By Gibbons J. Cooney

From May 31 to June 1, the University Faculty for Life will hold their twenty-third annual conference, Life and Learning, at the University of San Francisco. The group’s mission statement reads, in part, “University Faculty for Life was founded in 1989 to promote research, dialogue and publication by faculty who respect the value of human life from inception to natural death….”

Plenary speakers at the conference are Dr. William Hurlbut, consulting professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford, who served on President George W. Bush’s council on bioethics from 2001 to 2008; Janet Smith, the Father Michael McGivney chair of life issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, who also serves as consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family; and bio-ethicist Wesley Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.  Other presenters include professors Francis Beckwith and Christopher Kaczor, and filmmaker/activists Jennifer Lahl (Eggsploitation) and Nyna Pais-Caputi (Petals in the Dust).

The conference features the presentation of the Rupert and Timothy Smith Award for Distinguished Contributions to Pro-Life Scholarship. This year’s recipient is Raymond Dennehy, professor of Philosophy at USF.  Dennehy, a native San Franciscan, earned a B.A. in philosophy from USF in 1962; he studied for the M.A. in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley from 1962-64, and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1973.

According to his biographical page on the USF website “His areas of teaching and research interest are metaphysics, epistemology, and social ethics. Dennehy is frequently called upon to address contemporary ethical issues by universities and the media.”  Frequently indeed:  virtually every reader of scholarly Catholic and pro-life publications will be familiar with his books, papers, and debate appearances. For over 40 years, he has been one of the preeminent scholarly voices combating the ideological justifications for legalized abortion. Father James Schall, S.J., of Georgetown University once wrote  “The most articulate and forceful voice in the United States to explain and critique the abortion question in all its ramifications is that of Professor Raymond Dennehy.”

Dennehy joins a distinguished circle: past recipients include Prof. Robert George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University (2006); Prof. Gilbert Meilaender, professor of theology at Valparaiso University (2009): and  Prof. Hadley Arkes, Edmund N. Ney professor of jurisprudence and American institutions at Amherst College (2010).

When asked what receiving the Smith award meant to him, Professor Dennehy told CalCatholic: “For the last 48 semesters I have debated abortion at UC Berkeley—for the last 10 years in front of their School of Public Health, mostly with Malcolm Potts. This year, for the first time, I did not receive an invitation, so that was kind of disheartening, but then I heard I was getting the Smith Award. That’s very meaningful. This is an award given by my peers, by people in the trenches, and that gives it a special kind of meaning.”

Professor Dennehy also told the story of a recent email from a former student who had never agreed with the pro-life position. “But once she got pregnant, and re-read some of my stuff, she told me that there was no way she could ever have an abortion. That one email made my whole career worthwhile.”

There is more than a little irony in the fact that the conference honoring Dennehy is being held at the University of San Francisco.  He is one of the remaining luminaries from the great days of USF’s St. Ignatius Institute, which was not exactly in the good graces of the Jesuit establishment. Professor Dennehy’s faithfulness to Catholic teaching has often left him at odds with USF, despite its being a nominally Catholic university. In a June 12, 2010 article in Catholic San Francisco, the newspaper of the archdiocese of San Francisco, Professor Dennehy minced no words: “Calling USF a Catholic school is like saying Hillary Clinton is a Carmelite nun.”