Slide background

Building a Culture of a Campus Life

Address by Mary Cunningham Agee:  National Conference Washington, DC

Thank you for inviting me to share a few thoughts with you about the challenge of building a college environment worthy of the description “a culture of life”. I believe that our topic today is of the utmost importance not only for those who are directly involved in the reform of Catholic higher education, but for anyone who is sincere in their pursuit of a what our Holy Father calls: a “civilization of love” and a “culture of life”.



As the mother of two strong-willed and vibrant teenagers who are within just two years of embarking upon their own college experience, this topic is for me far from theoretical! Most of the issues that I have heard discussed at this conference have also been introduced on many occasions around our dinner table. And so, it is fair to say that the views I am about to share with you have already been tested on two very perceptive and energetic young adults. Therefore, it is to Mary Alana and Will that I owe a special thanks for the insights that they have so openly shared with me especially during recent years.


In addition, I would like to recognize another special resource for today’s reflections, Monsignor “Father Bill” Nolan. He served not only as the Catholic Chaplain at Dartmouth College for 37 years, but also as my father figure since I was five years old. His devotion to the teachings and spirituality of Cardinal Newman inspired him to dedicate most of his priesthood to founding the Newman Apostolate on Ivy League campuses.   It was at his side that I was first introduced to the timely wisdom of John Henry Newman and then challenged to understand his prophetic vision for an authentic and integrally Catholic University. It was through Father Bill’s teaching of Cardinal Newman that I learned to reject the alleged conflict between faith and reason that has undermined the true identity of so many Catholic colleges in recent decades. No one argues more persuasively than Newman that there can be no inconsistency between the pursuit of knowledge and obedience to the Truth.


Last, but not least, my thoughts on this topic have been inspired and greatly shaped by how I have chosen to devote the past twenty years of my professional life. As many of you may know, in my early thirties, I left a six figure salary and a top management position with a Fortune 100 company to dedicate my time and energy to a particular group of college students who could, without exaggeration, be described as “the least of these”.   I was moved by special circumstances to help alleviate the suffering of college women faced with the ultimate crisis of an unplanned pregnancy. Their abandonment and betrayal, fear and loneliness rival any form of poverty or economic deprivation that I have ever seen.




It was just twenty short years ago that I was permitted to learn first hand about the stark reality of fetal death. On one cold winter night in a Cape Cod hospital, I was invited into a sorority of loss that neither time nor other joys will ever erase. The gravity of my own infant’s death in utero prevents me even to this day from being able to participate in dehumanizing references to any unborn child as mere tissue or an inconvenient “choice” to be reckoned with. I know the truth. On that night, a heartbeat stopped. A child died. And I was and will be for all time her mother.


It was through this crucible that I learned to distinguish between the pragmatic perks of a lucrative career and the infinitely more rewarding blessings of a genuine vocation. For in that one life-altering moment, I believe that I was “called by name” to embrace a new way of life -- one that would never again be able to measure success solely in terms of the bottom line. From that unforgettable moment onward, I would be able to find satisfaction and fulfillment only in bringing joy out of suffering and good out of evil.


As I now look back on my upwardly mobile life of relative ease and comfort, I realize that only a loving and merciful God could have envisioned such an imaginative plan to uproot my complacent little life. Without the riveting loss of my first child, I have to admit that it might have been frighteningly easy for me to have looked the other way as millions of children were swept away in a tide of “reproductive freedom” and “personal choice”. Honesty demands my admission that without that soul-piercing event, I might have remained just another pragmatic Wellesley and Harvard Business School grad looking out for number one. Without that transforming loss, I might have refused – like so many around us -- to see the holocaust unfolding before our very eyes.


But now with eyes wide open, I believe that history is going to hold us all accountable for the literally millions of less fortunates whose fates have been decided by abandoned, frightened mothers with seemingly impossible tradeoffs. And when we are asked, “And where were you?” I shudder to think of some of our replies. There but for the grace of God could have gone me had it not been for that life-altering event twenty years ago.


