SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After years of petitions, Notre Dame, the premier Catholic university in the United States, has announced it will create an official campus support group for homosexual students and their friends.
But Notre Dame has a more radical idea than the petitioners imagined: It plans to create a permanent student organization grounded fully in Catholic social and moral teaching.
Students and faculty at Notre Dame aggressively pressed Notre Dame’s administration and president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, to approve an official “gay-straight alliance” club on campus and add sexual orientation into the university’s legal protections.
AllianceND, an unofficial club for homosexual students and their allies, requested approval as an official student club on campus. The club’s proposed constitution, however, did not address Catholic teaching other than pledge the club would “not address GLBTQ issues that are in opposition to [Notre Dame’s] Catholic identity.” The GLBTQ acronym stands for “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning.”
The Progressive Student Alliance spearheaded the campaign for AllianceND’s approval with “It needs to get better” videos spread all over social media and convinced both the student and faculty senates to vote their support.
But instead of approving or denying official recognition to AllianceND, Notre Dame’s administration came to a solution that has both surprised and excited the campus and elicited praise from the local Catholic bishop.
“I am confident that this multifaceted, pastoral approach represents the next step in advancing our efforts toward this aspiration for our GLBTQ students,” Father Jenkins said in a press release.
Notre Dame’s Office of Student Affairs has developed a comprehensive plan, called “Beloved Friends and Allies: A Pastoral Plan for the Support and Holistic Development of GLBTQ and Heterosexual Students at the University of Notre Dame.”
One part of the initiative is a new student organization fully engaged in supporting GLBTQ youth with Catholic resources and within a Catholic context.
“Notre Dame’s Catholic mission grounds all of the revised structures outlined in the 'Pastoral Plan,' including the student organization,” Erin Harding, vice president for student affairs, told the Register. “These structures are designed both to continue to build an inclusive community at Notre Dame and promote students’ holistic growth and development, including their moral and spiritual formation.”
The plan calls for a permanent body that homosexual and heterosexual students may join and elect officers. The new student organization will provide peer-to-peer support, programming, service opportunities and integrate students better with the programs and formation initiatives of Notre Dame’s Gender Relations Center, Campus Ministry, the University Counseling Center and the Institute for Church Life.
But, most significantly, Notre Dame’s "Pastoral Plan" declares that its “goals and objectives, as well as its programs and initiatives, are consonant with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” It dedicates eight paragraphs to making this point, repeatedly citing passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with marriage, sexuality, friendship and the life of chastity.
The plan notes: “The Catholic Church states that ‘love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being’ (CCC, 2392) but also attests that the call to chastity is God’s invitation for all to be in loving relationship with others according to the demands of the moral virtues (CCC, 2348).”
The plan repeatedly notes that the new student organization will uphold “the challenging, even though beautiful and life-giving, call to chaste relationships” and that “Student Affairs neither condones nor supports sexual activity outside the marital relationship or any sexual activities that ‘close the sexual act to the gift of life’ (CCC, 2357).”
Father Jenkins approved the plan after conducting a five-month review, but some critics were skeptical about whether the university administration could effectively secure the new organization’s adherence to Church teaching.
“The school has regularly turned down these requests for the last 15 years because these clubs collide with Catholic identity,” said William Dempsey, president of the Sycamore Trust, an alumni organization dedicated to upholding Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. “The issue here is the approval of a gay student organization and then giving it the additional exalted status of a ‘student organization.’ That ranks it alongside student government, and we have no indication Father Jenkins will impose any limitations or Church doctrine.”
Dempsey expressed concern over Father Jenkins’s leadership of Notre Dame with respect to its Catholic identity and said he had no confidence Father Jenkins would restrict the student organization’s activities. He cited the university president’s decision to give President Barack Obama an honorary law degree in 2009, despite public objections from scores of U.S. bishops; the handling of the 88 pro-life protesters who were charged with criminal trespassing at the Notre Dame campus for protesting against President Obama’s being honored; and Father Jenkins’s permissions for an on-campus production of the obscene playThe V----- Monologues and sponsorship of a “Queer Film Festival.”
However, the play has not made an appearance on campus since 2008, when Father Jenkins ordered that its presentation be accompanied by panel discussions with a “sympathetic and thorough presentation of Catholic teaching” on sexuality. And Tom O’Neil, an alumnus who helped to found Notre Dame’s “Queer Film Festival” in 2004, also blamed Father Jenkins for administration moves that O’Neil said had caused the “slow, quiet strangulation” of the homosexual film festival by 2009.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, said Notre Dame’s attempt to address homosexual issues in an authentically Catholic way was “impressive.” However, he said, Father Jenkins must impose restrictions on the group’s activities.
“The problem comes from the students who are engaged in this issue but have a lack of catechesis and moral maturity,” Reilly said.
Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley, the former director of Notre Dame’s Natural Law Institute, was similarly cautious. While the "Pastoral Plan" includes “some sound elements,” it needs more specifics, he said.
“There is substantial cause for concern about the soundness of that coming implementation,” Bradley said. “For example, the plan says that Notre Dame affirms Church teaching, which distinguishes between homosexual acts and the homosexual condition, and that the condition itself is not sinful. But the plan nowhere affirms the Church’s teaching that the condition is itself objectively disordered.”
