that reflect the university’s pro-life commitments and Catholic teaching. A timely and targeted rebuttal would, of course, be preferable in a matter of such grave moral concern).
Abortion doula Ash Williams
On March 20, the lecture series features an event entitled “Trans Care + Abortion Care: Intersections and Questions,” which includes a historian from John Hopkins, and “abortion doula” Ash Williams, who “has been vigorously fighting to expand abortion access by funding abortions and training other people to become abortion doulas.” In a recent profile, it was noted that Williams “has a tattoo on his left forearm of a tool used for manual vacuum aspiration” — a type of abortion procedure. Williams said he loves the procedure because: “It’s one and done. It’s quick.”
Not surprisingly, inviting an abortion doula to provide an unrebutted case for abortion has prompted a great deal of concern and criticism around the country and in our diocese. I share these concerns and consider the decision to feature such a speaker on campus to be both intellectually unserious and unworthy of a great Catholic research university.
Diverse voices at Catholic universities
Catholic universities regularly feature engagement with a diversity of voices, including sometimes those that are contrary to the teachings of the Church. This is acceptable as long as the university remains faithful to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church, which is an essential characteristic of a Catholic university (cf. Ex corde ecclesiae, 13). We should have the confidence to seek the truth and hear competing scholarly points of view. Notre Dame’s mission statement puts the point beautifully:
The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity. … Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith.
Academics or activists?
But Williams is not a scholar or even a prominent public intellectual. The Gender Studies Program and the Reilly Center (and the other units on campus supporting them) are simply providing Williams — a person who literally facilitates abortions — a platform for unanswered pro-abortion activism. Academic freedom is meant to create the space for free inquiry and intellectual exchange in service of pursuing and sharing the truth in charity. But this lecture is simply a conduit for activist propaganda that is not merely wrong, but squarely contrary to principles of basic human equality, justice, dignity, and nonviolence that the Catholic Church, Notre Dame, and many others (including non-Catholics) have affirmed for millennia.
Through my participation in the life of Notre Dame, I have seen and experienced the university and its leadership’s commitment to Catholic mission. I admire Notre Dame’s extraordinary teaching, scholarship, and service advancing a culture of life (e.g., through the work of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, the McGrath Institute for Church Life, the student Right to Life Club, and others). But the Gender Studies Program and the Reilly Center’s decision to invite an abortion doula to provide an unanswered activist’s case that abortion is a tool of justice for the marginalized is a grave mistake in judgment that creates scandal. (It is particularly troubling that Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns — whose mission involves “justice education” — would support an event promoting the injustice of abortion and a series antithetical to the social doctrine of the Church).
Justice, mercy, love of neighbor, and respect for human dignity require that we protect the weak and marginalized from violence — including the violence of abortion. And true justice requires us all to join together to create a world in which mothers, fathers, children, and families are loved and protected.
Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades is bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and chairman of the Board of Directors of Our Sunday Visitor.