Joe Scheidler, MLK, & Notre Dame

Fifty years after Roe v. Wade, the nation's leading Catholic college should honor its heroic son

January 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Soon after it first appeared on the law library’s shelves, I read it and it was a big reason I decided to go to law school. Fifteen years later I became general counsel of the public interest, pro-law firm Americans United for Life. Joseph M. Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, was a client of the firm. The case of NOW (National Organization for Women) v. Scheidler was fairly new. Within months, attorney Tom Brejcha became the principal defense attorney. Tom went on to found the law firm of the Thomas More Society. A documentary The Fight for Life has just been released which tells this story.

Joe, Tom, and I were all graduates of the University of Notre Dame. More than once, I nominated Joe for the University’s highest award, the Laetare Medal. It never happened and now that he has passed, two years ago on January 18, 2021, it will never happen.

Why should we care about what the University of Notre Dame does or doesn’t do? The answer is that it holds itself out as the leading Catholic college in the United States – of 200 that have survived in a world where tax dollars support over 600 four-year public colleges. Indeed, Notre Dame says it is the leading, or one of the leading, Catholic colleges in the world. And by “leading,” we’re not talking about football.

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, called Laetare Sunday (laetare is Latin for “rejoice”), the University announces the name of the individual to whom it will award its Laetare Medal. The award is given at commencement ceremonies.

Previous awardees included President John F. Kennedy (1961), operatic tenor John McCormack (1933), novelist Walker Percy (1989), Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1995), labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins (2001), jazz composer Dave Brubeck (2006), actor Martin Sheen (2008), Senator Moynihan (1992), Sargent Shriver (1968) and his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1988), and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean (1996). In its first 18 years, four medalists were women and they were awarded the medal in their own right, not as wife. A full list can be found here:

The minimal criteria for eligibility are that the awardee is Catholic, American, and alive. (An exception was made in 1990 in the case of Sister Thea Bowman, who died between the time of the announcement and the ceremony.) The first recipient was named in 1883. The University currently describes it as the “oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.” It is given to those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” The medal bears the Latin inscription “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”).

We can hope that thousands, indeed tens of millions, of American Catholics live lives that defend the truth, “ennoble[] the arts and sciences, illustrate[] the ideals of the Church and enrich[] the heritage of humanity.” Among all these millions, why would Mr. Scheidler have deserved the award? I am reminded of an award once received by Saint Teresa of Kolkata. It was said at the time that the award did not so much honor her as that she honored the award by accepting it. Similarly, giving Mr. Scheidler the Laetare Medal would have honored the Medal. Joe Scheidler led a movement from 1980, full-time, without any personal benefit, to which he gave, in the words of our Declaration of Independence, his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor. His passionate lifelong work, his heroic witness, for unborn children, for their mothers and fathers, and for all of us, illustrated the ideals of the Catholic Church and enriched humanity.

He worked to save lives. He worked to protect the human right to life, the right of the unborn and the right of each of us not to be denied life by the government’s failure to protect life based on condition of dependency. While governments around the world talk about “the responsibility to protect,” Joe Scheidler acted on that responsibility here in the United States, day in and day out.

There are many roles in the pro-life movement: caregivers to pregnant women and newborns; counselors to pregnant women, adoptive parents and adoption agencies; marchers on January 22; benefactors; administrators; lawyers; lobbyists; legislators; and more. Joe Scheidler was a leader and an activist: counselor and protestor outside abortion clinics, organizer of conferences of abortion providers who spoke of their conversion to pro-life. He traveled throughout this country.

Because of this work, and while doing this work, he was the lead defendant in a lawsuit lasting 28 years, from 1986 to 2014 (it did NOT end in 2006 as the N.Y. Times obituary asserted), in which he pledged his home as collateral and in which his case was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court not just once but three times(!), a truly exceptional development (510 U.S. 249 (1994), 537 U.S. 393 (2003), and 547 U.S. 9 (2006)). He was sued under RICO, the federal anti-racketeering law. (A history of the lawsuit is here: Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his life was one of civil disobedience. And like Dr. King, he expected arrests and trials and jail. Indeed, I had never noticed before now that, in 1965, he chaperoned some of his students at Mundelein College on their march with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. In 2015, Joe Scheidler wrote of his memories of the march on its 50th anniversary. He included a photo of himself and the students. ( And I found a second picture here:

No doubt Notre Dame would have been more receptive to honoring Joe Scheidler if Scheidler had been involved in politically correct issues such as homelessness, prison rape, poverty, domestic violence, racial justice, humanitarian aid to victims of natural disasters or war, medical research, or climate change. Note that the University’s advertisements during televised home football games since 2007 end with the tagline “We’re the Fighting Irish, fighting for/against X, Y, and Z. What Would You Fight For?” Abortion has never been one of the subjects of the ads.

Joe Scheidler protested Notre Dame’s decision to grant an honorary degree to President Obama, an extremist on abortion, at the 2009 commencement. (And the Laetare Medal for that year was refused by Mary Ann Glendon, then Harvard professor of law and later Ambassador to the Holy See. It was the first time that the Medal had been refused.) Yet, Notre Dame could still have made the award to Joe Scheidler because, firstly, the University has been unafraid of making controversial awards, such as those to Frances Tieran (a literary advocate of the Confederacy, 1909) and Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker, 1972).

Secondly, it could have been magnanimous to make the award to Joe Scheidler just as Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., then president of the University, had been magnanimous in inviting a severe critic, a student named Martin W. Rodgers, to work in the Admissions Office to increase the number of minority students. Rodgers has been a trustee of the University for a number of years.

Whatever misgivings Fr. Hesburgh may have had about Joe Scheidler’s pro-life tactics, Fr. Hesburgh was willing to testify to Scheidler’s character at his trial. Fr. Hesburgh would have found testifying on Joe Scheidler’s behalf in a trial about human rights as natural as his positive response to a last minute invitation to join Dr. King in a civil rights march at Soldier Field, Chicago, in 1964, reflected in a now much-heralded photo of the two of them with locked arms.

Fr. Hesburgh passed away at age 97 on February 26, 2015. He had exercised his fatherhood as a Catholic priest for 71 years and as the University’s president for 35 years of them. Joseph M. Scheidler, who passed at age 93, exercised his fatherhood as a parent of children born to his marriage, in admonishing abortionists and their supporters, in warmly welcoming converts, as a leader of a movement of individuals across our entire land devoted to life, as the protector of millions of women and girls who would do harm to themselves, and as the guardian of millions of unborn young.

Notre Dame still needs to honor one of its beloved sons, Joseph M. Scheidler. No Catholic institution of higher learning should need to be reminded that, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritatis in Veritate (Charity in Truth), truth is a great charity: “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity…” (para. 1); “A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion…” (para. 4).


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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