When I entered the University of Notre Dame in August of 2010, same-sex marriage was an invisible issue. Three weeks ago, the university announced that it had decided to extend employment benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The university did so willingly and without coercion of civil law. Notre Dame’s president has even hailed the decision as one that creates “a less imperfect community of love [at Notre Dame],” since “we recognize an urgent call to welcome, support and cherish gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

What accounts for such a rapid change in the university’s operative definition of marriage, especially when a change in the state’s legal definition did not compel Notre Dame to change its definition?

Two winters ago, the university released its Pastoral Plan for the Support and Holistic Development of GLBTQ and Heterosexual Students at the University of Notre Dame, “Beloved Friends and Allies.” Released after a five-month review process, this pastoral plan states that “consideration of structures present at peer Catholic institutions” was a key criterion of that process. As the Irish Rover reported, such a peer review could not have found many encouraging trends at Catholic institutions that had undertaken similar commitments to recognize official gay-straight alliances. Georgetown University, for example, sponsors annual “kiss-ins” for same-sex couples who wish to celebrate their relationships through public displays of romantic affection.

Religious institutions can now look to Notre Dame as a tragic case study in just how quickly institutions can run off the rails once they uncritically imbibe and propagate the ideological presuppositions of the same-sex marriage movement.

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Why This Was The Wrong Decision

In its Human Resources email announcing the decision, the university wrote that “it will follow the relevant civil law and begin to implement this change immediately.” The university dissembled in saying this; president John Jenkins has since admitted that “apart from any legal obligations,” amending the university’s health care plan was a step that Notre Dame voluntarily wished to take for the sake of “support and welcome.” Because it settled upon its decision roughly forty-eight hours after the Supreme Court surprised everyone by declining to hear any same-sex marriage cases this term, Notre Dame, we can reasonably infer, was prepared to capitulate as soon as Richard Posner’s September 4 ruling went into effect.

No civil law coerces Notre Dame either to amend or retain its spousal benefits policy such that all legally married spouses in Indiana—which now includes positive law marriages that the “Catholic view of marriage,” which Notre Dame allegedly “endorses,” teaches are not marriages—qualify for Notre Dame’s package. Notre Dame’s spokesperson, general counsel, and president have made no effort to identify such a law, and have returned media inquiries into the same, including those from organized alumni groups, with silence. Furthermore, other Catholic universities in Indiana (including at least one in Fort Wayne, the seat of the diocese in which Notre Dame is located) have argued that upon legal review they may define marriage for the purpose of their spousal benefits package as the union between one man and one woman, and have amended their health care plans according to that conviction.

The reaction of those at Notre Dame supportive of this decision is also telling. One professor lauded the university’s “proactivity” in emulating Indiana’s marriage laws, and “proactivity” is the appropriate word. By “following” the relevant civil law, the university simply meant that it had freely elected to embrace, rather than resist, the recent federal district and circuit rulings on Indiana’s marriage law, and had leapt to ensure the equal treatment of marriages with same-sex unions, rather than exercise its legal prerogative and institutional duty not to follow suit concerning such unions. Instead of aligning its health care plans with the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage—and indeed the sound view of marriage, Catholic or not—Notre Dame opted, under no legal coercion, to align its health care plans with an unjust law that obscures the truth about marriage, incentivizes same-sex couples to marry, galvanizes the same-sex movement advocates on Notre Dame’s campus, scandalizes the university community, confers “support and welcome” on immoral sexual activity (activity that is, ironically, denounced powerfully in “Beloved Friends and Allies”), and lends considerable institutional prestige to a ruling that the Catholic Church in Indiana, for one, vigorously opposes.

Most of all, Notre Dame signaled, with this decision, true cowardice in the face of what would have been mounting pressure, by faculty, students, staff, and the broader academic community, to equate same-sex unions with marriages for university purposes.

Where Notre Dame Went Wrong

Pastoral guidance by priests or Catholic universities requires a realistic awareness of “the signs of the times”: “Be ye shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” In the context of outreach to its LGBTQ communities, this principle entails that university administrators proceed very conscientiously concerning the rhetorical paradigm employed as a hermeneutic for university-wide and personal conversation on sexual topics.

