Building a Culture of Radical Welcome for Moms, Dads, and Babies at Catholic University
On the façade of our campus’s oldest building, Caldwell Hall, are the words of our university motto, Deus Lux Mea [Est], God is my light. These words remind us that we are loved by God and that each one of us possesses incalculable worth, as the light of God shines in and through us. They recall something else as well: Illuminated by this divine light, we are called to let it “shine before others” (Mt. 5:16). Just south of University Mall, we find a bookend to the words Deus Lux Mea Est. There sits “Angels Unawares,” a sculpture depicting 140 refugees on a skiff headed toward an uncertain future and hoping for a better life. This sculpture reminds us that the light we receive is also a gift we are called to give, especially to those facing challenging circumstances. By offering our love and support to those who need it, our actions testify to the dignity of all human life. The Catholic University of America is committed to making our university a community illuminated by the divine light, a place of radical welcome for all — especially those in need of our help. Today we focus on extending the hand of loving welcome to mothers in our community, no matter their circumstances; to children; and to fathers.
Abortion is a tragedy. And as our nation has been reminded in recent months, it is also among the most difficult topics to grapple with as a community. During a time of intense public conversation and tension about this issue, our response should be the way of love, focused on how to best support mothers, fathers, and children on our campus, in our nation, and in the Church. The great complexity of the matters that have and will arise in connection with this issue is an invitation to become more present to one another. We must learn to be better listeners, more attentive thinkers, and more creative problem solvers. Above all, the moment requires us to become more profound witnesses to the love we receive from God by sharing that love with others. Through the Guadalupe Project, Catholic University is making a concrete commitment to living as a community that is radically welcoming to life.
Families are, as Pope Saint John Paul II said, “communities of love” built on the principle of mutual self-giving that foster personal dignity and encourage “heartfelt acceptance, encounter and dialogue, disinterested availability, generous service and deep solidarity.” Families are a great gift to the world and a source of beauty. At the same time, family life often brings complex challenges. Bringing new life into the world comes with immense responsibility. Pregnancy and childbirth impact every aspect of mothers’ lives: physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. New mothers and fathers must marshal resources to care for the life that has been entrusted to them, including financial and medical resources. Providing for a child may require adjustments in housing and transportation and planning for childcare. Later, parents are responsible for providing an education, for faith formation, for helping children to navigate a complicated social world, and for nurturing their children’s talents. Eventually children require support in pursuing education and work, and in discerning their own calls to marriage, parenthood, priesthood, religious life, or another vocation. And at every stage along the way, parents pour themselves out in love and care for their children. Even before a child is born, parenthood is financially, intellectually, physically, and emotionally demanding.
No mother, father, or couple should have to take up this immense challenge alone. It is our sacred duty as a Catholic community to journey alongside families as they nourish new life in the womb and outside of it. We approach this vital goal with a profound sense of humility, and an awareness of room for improvement on our campus. We also approach it with a keen sense of hope: this is the moment for love to prevail, as we extend a hand to parents and their children, and especially to those who are most vulnerable as they learn of an unexpected pregnancy.
Living out this call requires not just words but actions; not just advocacy, but accompaniment. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, we have reflected on how we might better serve families on our campus. This report, and the changes it conveys across our University policies and operations, are the fruits of that effort.
In the midst of this process of reflection, we recall that at the very center of our faith is the story of a vulnerable mother facing an unexpected pregnancy, whose choice to say yes to bringing new life into the world allowed divine light to enter the human race. This story of our salvation reminds us that our Catholic faith teaches us to cherish, honor, and support new life, the mother who bears it, and the father who nurtures it.
As in all things, then, Mary is our guide as we dedicate ourselves to better serving the families in our community. We recall especially the witness of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom Pope Saint John Paul II named as patroness of the unborn and who gives name to this project. The story of Guadalupe tells of Mary’s appearance in 1531 to a Mexican peasant, Juan Diego. In their encounter, she asked him to build a church dedicated to her on the Hill of Tepeyac, and as evidence of her appearance, she offered him fresh roses in the bitterness of winter. This miracle was a gift not only to Juan Diego and the people of Mexico, but to the whole world. The roses that bloomed in winter symbolize Mary’s radical hospitality: even in a desolate season, she nurtures a new creation. Our task is to model her, to create an environment of care and support for all families— especially the most vulnerable — so that, like roses in winter, they may thrive and bring new life.
