Give a cheer for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. They’ve been winning big on the football field, but also scoring major points for religious freedom. Last week, students and faculty were informed that artificial contraceptives would no longer be covered under the university’s insurance plans, as of 2018.
As a policy change it’s small potatoes, but it’s a big deal for faithful Catholics. In truth, anyone who cares about religious liberty has reason to cheer. With this bold step, Notre Dame distinguishes itself as one of the first employers in the country to take advantage of the Trump administration’s relaxation of the contraceptive mandate. The Irish are asserting their right to be a Catholic university.
How We Got to This Point
In 2013, Notre Dame was one of several institutions that sued for relief from Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate, explaining that its requirements were incompatible with the school’s religious mission. The university was permitted to transfer the cost of contraceptives to a third-party provider, but still de facto required to arrange for contraceptives to be provided by filing paperwork that initiated third-party coverage.
In recent years, Notre Dame employees and students have been receiving free contraceptives under this policy. The Trump administration’s new rules permit Notre Dame to forego contraceptive coverage entirely, in keeping with its religious mission.
Why does the Catholic Church forbid contraception? I’m not going to answer that question right now, because it’s a distraction from the truly important point. Whether or not you agree with the Catholic position, it is sincerely held by millions of your compatriots, who should be permitted to hold that view without legal penalty.
You’re allowed to disagree with us, because it’s a free country. But we should still be permitted to build private institutions that reflect our shared beliefs. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we really are revanchist oddballs. So what?
Whenever this issue is debated, we get inundated with statistics meant to show this church teaching is effectively a dead letter. Even Catholics, we are told, don’t really believe or practice it. Of course, a moral position can’t really be refuted (or proven) by a public opinion poll, but I frequently find these statistical “refutations” encouraging. While it’s obvious the anti-contraceptive position is a minority view in America today, the truth is that it’s really not so marginal.
Consider, for instance, that approximately 8 percent of American adults tell survey-takers that they find contraceptives morally problematic. That seems to imply this totally insane view is shared by at least a quarter-million American citizens. Compared to the population as a whole, Catholics are about twice as likely to say that contraceptives are immoral. That’s nowhere near a majority, but it’s still strong evidence that Catholics’ views are sometimes influenced by Catholic teachings. Go figure.
What If We Treated Vegans Like Obama Did Catholics?
To put this all in perspective, let’s compare this group (Americans who regard contraceptives as immoral) to some other minorities. Vegetarians represent 3 to 4 percent of American adults (vegans are closer to half a percent), similar to the number who identify as LGBT. About 1 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim, and 1 to 2 percent is Jewish.
Roughly speaking, then, contraceptive-rejecting Americans are about as numerous as vegetarians, Muslims, and Jews all combined. Shall we get started nixing all the halal, kosher, and vegetarian menu options? It doesn’t look like there are enough of those people to really matter.
In the end though, it’s not just about the numbers. It shouldn’t matter if the vast majority of our compatriots (or even co-religionists) think the Catholic Church is wrong about contraceptives. What matters is that I personally could introduce you to hundreds of Catholic women who swear by these principles and have integrated them into their married lives.
Many of these women have professional degrees, PhDs, and successful careers, which I mention just to make the point that we definitely aren’t prisoners in patriarchal communes. We’ve heard of contraceptives, and we could access them if we wanted to. But we don’t, because we really believe this stuff, and it’s important to us. Why do liberals not feel obliged to respect that?
Notre Dame’s decision is laudatory precisely because it does signify respect for the Catholic view. In a secular culture that constantly pressures the church to assume a submissive posture, Notre Dame has sent a different message: “We aren’t ashamed to be Catholic.”
Repeat: Every Woman Who Wants Can Get Contraception
Already the sabers are rattling, as the lawyers prep their briefs. The American Civil Liberties Union, to its shame, is suing the Trump administration for its efforts to protect religious freedom. Notre Dame has been added to the suit, and law student Kate Rochat is one of three Notre Dame students joining the list of plaintiffs.
Naturally, the Left will present this as an example of religious authorities forcing their inflexible dogma on hapless women. We can expect hear plenty more about women being “denied” needed health care on the whim of their celibate male bosses.
This is nonsense. In the first place, this is not about forcing the views of men on women. (More on that below.) But it’s also important to understand no one is being denied contraceptive access. Any member of Notre Dame community is quite free to acquire and use contraceptives for any legal purpose. The university isn’t punishing people for doing this. They just aren’t willing to help. Could there be a less invasive compromise than total non-interference in employees’ reproductive choices? I can’t think of one.
Imagine this scene playing out in some other context, involving a religious minority that the Left doesn’t hate. Suppose, for instance, that I choose to send my child to a private school run by Buddhists or Hindus. They are principled vegetarians, so the cafeteria at the school serves subsidized, meat-free lunches. My family isn’t vegetarian, but owing to a particular medical condition, my child requires a high intake of both iron and protein. It’s hard to get the necessary nutrients on a vegetarian diet.
The school doesn’t ask us to become vegetarians. They even allow students to eat cold cuts in the cafeteria. In light of their religious beliefs, though, they aren’t comfortable arranging for meat to be served to students. So I sue them, arguing that my kid was denied needed nutrition in deference to the school’s religious views.
Does that argument pass the smell test? To be sure, procuring my own meat will involve some expense and inconvenience. Then again, I regularly incur expense and inconvenience to meet my (and my family’s) physiological needs. It’s called “living.” “Denied needed nutrition” should be a laugh line in such a context. A reasonable person would ask: Why can’t you just buy some Lunchables and stop trying to pick a fight?
The People Most Injured Are Indeed Women
That case was hypothetical. The HHS mandate, unfortunately, was not. Although no one has seriously tried to deny women contraceptives, we are suddenly asked to believe that procuring 28-day packs was so onerous that even conscientious Catholics needed to be drafted into service.
To make that argument palatable, the Left had to persuade itself that the conscientious objectors were either crazy or insincere. No reasonable person objected to contraceptive coverage. Critics of the mandate were mainly just callous opportunists looking for excuses to keep women down. (This, presumably, was the point of all the statistics.)
The people most injured by that falsehood are not celibate men. They’re women like me, whose lives most obviously reflect our commitment to Catholic principles. Already our family choices have put us in the way of many snide remarks. What are we supposed to think when the law demands that even Catholic institutional policies defer to mainstream cultural mores, not Catholic ones? Congress might as well just pass a resolution right now, branding us state-certified freaks.
By discontinuing contraceptive coverage, the University of Notre Dame has shown its respect for the Catholic Church, and for those who faithfully follow her teachings. Employees and students are still free to disagree. The university is simply prioritizing Catholic mores over secular ones. That’s a reasonable choice for a Catholic university.
It’s also a powerful witness in a polarized world. As a Catholic mother and proud alumna, all I can say is: Go Irish.