The rhetorical paradigm advanced by the same-sex marriage movement—its catchwords and phrases, such as “marriage equality,” “gay rights,” “diversity,” “gay marriage,” “inclusivity,” “welcome,” and “acceptance,” and its ideological commitments concerning gender—shapes and inculcates an inadequate understanding of the concepts, ideals, principles, and arguments at stake in what we call “the marriage debate” today. It is advanced precisely for that reason, and for its memetic potency. It subverts careful thinking by consigning to the dustbin of malice any efforts to contradict the paradigm itself. Thus, proponents of “traditional marriage” are portrayed as opposing “marriage equality,” and so forth. Verbal engineering precedes social engineering and begets it.

Those charged with the burdens of responsible teaching at Notre Dame should have refused to drink this Kool-Aid. They should have seen clearly that this paradigm is incapable of supporting—or even making sense of—the Church’s teaching about marriage, sexual morality, and same-sex attraction. That is to say, this paradigm is incompatible with the truth. Those in authority at Notre Dame—beginning with Fr. Jenkins and including (among others) the Trustees and Fellows of the university—should instead have carefully distinguished the meaning of the language of the Catechism and relevant magisterial documents from the meaning of the catchwords invoked by the same-sex marriage movement. For while the language is in some instances identical, one need only observe the kinds of actions into which the logic of this language translates in the minds of same-sex marriage advocates to perceive the stark distinction between the Church’s and the culture’s invocation of the terms.

Sadly, Notre Dame swallowed too much of the culture’s language, capitulating swiftly to a vocal and active cadre of students whose express and ever-vague goal on campus was to create “safe spaces of welcome” for all members of the campus community; who refuse to speak about their agenda in terms other than “inclusivity, welcome, and acceptance”; and who know very well that such language will prove to be their vector for transforming the campus culture at Notre Dame.

As I first documented last spring at Public Discourse, the Gender Relations Center (GRC) plastered posters all over campus encouraging students “simply to ask someone how they prefer to be identified in regards to gender.” The College of Arts & Letters has recently instituted a pre-matriculation summer scholars program that will teach students much of the same. (The program’s director said last fall at a panel discussion about transgenderism that sex is “always defined by the two bodies engaged in it, and the two people inhabiting those bodies.”) As early as its first year of existence, PrismND—Notre Dame’s official gay-straight alliance—included the pronouns “ze” and “zer” in its official bylaws (language which was removed in the aftermath of my initial reporting of it); was disseminating pins that read “ask me about my pronoun preference!”; and was formally hosting National Coming Out Day on campus, thereby encouraging self-identification with one’s “sexual orientation.”

The endgame of this rhetoric—which the university spokesperson, Fr. Jenkins, and any other officials who venture to speak publicly deploy dutifully—is a situation in which every possible decision pertaining to the LGBTQ community on campus can be described simply in terms of that broken rhetorical paradigm, thus precluding any thoughtful or even meaningful investigation of whether certain actions are appropriate for the university to take. Fr. Jenkins’ explanation of the decision to honor same-sex marriages is exemplary of this strategy:

We recognize an urgent call to welcome, support and cherish gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, who have been too often marginalized and even ostracized, and many of whom bear the scars of such treatment. At Notre Dame, we have undertaken initiatives to provide support and welcome gay and lesbian members of our community. These efforts must not and will not flag. Our abiding goal, rather, is to learn better how to love one another and together build a less imperfect community of love. That is the mission of Notre Dame, and we remain committed to it.

Compare this justification with a 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and notice how inadequate is the lexicon invoked by Fr. Jenkins even to make sense of the Church’s teaching:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right of conscientious objection.

