Marriage and Witness: What’s Going on at Notre Dame?


The University of Notre Dame is unwilling to bear an “uncompromising witness,” as Pope Francis challenged it to do, to the moral truths of marriage and sexuality. This is a subtle but certain pastoral failure on the university’s part.

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In October of last year, I wrote here at Public Discourse about the University of Notre Dame’s unfortunate decision to participate in National Coming Out Day. I noted that, by encouraging celebration of identities rooted in proclivities toward acts that violate the truth of marriage, Notre Dame was failing in its pastoral duties to guide its students in love and in truth. These duties are rooted in its institutional vocation as a Catholic university, as articulated by the school’s Mission Statement.

Several events on campus this spring have confirmed and deepened my belief that Notre Dame is failing to fulfill its pastoral duty to bear witness to the truth.

Students for Child-Oriented Policy

In January, a small group of students gathered to form an organization that aims to assess how public policy affects children’s well-being. I am one of the founding members of this group, which calls itself “Students for Child-Oriented Policy,” or SCOP.

SCOP came together as Notre Dame’s home state of Indiana was engrossed in a debate on the definition of marriage. In anticipation of its first annual conference, and in conjunction with a St. Patrick’s Day panel on marriage and Catholicism, SCOP published an open petition addressed to university president Fr. John Jenkins, calling on him and other administrators to take up a vocal defense of marriage at this pivotal moment.

Swiftly, a cohort of irritated students penned and began circulating their own counterpetition, which, in addition to demanding that the university refuse to recognize SCOP as a student club, makes claims such as these:

SCOP [incorrectly implies] that same-sex parenting is damaging to children – this blatantly ignores all empirical data in this field of the social sciences (summarized below) that actually indicates the opposite is true . . .

The counterpetition mischaracterizes SCOP’s petition, which centrally affirmed that every child has a right to the care of his or her mother and father. Further, the counterpetition’s empirical claims will confuse anyone familiar with social science findings on family structures and children’s well-being. The studies on which the American Psychological Association based its 2005 brief declaring “no difference” in well-being outcomes for children raised by same-sex couples are inconclusive, and the burden of available data suggests that children fare best when raised by their married biological parents. The anti-SCOP petition betrays either bad faith or an astonishing failure to look into even the most readily available research on this topic.

And those signatories have been gratified. On April 30, the university rejected SCOP’s request to become an officially recognized student club, citing a “recommendation” by a group of student government officials who judged that “there was not a need” for SCOP’s presence on campus. The official reason given for rejecting SCOP’s application is “redundancy,” a transparent reason for rejection that even a momentary glance through the names of some of the more than 500 recognized student clubs punctures. Additionally, when pressed to identify the groups the missions of which allegedly make SCOP’s acceptance redundant, the president of the aforementioned student government group listed several groups that don’t at all claim to advocate for child-oriented public policies.

Notre Dame’s decision to deny SCOP’s application is rooted in either culpable ignorance of SCOP’s mission and purpose or barely veiled hostility toward SCOP’s true mission and purpose.

Furthermore, the rejection letter came from the same Student Activities official who told SCOP leaders in early April that the SCOP petition was “inaccurate” and suggested that its language would make some members of the Notre Dame community feel “unwelcome.” She further intimated concerns that the petition’s authors were misquoting their sources, and took twice as long as official Student Activities Office policy standards dictate to return a request (which was filed on behalf of a recognized student group) to publicize the petition in Notre Dame’s student center.

But most indicative of Notre Dame’s pedagogical missteps is the endorsement of the counterpetition by several members of PrismND and the Fire Starters. These two campus entities were created with the explicit purpose of advancing campus conversation on sexuality in harmony with the teachings of the Church and the natural law.

Prism’s Outing

Notre Dame’s gay-straight alliance has not taken long to go astray. In December of 2012, Fr. Jenkins announced the creation of a new pastoral plan to provide support services to the LGBTQ community. The plan, entitled “Beloved Friends and Allies,” offers a holistic summary and explanation of the Catholic Church’s sexual and marital ethics.

“Beloved Friends and Allies” outlined the creation of an official student organization “designed to provide peer‐to‐peer support, direct service opportunities, and friendship for GLBTQ students and their heterosexual allies.” The pastoral plan also states that “the organization’s purpose arises directly from the University’s Catholic mission,” and one of the organization’s missions is to engender a campus environment in “which we aspire to an even deeper understanding and appreciation of Catholic teaching.”