It may be worth noting that the priority I now place on helping to build a campus culture of life was not the result of some master strategic plan, but rather, the divine intervention of a mid-trimester miscarriage. For it was out of this profound and unexpected suffering that I woke up to my true purpose in life. This is why I encourage each of you to consider with special care and listen with particular attentiveness whenever the predictable routines of your life are suddenly shattered.


For it is in these humbling moments of acute suffering that I have found we are most clearly able to hear the unmistakable voice of the One who created each of us with a unique and unrepeatable mission. I believe that it was this Voice that I heard whisper to my broken heart on that January night so many years ago, “The life of many could be saved out of the death of one”. This hopeful thought became both the secret to my own personal healing and a compelling invitation to more fully embrace the call to live and share the Gospel of Life.




My empathy for the over 15,000 women whom I have come to know and serve through the Nurturing Network has only grown during the past twenty years. They do not fit any of the stereotypes that I had been led to expect. The majority have been from middle class families and were either attending college or had concrete plans to do so. Many could accurately be described as being “the best and the brightest”. But regardless, they all have echoed the same sad refrain, “I never thought this could happen to me.”


In case you may be tempted to dismiss as marginal these young women whom I am about to describe, let me remind you that those who call our Nurturing Network life-line, come from every walk of life, every academic discipline, every level of achievement, every race and religion, and every kind of family. And yes, they definitely do come from families like yours and mine!


These college women who find the inner strength to call our toll free number for help, deserve our attention today for a very special reason: Their wounded lives and altered dreams have much to say about the culture that dominates many Catholic colleges today. Their alarming descriptions of unwanted attacks in coed showers, of residence hall rapes, of alcohol or drug induced sexual encounters must be heard as a wake up call to anyone who takes seriously Our Lord’s command

to, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Any environment where a walk across campus at night could cost a student her virginity and where attendance at the wrong party could cost a student his life, makes nothing less than a mockery of Newman’s idea of a University. How far, indeed, we have come from the notion of an “alma mater” that nurtures and protects all that is most precious to each student!




Any thoughtful person by now should be driven to probe the underlying causes of such degradation masquerading as a Catholic college environment. We are compelled to ask how any Catholic institution of allegedly “higher” learning could allow its moral standards to sink to this point of utter depravity.


The answer is no more illusive than the reforms that must be implemented if we are to fulfill our commitment to build a campus culture of life. The writings of both John Henry Newman and Pope John Paul II are perfectly clear about both the source of this problem and its only viable solution. Most of us learned even as young children that any sincere process of reform must begin with some form of examination of conscience. This is as true today as it was back then. And it is as valid for an institution as it is for any individual in search of genuine spiritual renewal.


For us, this process will have to yield a candid admission that a culture of death permeates many, perhaps even most, of our Catholic colleges today. It can only be from this honest vantage point that we will then be able to move on to examine the myriad of contradictions that have contributed to the deterioration of our own campus culture. Please allow me to mention just a few of the most obvious and more prevalent clues: The exclusion of Catholic doctrine in the core curriculum, a general acceptance of moral relativism as a code of ethics; a defiant denial of the teaching authority of the Magisterium, and flagrant disobedience to the Truth as lived and taught by Jesus Christ. As both Cardinal Newman and Pope John Paul II have said with compelling conviction, there can be no true unity, no authentic pursuit of wisdom, no genuine attempt at goodness without Jesus Christ at the center.


From my perspective, we have much for which to thank the clients of the Nurturing Network.   It may well be said that these disillusioned college women whom I have had the privilege of serving, are in many respects the prophets of our time. They are the contemporary “voices crying in the wilderness” urging us – no, begging us -- to “Make straight the way of the Lord.” They are neither embarrassed nor afraid to expose their own loss of innocence and virtue if this is the personal sacrifice that it will take to save others from the same heart-breaking fate. They are willing to remind us with their very lives that a toxic academic environment in which truth is denied and life is demeaned can only produce more of the same bitter fruit of a culture of death. As Christ Himself said so poignantly, “You will know the tree by its fruits.”


