What’s going on at the University of Notre Dame? Casual observers could be forgiven for asking. For months now, Notre Dame has been in turmoil over artificial contraceptives, and whether university health plans should cover them. Last week the administration changed its policy for the third time in this academic year. Obviously, it’s a bit of a mess.
Some members of the community are understandably upset. From 10,000 feet, however, the obvious take-away is that Notre Dame is still Notre Dame. That’s not a damning statement. Neither is it precisely a boast. Notre Dame has a complicated legacy, but there is still reason to hope that it has a positive role to play in American life.
How We Got to This Point
This whole fracas started in 2012, when Notre Dame joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, rejecting its demand that all employers provide a wide range of artificial contraceptives in their health plans. Notre Dame argued in court that complying with that mandate would violate its Catholic mission.
It was compelled to accept an accommodation wherein a third-party provider supplied all the government-mandated services to women, free of charge. Last fall the Trump administration shook things up by offering religious institutions the chance to discontinue this third-party coverage.
For the Notre Dame administration, it was an awkward situation. After standing on principle when the stakes seemed relatively low, they were now cursed with the freedoms they had claimed to want. Now controversy erupted over whether the university should follow through on its professed commitments by actually discontinuing the coverage.
Initially, they said they would. Then they said they would not. Under the new arrangement, the university says it will directly supply women “simple” contraceptives, while refusing to facilitate sterilization procedures or any contraceptives that could act as abortifacients. (The university has not yet specified which procedures qualify as “simple.”) Coverage will also be offered for expenses relating to natural family planning and other licit methods for managing fertility.
It’s a compromise. Whether you hear that word in a pejorative or laudatory sense may depend on your point of view.
This Isn’t a Debate Over Notre Dame’s Catholic Identity
Now that we’ve explained what’s happening at Notre Dame, let’s get clear on what’s not happening. We are not witnessing a good-faith debate about what course of action would really be most harmonious with the school’s “Catholic mission.” On this point, the arguments Notre Dame presented in the court were admirably clear and correct.
Fr. John Jenkins, the university’s president, recently explained to The Atlantic that he regards this a complex matter, especially because of the church’s respect for individual conscience. This is nonsense. Respect for conscience does not justify an institutional policy facilitating a practice that is directly contrary to the Catholic church’s moral teachings. When people demand contraceptive coverage, they’re protecting their pocketbooks, not their consciences. There is no good, principled reason why the university needed to provide these services, which women have long been free to purchase for themselves.
Here’s something else that is not happening. We aren’t witnessing Notre Dame’s renunciation of its Catholic mission. On this point I disagree slightly with my co-religionist, Elizabeth Kirk, although her recent editorial at National Review admirably explains the flaws in Jenkins’ moral reasoning. Kirk is quite right that a Catholic institution should not facilitate the use of artificial contraceptives. But she isn’t so obviously right about the real-world implications of Notre Dame’s recent decision.
In her conclusion, she draws parallels to Anglican bishops’ decision to approve the use of artificial contraceptives at the infamous Lambeth Conference of 1930. Kirk quotes G.K. Chesterton, who commented at the time that, “My concern is . . . with those to whom I might once have looked to defend the country of Christian altars. They ought surely to know that the foe now on the frontiers offers no terms of compromise: but threatens a complete destruction. And they have sold the pass.”
The implication, obviously, is that the University of Notre Dame is now “selling the pass.” This is surely misleading, however. Lambeth was a watershed event precisely because it shattered some existing mores. Notre Dame’s decision, by contrast, comes in a time when those mores are seen by many or most as incomprehensible, backwards, and unjust.
Across the nation, most Catholic universities (add scare-quotes if you wish) provide the controversial services without much fanfare. Notre Dame is exceptional and well outside the norm just in having this debate. They can’t “sell the pass,” because they don’t possess it in any meaningful sense. It would be more accurate to say that the pass in this case is heavily guarded and under enemy occupation, while the Fighting Irish debate how zealously they should work to re-take it.
Fight, But Don’t Expect to Win
As a Catholic and Notre Dame alumna, I favor the more zealous attempt. I fully appreciate why Kirk and others get distraught over these decisions. It seems clear enough that the contraceptive issue is controversial not because Catholic teaching is ambiguous, but because the Notre Dame community is divided about to how faithfully Catholic it wishes to be. Thus, we get a lot of vacillation, hypocrisy, moral posturing, and political horse-trading. It’s painful and demoralizing, especially to those who are most deeply invested in the school.
In our quiet moments, Catholic intellectuals like to daydream about the great things Catholic institutions might accomplish, if more had the courage to shake off the blinders of the modern secular university. Sometimes, when we squint, it starts to look as though Notre Dame is genuinely moving towards the goal. Then things like this happen, and we’re reminded how great the distance really is.
We should take care, though, that our zeal doesn’t tilt into despair. The truth is that Notre Dame has been doing this same dance for decades. It has seen the unveiling of the Land O’ Lakes statement, Mario Cuomo’s infamous abortion speech, Barack Obama’s controversial graduation appearance, then a later one from Joe Biden. That golden dome is assuredly not spotless, and volumes could be filled with all the angry missives written over the years about the hopelessness of her cause.
At this point, isn’t that stack really its own best refutation? Notre Dame clearly is not a Catholic university in the fullest sense (such as, say, John Henry Newman would have envisioned), yet critics continue to rage about it precisely because there still seems to be something worth protecting there. Every time I visit my alma mater, I am pleasantly struck by this. The golden dome stands in noteworthy contrast, not only with secular schools, but also with most nominally Catholic universities I have visited.
The community of faithfully Catholic intellectuals seems far more interdisciplinary, the liturgical life more vibrant, and the visible signs of Catholic life more ubiquitous. Notre Dame is still a very Catholic place! Given the staunchly secular ethos that reins in the academy today, it’s a source of perpetual amazement to me that Notre Dame manages to preserve so very much. Our Lady must truly be protecting her bit of American soil.
Compromise Is Better than Capitulation
In the interests of keeping that fighting spirit alive, it’s worth appreciating the upsides of this new compromise. It’s a wonderful to hear that Notre Dame will stop facilitating sterilization and the use of abortifacients. That’s a huge win for the Catholic community there.
The administration’s inconsistency on this issue is embarrassing, but it’s hardly a revelation to anyone that administrators are political creatures. It’s regrettable that the new health plans will directly supply contraceptives. Hopefully conversation will continue on that point.
Notre Dame is not an ideal example of a Catholic university, but neither is it a failure. It has many times been a force for good in American life, and it retains tremendous potential to be a resource in an anxious and polarized age. Those of us attached to the golden dome should continue loving it, for what it has been and remains.