On June 24, 2022, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs to return the question of the legality of abortion to the legislative process, former University President John Garvey announced an effort to look for ways in which Catholic University can better support families who are part of our University community.
The effort’s objective is to create an environment of accompaniment and support on campus from new parenthood on, across all the challenges that arise in family life, for all Catholic University families — from our undergraduate and graduate students, to our faculty and staff, to those in the wider Catholic University community.
To do this work he convened a committee led by Jennie Bradley Lichter (Deputy General Counsel) and joined by Dr. Judi Biggs Garbuio (Vice President for Student Affairs), Matt McNally (Chief Human Resources Officer), Rev. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P. (University Chaplain), and Elizabeth Kirk (Director of the Center for Law & the Human Person at the Columbus School of Law). The committee later added an undergraduate research intern, Larissa York ‘24, and an operations manager, Karen Rajnes of the Office of General Counsel. President Garvey asked the committee to report to the University community in October 2022, which is Respect Life Month. He immediately shared news of this effort with then-incoming President Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, who expressed his strong support.
As its first order of business the committee chose to commit its work to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas and of the unborn, because of her special care for mothers and babies. Our Lady of Gudalupe also has a particular connection to Catholic University, as the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most-visited chapel within the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which abuts our campus and hosts our University liturgies. The stunning mosaic depiction of Our Lady in that chapel reminds us that Guadalupe is the only Marian apparition in which the Blessed Mother is visibly pregnant. By naming its effort the Guadalupe Project, the members of the committee invoked Our Lady’s ongoing intercession for its work and kept her tender mother’s heart front of mind in searching for ways to provide increased care for babies and their parents in our midst.
From its inception, the committee was oriented towards action. Its composition and small size were deliberately chosen in view of this purpose, and its members have devoted countless hours to the project since late June, with a regular weekly meeting and holding ad hoc meetings as well. The committee’s work has focused on identifying specific action items that will make Catholic University a more hospitable place to mothers, babies, and families who are part of our community.
In the course of its work the committee has received a great deal of input from members of the University community. Specifically, it solicited and received helpful input from key on-campus partners not represented among committee membership, including the Office of the Provost, Facilities Division, Student Health Services, Metropolitan School of Professional Studies, Student Government Association, and Graduate Student Association.
Through the Guadalupe Project email account and informal communication channels, the committee received additional feedback from undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. Looking beyond our campus borders, the committee also consulted directly with relevant staff or organizations at Georgetown University, University of Notre Dame, University of Maryland, Texas A&M, and George Mason University. Mindful of President Garvey’s charge to consider what Catholic University can do for our neighbors in the Archdiocese of Washington and the District of Columbia, members also spoke with the Archdiocese of Washington, Sisters of Life, and St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth, and Families.
The committee’s work was further informed by two benchmarking projects carried out primarily by its undergraduate research intern. First, the committee examined policies governing and resources available for pregnant and parenting students at close to 100 institutions of higher education. Of those, the committee’s intern independently researched policies and resources at 50 institutions comprising DC-Maryland-Virginia-area schools, the Newman Guide schools, Ivy League schools, and notable Catholic institutions. She supplemented her research with information about an additional 40 institutions gleaned from the college ratings published by Students for Life of America. This research gave the committee a sense of the most common resources and support offered to pregnant and parenting students, as well as creative ideas implemented at one or a few schools that go beyond the typical institutional response.
Second, the committee examined staff parental leave policies at 32 institutions of higher education; here, again, the schools surveyed included institutions in the DC-/Maryland-Virginia area, the Newman Guide schools, and other Catholic institutions.
Since the Guadalupe Project’s inception, the committee heard early and often, both directly and secondhand, of seemingly widespread uncertainty about what the “official” response of the University would be to an unmarried student who is pregnant. The committee was made aware of widely shared concerns that an unmarried pregnant student might face some disciplinary action, even up to being made to leave the University, on account of her pregnancy.
It is important, therefore, to state plainly here that an unmarried pregnant student at Catholic University will not face disciplinary action when she reveals her pregnancy; nor will a male student face disciplinary action on account of his sexual partner becoming pregnant.
To the contrary: we pledge that a pregnant unmarried student at Catholic University will be met with support and with love. The University stands ready to accompany any pregnant student through her pregnancy by assisting her with her material, spiritual, psychological, and physical needs, as well as with continuing to pursue the completion of her academic program. No pregnant mother – and no expectant father – on our campus should feel alone, and none will be alone if they allow the University to walk with them through this season.