I believe that these wounded prophets of our day deserve not only our attention but our deepest respect. For each and every one of them has chosen to live the Gospel of life against great odds. They have deliberately parted company with the hypocrites and Pharisees who continue to say, “Do as I say but not as I do.” Their testimony that all life is sacred has been powerfully expressed through their courageous refusal to accept the tempting appeals of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. Their commitment to live the Great Commandment has been heroically displayed through their rejection of the ever available and even legalized “easy way out”. Their life-affirming choices have served to remind us all that there can be no “quick fixes” when it means that an innocent child must die so that a mother can live as she would prefer.


While we speak of those deserving our gratitude and respect, there is yet another group of college women who should be recognized in the same breath.   I am referring to those courageous women who have chosen to share the truth about their own personal encounter with abortion. Their vivid testimonies about the agony they still suffer from post abortion syndrome have alerted many to avoid the anguish of following in their footsteps. Their haunting descriptions of chronic depression, recurrent anxiety attacks, suffocating guilt, frequent suicide attempts, infertility and debilitating fears of intimacy are a constant reminder that every abortion claims more than just one victim.  


And so, it is for these women too that I am here with you today to share a truth that so many college women would have preferred not to have learned the hard way.   It is with their suffering very much in mind that I will continue to communicate the importance and urgency of building a culture of life on every college campus.


And it is out of an overwhelming sense of duty to them that I will honor their most fervent wish to spare future college students from ever having to repeat the words,   “If only I had known.”  




If our time together this afternoon is to produce anything truly worthwhile, then it must result in some kind of constructive action. There is no point in trying to dispute the fact that we most certainly are our “brothers’ and sisters’ keeper”. If not us, then who will alter the norms and renew the mores of student life? Who will propose the much needed reforms in student newspapers, extra-curricular activities and social programs? Who will promote the much needed curriculum reforms and faculty reviews?


If we dismiss such endeavors as somehow beyond the purview of our topic today, then we will have sadly missed the point. If we try to back away from such efforts as too controversial, or too politically risky, then we deserve no better treatment than the first group who distinguished themselves with the damnable refrain, “Non-serviam ”.


We simply cannot afford to leave this conference today merely better informed or even somewhat inspired. We must emerge with a deep and abiding sense of our own personal responsibility for making college life a healthier, happier, and more life-affirming experience for all students. The time has surely come for each of us to do our part in bringing all Catholic colleges into conformity with Newman’s ideal of a true University and John Paul II ideal of a culture of life.


It is not my intention to spend any of our remaining time together lecturing you about all that is wrong on so many Catholic college and university campuses today. I think that most of you could probably teach me a lot more about this subject than I could ever tell you. After all, you are living, teaching, counseling and administering in the midst of this.


Instead, let me refer you to the single most important and helpful resource on this topic that you could ever hope to consult: Pope John Paul II encyclical, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In this one authoritative and comprehensive document you will be able to specifically identify those policies or practices on your own campus that will need to change in order to come into alignment with Our Holy Father’s directives. I believe that you will discover in those pages the most compelling manifesto ever written for the radical reform of Catholic education.    




Rather than elaborate on the many provocative insights that can be found within those pages, I have decided instead to share with you a personal witness that will hopefully provide a memorable example of how a simple idea and a small but dedicated effort can make a very big difference. What I am about to share with you is just one person’s way to “light a candle rather than curse the darkness”. There are, to be sure, an infinite number of ways that this noble goal can be achieved.


But as you ponder your own unique response to this challenge, it may be both encouraging and instructive to consider that the example I am about to share with you did not require a large sum of money or many square feet of office space. It did not require expensive office equipment or even a large staff of highly paid employees. Instead, it took a lot of love and considerably more time than most of us think that we have available to offer.


I am referring, of course to the Nurturing Network, the charitable organization that I founded to provide all of the practical support a college or working woman needs in order to nurture the life of her unborn child. It was structured as a grassroots organization with the all-consuming hope that one day we would live in a society that would no longer require these services. My private prayer has always been that I might someday literally “be put out of business” by a culture of life and a civilization of love:

  • Love of a parent so strong . . . that it will withstand the onslaught of a thing called shame.
  • Love of a boyfriend or spouse so binding in fidelity . . . that it will not cut and run.
  • Love of a college community so Christ-like. . . that it will not cast the first stone of judgment but transform that stone into the bread of life.


During the two decades that I have had the privilege of working face to face and heart to heart with over 15,000 “profiles in courage”, I have discovered a secret that I believe could fatally undermine the so-called “pro-choice” movement if ever fully exposed. The fact is that most abortions do not occur as a result of an exercise of “free choice” but out of a desperate sense that there exists no other choice.


My informal research with literally hundreds of college students who have experienced a prior abortion reveals that over 90% would have chosen a positive, life-saving alternative if only it had been made available to them.


The truth is that there are five powerful influences that weigh heavily in virtually all abortion decisions:

  • The father of the baby, frightened and confused, issues a personally devastating ultimatum, “Either me or the baby.”
  • The family, embarrassed and ashamed, issues an emotionally crushing ultimatum, “Either your family or the baby.”
  • The peer group, misguided and uninformed, issues a socially-charged ultimatum, “Either your social standing or the baby.”
  • The employer, annoyed and perhaps conflicted, issues a pragmatic ultimatum, “Either your career or the baby."
  • And finally, the college administrator, embarrassed and disappointed, issues an academically threatening ultimatum, “Either your educational success or the baby.”

Of course, none of these ultimatums has anything to do with offering a college woman “freedom of choice." All have to do with the imposition of unfair and seemingly impossible tradeoffs. And all provide further evidence of why we must heed the call to build a culture of life on every Catholic campus today.


To illustrate my point, let’s take a moment to consider how very different the outcome could be for a college student attending an authentically Catholic College in the John Paul II/Newman tradition. We can be sure that this student would be better formed in her faith, better nourished through daily receipt of the sacraments, better instructed about the meaning of chastity and the vocation of marriage. She would be better supported by friends with similar values and more committed to fulfilling her vocation as a student.


We can safely assume that she would have taken many courses in Ethics and would understand the need to avoid the “occasions of sin”. She would have taken courses in Biology and Psychology that would have readily exposed the naiveté of coed dorms. She would have received in her orientation handouts the phone numbers of Christ-centered counseling resources that she and her friends could consult should a need arise.   Just imagine the peace and joy that this student would experience by attending a Catholic college genuinely committed to promoting a culture of life.




But until this goal is realized and Newman’s idea of an authentic Catholic University is in place, you will no doubt appreciate why the Nurturing Network continues to be so desperately needed. Its mission is clear and concise: To give every college woman in crisis a positive alternative to abortion, one that recognizes her unique values, needs and circumstances.


In a very real sense, the Nurturing Network can be understood and embraced as your Network. It exists for the explicit purpose of providing every responsible Catholic college administrator and faculty member with an immediate, life-saving solution when crisis comes knocking at your door.   By calling our Network’s toll free, 800 number you will immediately be in touch with whatever practical resources your students may need in order to take the crisis out of an unplanned pregnancy. It is a number that I hope every student counselor will someday have at his or her fingertips.


Our volunteer members have many years of experience in understanding the special needs and attitudes of college students. They are committed to devoting their time and expertise not to removing an option but to creating a better one. They are not interested in spending their time debating the merits of one alternative over another but on making sure that no college woman ever acts out of the desperate notion that she has “no other choice.”


Our international Network of 32,000 member resources is made up of doctors, counselors, educators, employers and nurturing families whose inspiration and purpose is to empower each and every college woman in crisis to nurture her baby's life -- while making the most of hers as well.


I hope that by now you may be wondering how you can help, how you can participate in building a culture of life on your college campus. By becoming a member of the Nurturing Network, you can achieve this in many different ways. Allow me to offer a few specific suggestions. You could:


1. Offer whatever professional expertise you may have as a counselor, lawyer or medical care provider. Most of the professionals in our Network have full time jobs but find it in their hearts and busy schedules to contribute some amount of volunteer time to assist a college woman whose needs require their special skills.


