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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Why the contraception fight flip-flop?

It has often been said that incoming freshman faces look like those who have just graduated, illustrating the constancy of the Notre Dame community — only the student names change. Striving for diversity within its Catholic identity, each year the University embraces efforts to meld legacy children with other ethnicities and races from various religious backgrounds. Only premier academic communities strive for such goals to fully educate body, mind and soul through interpersonal relationships and scholarly curiosity.

Notre Dame excels in arousing its student body through personal inner spirituality, commonly referred to as the “Notre Dame Community” on campus and throughout the alumni ranks. But too many Catholics blur religion with spirituality, thus many times demanding strict adherence of rigid conservative dogma: refusal of women in the priesthood, refusal of communion to those who have divorced or those elected to public office who do not strictly adhere to dogma, refusal of marriage for Roman Catholic priests (unlike their Orthodox colleagues) while the Vatican welcomes disgruntled married conservative pastors from another religion who can help backfill the downturn of Catholic seminarians. At such times, Church decrees based on specified limitations sap the spirituality from its followers’ hearts.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame administrators oftentimes fall prey to exclusionary tactics in their quest to self-proclaim an image as the “premier Catholic university in the United States.” Accommodating women’s healthcare, of which contraception is an integral part of the private patient-doctor relationship and many times has nothing to do with birth control but with controlling a woman’s ailing cycle, has become the university’s latest misstep when it reversed its stand within a two-week period. Does Notre Dame now agree it must provide contraceptive services for students and employees of other ethnicities and races from various religious backgrounds?

The University always had a religious buffer accommodation for contraception to be managed completely outside the university’s control. Now after its myriad of lawsuits and lengthy public condemnations, what caused all the drama? We might speculate that the Church hierarchy intervened or the costs and odds of overcoming legal challenges from employees were simply too expensive to pursue. Either way, the University should begin to follow the pope’s lead of softening on specific dictates in favor of ministering to the individual.

The irony of the contraception debate is that it could have been a moot point 50 years ago had Pope John XXIII lived long enough to complete his Second Vatican Council reforms. John XXIII established an international commission to study it, and Paul VI extended the commission to 72 members from five continents. The commission concluded by a 68-4 vote that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide the methods they want to employ for themselves. However, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reversed that conclusion, labeling contraceptives as evil while citing that it “teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”

The Catholic hierarchy has a long history of systemic rigidity that excludes in the name of Christian morality, rather than includes in the name of individual spirituality. In Notre Dame’s zeal for premier purity, the University encourages an attitude of “not being Catholic enough” on many levels. Standing as the last great Catholic vestige of resistance against the Obama Affordable Care Act’s mandate for free and equal healthcare for women, the University has diminished its Catholic identity brand. Notre Dame’s reputation as another unyielding religious institution becomes clustered with Southern Baptist-affiliated Pat Robertson’s Regent University and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Known for their fringe-right leaning, seldom is the word “premier” associated with their staunchly regimented reputations.

Our Catholic flock drifts from attending mass to become Catholics in name only (CINO), the non-practicing people who leave the Church because they are not embraced, but chastised. The allure of Pope Francis is rooted in his call to return to ministering to others, not administering over others. The pontiff’s famous yet simple refrain of “Who am I to judge?” rang volumes beyond his predecessors when in 2013 he was asked how he would act as a confessor to a gay person.

In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, published in 2016, Francis explains his broader philosophy, “I am glad that we are talking about 'homosexual people' because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity.” He continues, "…let us not forget that God loves all his creatures, and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”

Francis sums up the heart of what Catholicism should be in one guideline. While bishops and Catholic educational administrators should follow this principle, they oftentimes seem lost in trying to preserve their image of Catholicism. Francis answers whether opposition or choice exists between truth and mercy, or doctrine and mercy. He writes, “I will say this: mercy is real; it is the first attribute of God. Theological reflections on doctrine or mercy may then follow, but let us not forget that mercy is doctrine." The pope concludes, “Even so, I love saying: mercy is true.”

We are fortunate to live in the era of Francis. Notre Dame administrators should protect every woman’s healthcare by better following Francis and remembering that “before all else comes the individual person, in wholeness and dignity.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.