This organization, called PrismND, was inaugurated this fall. As a student organization (not a club), it enjoys more permanence and structural continuity than most student groups. It is also overseen by an appointed advisor. Maureen Doyle, Notre Dame’s Assistant Director for LGBTQ Student Concerns, who serves as the official liaison between Prism and the administration, emphasized in an August interview that the students are functionally autonomous; her job is simply to help them achieve whatever goals they choose. Christine Caron-Gebhardt, director of the Gender Relations Center (GRC), said in that same interview, “It’s not like, ‘let’s discard [our Catholic identity],’ but let’s really put it in the place where it belongs. It doesn’t need to become our driving factor. The people need to become the driving factor.”

While some of Prism’s programs and actions may arise from a sincere effort to facilitate a deeper student engagement with the moral principles that Notre Dame institutionally affirms, others constitute a serious departure from Catholic teaching. Forty percent of Prism’s elected student officers have signed the anti-SCOP petition, including the officer that Prism’s organizational bylaws task with handling media and press relations. The organization’s very constitution employs the pronouns “ze” and “zer”—meant to indicate persons who reject identification as either male or female. Contrast this with Catholicism’s emphasis on the beauty and harmony of man and woman’s identities as essentially different, deeply complementary, and inextricably intertwined with each person’s unique identity.

The Gender Relations Center

In addition to the elected Prism officials who have signed the anti-SCOP petition, more than one third of the GRC’s student representatives, called “Fire Starters,” affixed their names. The mission of the Fire Starters, according to the GRC website, is to “promote open and inclusive discussion” and serve as “peer educators who assist in developing and implementing programs for the campus community that foster dialogue on issues of identity, gender and healthy relationships.” The 2013 student chair of Notre Dame’s gender issues committee also signed the petition.

How is it that so many of the university’s official (and officially trained) gender relations peer educators can endorse a petition as riddled with empirical and moral error, and misrepresentations, as the anti-SCOP petition?

Unfortunately, the GRC’s own programming and language obscure, rather than clarify, the proper understanding of the human person. Without this understanding, the orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality is unintelligible.

For example, earlier this semester, the GRC hung up a batch of rainbow-colored posters reading: “Gender What? A glimpse into the wonderful world of Gender Identity, and what it all means.” The posters seek to normalize and familiarize various terms that assume and perpetuate a sexual anthropology antithetical to the Church’s teachings. One line on the posters counsels, “It is best simply to ask someone how they prefer to be identified in regards to gender.”

In October, Assistant Director Doyle spoke of her desire to “celebrate the multitude of identities that make each of us unique and beautiful individuals,” referring precisely to acts of auto-identification as gay, lesbian, or transgender. The students who signed the anti-SCOP petition may well have adopted a rhetoric and ideology that they learned from adult pastoral figures.

Accountability, Transparency, and Pastoral Duties

In March 2014, when Fr. Jenkins announced a new strategic plan for the university, he boldly claimed that the plan’s top priority was to “ensure that our Catholic character informs all our endeavors,” in part by increasing administrative “accountability” and “transparency” over the next ten years.

When I contacted Ms. Doyle in late March and requested a twenty-minute meeting with her to discuss my concerns with Prism’s programming and language, she informed me that her schedule for the next six weeks did not admit of such an opening. When I contacted the university Vice President for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs with similar questions and concerns, he declined a meeting as well. My inquiries to Prism’s president regarding the aforementioned events were also deflected, and my request for a personal meeting was unreturned.

When essential truths are at stake, administrators and GRC officials stand silently by as the student “peer educators” tasked with facilitating informed, civil discussion of tough issues routinely oppose student efforts to affirm orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. Attempts to tackle these issues head-on are met with calls for disbandment, and such calls are heeded by university officials. Notre Dame administrators then wield politically correct rhetoric as a weapon against students who are concerned that all the emphasis on campus “inclusion” has caused important, loving truths about the human person to be lost. These truths compose the good of those students perhaps least inclined to feel “welcomed” by them.

Notre Dame’s pastoral ministry must be rooted in the truths of human nature and human goods, and man’s supernatural end. Pope Saint John Paul II once said that “pastoral concern means the search for the true good of man, a promotion of the values engraved in his person by God.” Unfortunately, it seems that Notre Dame has firmly, if quietly, commenced its slow surrender to a sexual ideology that, once internalized, will ensure that students at Notre Dame wander as sheep without their shepherds.

Michael Bradley recently graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame with a BA in philosophy and theology. He served as editor-in-chief of Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, the Irish Rover, and is the managing editor of Ethika Politika.

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