Holy Cross Father William Miscamble, who is a Notre Dame history professor, said his own misgiving is that the university’s good intentions might go awry.
“Much will depend on the implementation of the 'Pastoral Plan,' but such an organization seems likely to develop into an advocacy group promoting the gay lifestyle,” he said. “This will run counter to the professed goals of the plan and will be very damaging to the Catholic mission and identity of Notre Dame.”
But Holy Cross Father William Dailey, a visiting lecturer at the university’s law school and a fellow at Notre Dame’s Center of Ethics and Culture, expressed optimism that Notre Dame had seized an opportunity to engage directly in a conversation with students about living a life of holiness in the context of same-sex attraction.
“This document does not include the culture’s belief that we find our real identity in our sexual orientation or sexual identity,” Father Dailey noted. “Rather, we find our identity in Christ. I think this is an effort to minister pastorally to this group without in any way compromising our Church’s beautiful teachings, especially on chastity.”
Student affairs vice president Harding explained in an email to the Register that the university will have much more say over the formation and direction of the student organization than would be the case if it had authorized an official student club.
“We determined that a recognized student organization provides both autonomy and accountability for our students to offer peer-to-peer support and service opportunities,” Harding said.
Harding said that clubs can “make constitutional changes at will” and change their advisors whenever they like. As a student organization, however, the university “always” appoints the advisor, and no constitutional changes can be approved without the advisor’s consent.
To fill that position, Harding said Notre Dame is looking for a full-time student development professional “who understands and embraces the university’s Catholic mission.” Students will have a voice in the hiring process, but once a candidate is selected, the plan will be fully implemented.
Eve Tushnet, an openly homosexual writer living as a faithful Catholic, said she found Notre Dame’s approach “refreshing.”
“I think the focus on friendship is perhaps more surprising and refreshing than it may seem to those outside these debates,” Tushnet said. “While young people do have questions about Catholic teaching, they also have no role model for leading a chaste gay life.”
Tushnet suggested that Notre Dame’s action could open lines of communication with homosexual youth about how to live a full Catholic life, develop friendships and find their vocation.
Tushnet said the loneliness of living silently with same-sex attraction creates a huge opening for sin: “This can lead to hooking up with the opposite sex to prove you are not gay, despair, leaving the Church and dishonesty.”
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of South Bend, Ind., told the Register that Notre Dame’s initiative has praiseworthy objectives and should not be dismissed beforehand.
“I believe there is a need at Catholic universities to provide pastoral care and support to persons with same-sex attraction. This is what Notre Dame’s 'Pastoral Plan' is attempting to do,” Bishop Rhoades said. “This pastoral care should help the students not to feel unwelcome or alienated in the community, but also help them to lead chaste and holy lives.”
“I think that people, especially youth, who feel isolated or alienated can be more susceptible to destructive unchaste behavior,” Bishop Rhoades said. “Isolation, alienation, insecurity, etc. can lead to pleasure-seeking in sinful behavior that ultimately brings unhappiness.”
Bishop Rhoades stressed that Christians must understand that ministry to homosexual persons is an essential element of the integral promotion of human dignity, which is critical to the success of the pro-life movement as well.
“Promoting chastity is an important part of our pro-life commitment,” Bishop Rhoades said. “The Sixth Commandment that calls us to chastity follows the Fifth Commandment that calls us to respect life. It is the connection between life and love.”
Notre Dame senior Chris Damian, a philosophy major and writer for The Observer campus newspaper, told the Register that he had shared the concerns that the administration would approve a student club that could pose a similar challenge to Catholic teachings about sexuality.
But Damian said students at Notre Dame, even those with concerns like himself, welcomed the administration’s move in “Beloved Friends and Allies.”
“I’m very enthusiastic, because Notre Dame has a great opportunity to make a radical commitment to the care of these students,” Damian said.
Alex Coccia, a junior majoring in Africana studies and co-chairman of AllianceND, said he was pleased with the pastoral plan and that its initiatives were grounded in Church teaching. Although socially progressive himself, Coccia said that AllianceND would never had gained the majority support it received at Notre Dame if it had opposed Church teaching, especially on same-sex "marriage."
He said AllianceND would end its bid for club status and transfer into the new student organization.
“Ultimately, we decided that the goals of AllianceND are found in this new organization, especially the peer-to-peer support,” Coccia said.
The next key phase in the development of the student organization will be drafting its constitution, a process that will involve participation of both students and the administration. Coccia said he expected that “components of the 'Pastoral Plan'” will be part of the new constitution.
Not ‘Morally Neutral’
However, Bishop Rhoades cautioned that pastoral plans and support groups for homosexual students and their friends cannot take a “morally neutral” position on homosexuality.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in 2357, that “homosexual acts are gravely disordered” and that “under no circumstances can they be approved.”
“They are called to be faithful to the Christian message as handed on to us through the Church,” Bishop Rhoades said of pastoral outreaches on Catholic campuses. “Such ‘moral neutrality’ does not serve the ultimate good of the students.”
Peter J. Smith writes from Rochester, New York.