Notre Dame: Reluctant Witness

Last Thursday, former White House speechwriter William McGurn gave an inspirational talk at his alma mater Notre Dame at a dinner hosted by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and the Notre Dame Fund for the Protection of Human Life.

Read Bill’s speech in its entirety here.

[T]onight our hearts carry a great sadness. But we do not come here this evening to rally against a speaker. We come to affirm the sacredness of life. And we come with a great hope: That a university founded under the patronage of Our Lady might be as consistent in the defense of her principles as the President of the United States has been for advancing his. 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.

What does it mean to be a witness? 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 in the 21st century, this requires that those placed in her most critical leadership positions – on the faculty, in the administration, on the board of trustees – share that mission. We must concede 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. That is what it means to be a witness.

This witness is the only real reason for a University of Notre Dame. We believe that there are self-evident truths about the dignity of each human life, and that this dignity derives from our having been fashioned in our Creator’s likeness. In this new century, these beliefs make us the counterculture. 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 the Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and, yes, even some atheists, who appreciate that a civilization which sanctions abortion as a human right is in some essential way writing its death warrant.

Over the years, the whole idea of truth – much less our ability to know it – has been rendered doubtful by the slow advance of a soft agnosticism that has itself become orthodoxy at so many universities. Not so at Notre Dame. All across this wondrous campus, we pass imagery that sings to us about the hope born of a Jewish woman in a Bethlehem stable. Yet we kid ourselves if we believe these images are self-sustaining. Without a witness that keeps these signposts alive, our crosses, statues, and stainedglass windows will ultimately fade into historical curiosities like the “Christo et ecclesiae” that survives to this day on buildings around Harvard Yard and the seal that still validates every Harvard degree. . .

For years this university has trumpeted her lay governance. 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 – the men and women who bear ultimate responsibility for this decision – remain as silent as Trappist monks? 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?

It is no coincidence that the Greek word for witness is martyrion, from which our English word “martyr” is derived.

Whittaker Chambers, who titled his great autobiography “Witness”, knew from bitter experience what it meant to be a witness:

I was a witness. I do not mean a witness for the Government or against Alger Hiss and the others. Nor do I mean the short, squat, solitary figure, trudging through the impersonal halls of public buildings to testify before Congressional committees, grand juries, loyalty boards, courts of law. A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something. A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences. . .

But a man may also be an involuntary witness. I do not know any way to explain why God’s grace touches a man who seems unworthy of it. But neither do I know any other way to explain how a man like myself — tarnished by life, unprepossessing, not brave — could prevail so far against the powers of the world arrayed almost solidly against him, to destroy him and defeat his truth In this sense, I am an involuntary witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying power of faith.
Author’s Forward to Witness, 1952

As McGurn fully understands, the “mainstream” voices of secular materialism and the Culture of Death do not welcome authentic Catholic witness:

In his writings, Pope John Paul II noted the awful contradiction of our times, when more and more legal codes speak of human rights while making the freedom to deprive the innocent of their lives one of those rights. Several times he uses the word “sinister” to characterize the enshrinement of abortion as a legal right. And he states 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. . .

This is not a popular witness. In our country, those who take it must expect ridicule and derision and a deliberate distortion of our views. 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.

Someday, we pray that hers will be the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

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One Response to Notre Dame: Reluctant Witness

  1. For those unfamiliar with the Hiss-Chambers case, a good overview is here: http://www.conservapedia.com/Alger_Hiss

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