Susan E. Hanssen
Next week we once again reflect on two anniversaries: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. Many pro-lifers see themselves as heirs to the passion for justice in the civil rights movement. But since his controversial visit to Notre Dame in 2009 President Barack Obama holds an honorary law degree from one of America’s premier Catholic universities. Notre Dame also honored Obama with a photograph of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, long-time president of Notre Dame who served on the United States Civil Rights Commission, arm-in arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. at a civil rights rally in 1964. The photograph is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery—a memorial to Catholic participation in the historic civil rights movement.
But the photograph does not escape the irony behind a great Catholic university’s gift of an honorary law degree to a man whose open support for legalized abortion directly contradicts Catholic support for the natural law. The version of the photograph destined to hang in the National Portrait Gallery cuts out the second priest, on the other side of Martin Luther King—Msgr. Robert Hagerty, who led busloads of Catholics from the Chicago area to the very first March for Life. Msgr. Hagerty is representative of all those Catholics who grasped—with Martin Luther King, Jr.—that fighting for civil rights begins with a recognition of eternal and natural law.
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Susan E. Hanssen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas.