Retired USF professor reflects on a half-century on the pro-life front lines

Raymond Dennehy

The following is an article written by Lidia Wasowicz of Catholic San Francisco that was originally posted on August 19th 2019.

Raymond Dennehy has spent his life fighting for life.

For five decades, the decorated philosophy professor, debater, writer, and crusader has rushed in where even many faithful Catholics fear to tread: the front lines of the war against what has come to be called “the culture of death.”

His unrelenting battle against abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide placed him at odds with prominent and powerful opponents: Planned Parenthood, the Hemlock Society, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women.

Often alone, he stood his ground, armed with a thick skin, an unshakable belief in church teaching and a wicked wit true to his Irish heritage.

Unflappable, he refused to surrender, helping clear the field for advancing pro-life forces.

Witnesses to the skirmishes note such significant strides in their aftermath as the swelling numbers of marchers for life and the intensifying efforts to overturn the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

“Ray is a warrior for life, from conception to natural death,” said John Hamlon, 80, a retired theology and philosophy instructor introduced to Dennehy as a graduate student at the University of San Francisco a half-century ago.

“With his absolute belief in and crystal-clear vision of faith and doctrine, he witnessed, he preached, he taught, he went anywhere anytime to debate anyone on any of the life issues, influencing many young people to carry on the fight.”

Dennehy, who turns 85 at the end of August, would continue the charge if he could.

But he no longer receives the once frequent invitations from the media, which sought his views on ethical issues, and from the University of California, Berkeley, which offered him a stage for 50 consecutive semesters to debate abortion.

And he no longer holds the rapt attention of students at USF, where he spent 41 of the 49 years he taught philosophy.

“I was a big hero with previous generations but on a collision course with modern-minded millennials who drove me into the dumper,” said Dennehy, who retired five years ago when “it just wasn’t fun or productive anymore.”

“A lot of them grew up with no adult male in the house and felt threatened by males, especially guys like me whose knuckles dragged on the floor when I walked.”

He exonerates the students, who without spiritual guides are left to secular sources for information and inspiration.

“The people have to hear the truth from the pulpit, and they’re not,” he insisted. “So Madison Avenue and the media, which promote a hedonistic, meaningless, purposeless life, are teaching kids what to believe and how to live. The kids don’t stand a chance.”

Priests and bishops should step up and speak out, but many fear backlash from touching on tender topics, he said, citing as an example a parishioner who walked out of Mass in protest of a sermon decrying abortion.

“If you speak about anything substantive, you’re going to get reactions,” he said.

He’s been getting them since raising a lonely voice in defense of “Humanae Vitae,” a 1968 papal encyclical reaffirming traditional moral teaching on the sanctity of life that included a rejection of artificial birth control, a controversial stance causing dissent even within the Catholic community.

With the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the former Navy radarman and competitive weightlifter took up a new call to arms.

“He moved from standing up for the church position on contraception, especially among Jesuits and other liberal theologians, to defending the life of the unborn,” recalled Michael Torre, 68, who started teaching philosophy and met Dennehy at USF in 1984.

“With his fine sense of humor and clear, clean, cool thinking, Ray is the kind of intellectual fighter who fearlessly enters the arena of contemporary culture to defend truths, no matter how unpopular, and change lives.”

Dennehy doubts he will ever fully know the extent of his impact. But over the years he has received some clues, said the philosopher with a bachelor’s degree from USF, a master’s from UC Berkeley and a doctorate from the University of Toronto.

One of those came in a letter from a former student who enclosed an ultrasound picture of a fetus in the seventh month of pregnancy and emotional thanks for “changing (her and her new husband’s) views to make room for this blessing!”

Dennehy may not have changed most minds at UC Berkeley, but he did leave them with a valuable lesson, said famed physician and activist Malcolm Potts, 84, who for 12 years provided the counterpoint in the two-hour, biannual abortion debates before 400 undergraduates in a public health class.

“He was always very professional and respectful, which is unusual in this kind of highly charged situation,” recalled Potts, emeritus Bixby Professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health who continues to debate pro-life voices.

“We demonstrated to the students that people with diverse opinions don’t have to fall into antagonistic groups trying to kill each other but can actually benefit each other.”

Dennehy’s wife of 29 years, Maryann, remains awed at her husband’s unruffled handling of angry students whose verbal attacks left her “scared and very tense.”

“I think God has graced me with a thick skin,” the quick-to-quip son of impoverished immigrants mused. “Maybe because I’m an Irishman always looking for a good fight, I don’t even think of what others might think of me.”

On one occasion, he drove Derek Humphry, co-founder of the now-defunct right-to-die-advocating Hemlock Society, to the airport after a televised clashing of the minds on euthanasia.

The enduring exploits have earned Dennehy ample awards and acclaim. In 2013, he received one he especially treasures, The Rupert and Timothy Smith Award for Distinguished Contributions to Pro-Life Scholarship, granted annually by the University Faculty for Life to an academic for significant intellectual contributions to the cause.

“Professor Dennehy was chosen to receive this honor because of his stalwart defense of the unborn and the aged, both in his publications and in his public debates over the years with various pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia scholars,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, professor of philosophy at Fordham University and member of the UFL Board of Directors, which determines the recipient.

Although he misses being in the thick of the battle and the spotlight it brought him, Dennehy has no regrets about a life he would not change had he the chance.

“God’s been very good to me,” said Dennehy, who in retirement spends two hours a day writing to add to the collection of books he has dedicated to his parents, his wife, his four children, and his 12 grandchildren.

“I think at times we don’t even see the plan God has for us, and for me, it’s been to fight for life,” a mission he will carry out “until I reach room temperature.

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