Notre Dame’s supine acceptance of the same-sex marriage movement’s way of talking makes our nation’s flagship Catholic institution impotent. This tawdry embrace neuters our university’s ability to witness to the truth; it renders the university wholly unable to make itself accountable to Church statements such as the CDF’s. Indeed, the university’s rhetoric enables and abets every step of the slow but steady encroachment of the corrosive complex of concepts that has led Notre Dame willingly and almost eagerly to endorse the federal courts’ summer marriage rulings.

Institutional Witness and the Failure to Lead

Notre Dame’s capitulation on same-sex marriage was predictable. But its abruptness, and this Catholic university’s seeming incomprehension of what is at stake, are still surprising.

It was predictable, because Notre Dame administrators decided several years ago that they were not going to suffer for the sake of the truth about marriage. That fact was predictable because Notre Dame administrators largely lack any coherent understanding of what their Catholic mission is. As a result, they are all too eager to please the wrong parties, constituencies, and pressure groups, chief among which is its own faculty.

Father Jenkins told members of Students for Child-Oriented Policies (SCOP) in May that “the issue of the nature of marriage is an important one, and . . . I believe the university has taken a clear stand on the definition of marriage . . . I will continue to reflect on the best steps we can take to support a true understanding of marriage.” Yet neither Fr. Jenkins nor any other high-level administrator has ever issued a single statement in support of “the Catholic view of marriage,” neither in response to Justice Kennedy’s vitriolic Windsor opinion two summers ago, nor in conjunction with an excellent statement on marriage by Indiana’s Catholic bishops this spring, nor in support of very recent Indiana legislation that would have enshrined male-female marriage in Notre Dame’s home state’s constitution, nor in opposition to district judge Richard Young’s and circuit judge Richard Posner’s rulings this summer, nor in response to the high court’s decision to decline appeals of the same. All this despite Notre Dame’s habit of commenting on salient public issues, from the ASA’s boycott of Israel’s higher education institutions, to Pope Francis’s controversial America interview last September, to a university-wide celebration endorsing the DREAM Act two years ago.

Now, Notre Dame lauds its recent decision not as a regrettable concession or a coerced decision, but as elemental to an “effort” that “will not flag.” One wonders what to expect next.

Make no mistake about it: the evidence of these last three weeks leaves little room to doubt that the university’s leadership cannot stand the heat it anticipates from its peer secular institutions or from its own community on the marriage issue. Indeed, the university’s leaders are not even willing to take the temperature. In so capitulating, Notre Dame has forfeited its unique opportunity for witness and leadership in the marriage debate. It has also run obviously afoul of Pope Francis’s stern warning that “essential . . . is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.”

Where to Go From Here?

Even as Our Lady remains atop the Golden Dome, I have witnessed Notre Dame fall like lightning away from its institutional vocation and duties. And while other universities can now trace the swift demise of Notre Dame’s witness to the truth of marriage, and accordingly avoid the same mistakes, all is not lost at Notre Dame.

Despite administrative blunders and abandonment, courageous and faithful faculty, staff, and students continue to labor in an effort to uphold Notre Dame’s Catholic character and witness to the gospel of the family. The Institute for Church life is exemplary in this regard, and will offer a rich exploration of Catholicism and same-sex attraction in an upcoming conference. (The GRC is cosponsoring: I should note that it’s not an absence of good programming or activity out of the GRC or Prism, but the presence of destructive programming or activity, that is problematic.) The Irish Rover’s piercing reporting, SCOP’s courageous campus presence, the excellent work of the Center for Ethics and Culture, and a handful of formal and informal small group offerings provide healthy opportunities for discussion and learning. The eventual impact of Notre Dame’s recent decision will be far-reaching, and the logic operative in the decision will increasingly bear darker fruits; but these will not in the near term snuff out these good efforts.

Even as Notre Dame has caved on marriage, the fight for its religious character carries on through those who love my alma mater. Now is the time for proponents of religious higher education to recommit to a courageous and persistent defense of the good in the face of impending dark times where the truths of marriage and family are concerned. And even as Notre Dame proves a tragic example of how not to confront the same-sex marriage agenda and its attendant ideologies, my hope is that we can also model well how to promote the good at the university amid the crumbling ruins of institutional integrity.