A recent string of news items concerning visits by public figures to Catholic college campuses has ignited the ire of people in the pro-life community. They point to the 2004 statement of the bishops of the United States, “Catholics in Political Life,” which says, “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.”

So when the University of Notre Dame plans to grant an honorary degree to President Barack Obama or when St. Joseph’s University intends to do the same for journalist Chris Matthews – both of whom are said to support abortion – the universities disregard the bishops’ guidance on this matter.

Doing so sends a conflicting message to the Catholic community and the wider society by implying that a compelling speaker is more valuable than the consistent witness to the sanctity of human life. Catholic colleges hold a prominent position in society by which they can affirm the fundamental value of respect for life above any consideration for awardees.

At the same time, the Church does not shut out those inspaniduals who hold different, even antithetical views. The bishops’ 2004 statement also says, “We need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials.”

Dialogue often occurs out of public view, through private meetings of bishops, pastors, politicians and leaders of Catholic institutions.

A person’s public support for abortion does not mean that the Church and its members should have nothing to do with him or her. It does mean that such a person should expect no honors from the Church, but rather a hand always extended in a spirit of hope for positive engagement and persuasion.

A transformation of mind and heart is needed among those who do not share the vision for a society that protects human life at every stage. Effecting such a change in hearts and in public policy must begin with a reliance on God’s grace, the witness of the Church’s principled stand against giving honors to those who oppose its teaching on the sanctity of human life and constant engagement with all people in consistent, respectful dialogue.