2. Contribute much-needed financial support knowing that it costs only about $400 to assist a college woman through the Nurturing Network and 90% of all donations go directly to fund program services.


3. Open your heart and home to a mother whose own support network has let her down. It might surprise you to learn that the first reaction of many parents when they learn of their daughter’s crisis pregnancy is to urge them to choose abortion or to not bother coming home. In light of this, can you appreciate the importance of being able to offer a college woman a loving alternative to her dormitory or the emotionally-charged environment of returning home?  


4. Provide part-time or temporary employment for a mother who needs to support herself and eventually will need to provide for her baby. We have found that college women have a special need to heal their self-esteem by bettering themselves during the months of their pregnancy. With meaningful employment alternatives, a college student can emerge from this crisis with her resume in tact, her well-being restored and a viable economic plan in place.


5. Encourage your college or university to join our Educational Network. To do this, you need simply to call our 800 number and request the Questionnaire and Helpful Hints for Colleges. These forms will explain in detail the opportunities and responsibilities that membership   would entail.   We hope that you will choose to join the 600 institutions that are already part of our Educational Network.


6. Help to develop a “Cluster” of life-saving resources in your own community. By offering to become a Cluster Coordinator, you would be identified as the local TNN leader of your community with as few as four and as many as twenty or thirty resource members. We will do all of the administrative work in bringing these resources together, while you volunteer your leadership and time as our local presence on your campus or in your community.


7. Provide an introduction to a foundation whose mission statement is consistent with ours. Every year about 25% of our operating budget is funded through grants from generous foundations. Without this financial support, we would not be able to meet the needs of all who call upon us for help. If you have a good contact or are in a position of influence with a foundation, please call or write to us so that we can follow up on your behalf.


8. Facilitate a scholarship for a student who may need to transfer to your college from one that is less receptive or responsive to her needs. Our clients sometimes risk losing their financial aid when they choose to spend a term or two on another campus. As part of facilitating your college or university’s participation, you might look   into the possibility of offering scholarship aid for a student who may need this financial assistance in order to transfer to your campus.


9. Approach a local hospital board near your college about donating medical services for a college student who may require her maternity care at that facility. You may be happily surprised to discover how many local hospitals are looking for worthy causes and programs like the Nurturing Network in order to allocate funds in a productive and meaningful way.


10. Last, but surely not least, pray for us that we will continue to find the human and financial resources necessary to faithfully persevere in this life-saving work.




Since our time together this afternoon is now drawing to a close, I cannot recount for you all that this apostolate has come to mean to me, but when I call to mind and heart the 15,000 innocent children whose physical lives have been saved and the equal number of mothers whose spiritual lives have been nourished, I cannot imagine a more enduring or more meaningful way to help build a culture of life. The staff of the Nurturing Network has heard me say more often than they may wish to recall, “It is not enough to say that we are ‘for life’ unless we are willing to provide the practical means to support it.” This is not just a catchy slogan but a heartfelt conviction that is lived out every day in the courageous, sacrificial actions of our 32,000 volunteer members worldwide.


In closing, I need only to reflect upon the thousands of contemporary Mary Magdalene’s whom I have had the joy of serving to say with conviction that the binding of deep wounds and the healing of broken hearts is an intensely intimate and essentially practical experience. The simple but profound truth is that there is no efficient or effective substitute for the private, personal, time-intensive conversations that translate beyond words into the most life-saving message of all: “You are a beloved child of God. No matter what mistake you may have made or sin you may have committed, you are infinitely valuable and precious in God’s sight.”


These are the healing words that communicate the Gospel of life. They ring true and find their way home in every human heart. And when enough voices proclaim this truth with genuine compassion and unwavering courage, Christ’s love will become the leaven in the bread of new life on your campus and this will, indeed, “renew the face of the earth.”


Thank you and God bless you.