Notre Dame and her children

Notre Dame and her children May 11, 2009

The women’s clinic nurse confirmed that Lacy Dodd was pregnant, and then told her not to worry because she had “other options.”

That wasn’t the kind of reassurance Dodd wanted, as a University of Notre Dame senior weeks away from her graduation ceremonies. When she returned to campus, Dodd headed straight to Notre Dame’s grotto — a small cave modeled after the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France.

“I knew this: No amount of shame or embarrassment would ever lead me to get rid of my baby. Of all women, Our Lady could surely feel pity for an unplanned pregnancy,” wrote Dodd, in an essay aimed at Father John Jenkins, the university’s president. The text was posted online by the journal First Things.

“In my hour of need, on my knees, I asked Mary for courage and strength. And she did not disappoint,” she added. “My boyfriend was a different story. He was also a Notre Dame senior. When I told him that he was to be a father, he tried to pressure me into having an abortion. … ‘All that talk about abortion is just dining-room talk,’ he said.”

Family and friends stood by Dodd’s side. Today, a decade later, she is a single mother and her daughter’s name is Mary. Dodd serves on the board of Room at the Inn, an organization working to build an on-campus facility for pregnant unwed students at Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte, N.C.

The timing of Dodd’s essay — “Notre Dame, My Mother” — is, of course, linked to her alma mater’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to deliver its mid-May commencement address and to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Throughout his political career, Obama has opposed all restrictions on abortion rights, even in late-term procedures. But he has also reached out to Catholic and evangelical voters by pledging to help lessen the need for abortions, through government efforts to aid needy mothers and their children.

Catholic traditionalists and many Notre Dame alumni argue that honoring Obama in this way violates a 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy that said: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Three years later, the bishops underlined the importance of this issue, arguing that the “direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.”

However, a recent online count found that only 66 bishops, out of 195 dioceses nationwide, have issued public comments critical of Notre Dame’s decision. So far, the Vatican has remained silent on the issue.

Meanwhile, a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll found that 50 percent of American Catholics approve of Notre Dame’s decision to “invite” Obama, while 28 percent disapprove. However, only 37 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass weekly agreed with the Notre Dame decision, compared with 56 percent of those less active in the church. This parallels that fact that 61 percent of these “attend less often” Catholics support abortion rights in all or most cases, as opposed to 30 percent of the “attend weekly” Catholics.

Alumni and current students know that these kinds of divisions also exist at Notre Dame, said Dodd. Notre Dame students also face crisis pregnancies and some young women there are convinced that they must have abortions in order to stay in school.

While others focus on the political implications of honoring Obama, Dodd said she worries about the impact of this symbolic event on women in the commencement audience who are wrestling with the same secret she faced 10 years ago.

Thus, she ended her essay with this question to the priest who currently leads Notre Dame: “Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama — the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?”

These kinds of influences make a difference, said Dodd.

“I think that Notre Dame needs to be in the lead when it comes to supporting women who face unplanned pregnancies,” she said. “Notre Dame needs to be on their side — always.”

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