SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A group of students at the University of Notre Dame has generated a campus-wide controversy by advocating that marriage between one woman and one man is better suited for children than same-sex "marriage."
The group — known as Students for Child Oriented Policy (SCOP) — elicited negative letters to the campus newspaper and prompted hundreds of students to sign a petition calling upon the university not to recognize it as an official campus club.
An official in the university’s Student Affairs Office also expressed disapproval of a SCOP petition that called upon Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins and the administration to "make a clear stand" in support of traditional marriage, SCOP members said.
Against that backdrop, the University of Notre Dame’s Club Coordination Council (CCC) — a branch of the undergraduate student government — voted this spring not to approve SCOP for official club status, on the grounds that it mirrors other existing clubs on campus.
"If [Student Affairs Office] officials and voting members of the CCC read our application documents, as I assume they did, how they could have identified our distinct and timely mission with that of any active university club is beyond me," said Tiernan Kane, a Notre Dame student and the prospective president of SCOP.
Kane and other individuals affiliated with SCOP told the Register that they were concerned that controversy and political correctness influenced CCC’s decision to reject its application for official status as an approved student club.
Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley, who was prepared to serve as SCOP’s faculty adviser, said "utter ignorance" of SCOP’s stated mission — to advocate for child-friendly policies from a basis of reason — could explain the CCC decision.
The other possible motive, Bradley said, could be "sheer hostility against what SCOP stands for," an explanation he called "more disturbing."
"SCOP is trying to do in public policy about the family exactly what the Church has asked all Catholics to do: namely, to do what it can to make sure that children are raised by their mother and their father and to make this case in the public square on reasonable grounds accessible to anyone who cares to think about the issues," Bradley said.
Evaluating Student Clubs
Dennis Brown, a spokesman for the University of Notre Dame, provided a prepared statement to the Register, saying that SCOP’s denial — because its purpose purportedly mirrors that of other recognized campus clubs — is "not unusual."
Over the past five years, 31% of club applications at the University of Notre Dame have been denied, most of those for the same reason — that they duplicated another club’s purpose — explained Brown. SCOP was one of six proposed clubs whose applications were denied this spring.
In an interview with the Register, Jimmy McEntee, the president of the university’s Club Coordination Council, defended CCC’s decision as "completely impartial."
He added, "It’s the job of the CCC to try to … determine if the clubs’ missions overlap or if they have distinct differences."
McEntee also noted that the CCC is under pressure from the university to be strict about how many clubs are approved because of budgetary reasons and that the controversy sparked by the petition played no role in the group’s decision.
He said that two other clubs, the Orestes Brownson Council and the Children’s Defense Fund, addressed similar concerns.
According to its website, the Orestes Brownson Council was founded at the University of Notre Dame so that students may better understand the Catholic Church’s teachings. The Children’s Defense Fund’s stated purpose is to inform, educate and motivate the Notre Dame community about child-poverty issues.
However, SCOP students question whether the fund is still an active club on campus. Its website has not been updated since 2005.
When asked what CCC understood SCOP’s mission to be, McEntee said CCC’s "impression" of SCOP was that it was a Catholic-based group that advocated for the Church’s teaching on marriage.
Confusion Over Mission
Yet Kane, the prospective SCOP president, said CCC mistakenly conflated his group with being a "Catholic" organization.
"SCOP is not a religious group," Kane said. "Our application clearly conveyed our group’s nonpartisan, nonsectarian focus on public policy as it relates to issues that specially affect children."
McEntee declined to discuss CCC’s discussion and vote — a two-thirds majority is needed to approve a club application — in greater detail because the process is meant to be confidential. CCC’s student membership is also private.
In its proposed constitution, SCOP describes itself as a group whose purpose is to "educate and energize the public, especially young people," about a child-oriented approach to public policy. Although its public-policy prescriptions, which Kane said are derived from reason, align with Catholic teaching, he said SCOP is not meant to be "an explicitly Catholic organization."
The group’s planned activities for 2014 included presentations on Common Core and Indiana education policy, marijuana’s effect on young people’s brains, the United Kingdom’s anti-pornography policy and the problems associated with no-fault divorce.
After SCOP was established in January, its first step was to circulate a petition that called upon the university to take a clear public stand in support of the true definition of marriage and to take "serious and sustained action" to improve the public understanding of the natural institution.
Tim Bradley, a Notre Dame student and the prospective treasurer of the group, said SCOP pushed the petition because the group believed Notre Dame’s administration had been "totally silent" on the issue.
"The way we see it, Notre Dame has a responsibility to witness to the truth of marriage as the union of one man and one woman," Tim Bradley said.
Brown, the university spokesman, said the University of Notre Dame would not be commenting "on petitions or other claims."
The SCOP marriage petition included language that affirmed the "inherent dignity and special vocation of every human being," and it quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1601) that marriage is "ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring." The petition also cited "Beloved Friends and Allies," the university’s pastoral plan for the support of heterosexual and same-sex-attracted students, which affirms that "sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage, the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion."
Because SCOP was not an official student club, the Orestes Brownson Council registered its own interest in upholding Catholic teaching on marriage by circulating the petition. However, when presented with the petition, an official with the Student Affairs Office took offense because she believed it reflected negatively on single or adoptive parents, according to Kane. However, that office ultimately approved the petition on April 9.
Meanwhile, on April 3, SCOP held an on-campus conference entitled "For Richer, For Poorer, For Children: The Definition of Marriage and Importance of Civil Marriage." The conference’s speakers included Gerard Bradley, Bishop Henry Jackson Jr., the presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, and Arina Grossu, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, among others.
Prior to the event, a SCOP member wrote a letter to a campus newspaper, The Observer, asking that students approach the April 3 conference and SCOP with an open mind, in the same manner as they approached the attempts to found Notre Dame’s gay-straight alliance club, PrismND, in 2012.
However, SCOP’s activities drew a backlash from several Notre Dame students, who accused the group of having flawed and discriminatory views. Shannon Sheehan, a Notre Dame sophomore, launched an online petition, "Students Against SCOP," that opposed the university’s recognition of a group that "discriminates against all non-traditional family structures"; the petition attracted 630 signatures.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education as laid out in St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Catholic Universities), contrasted the SCOP episode with Notre Dame’s 2012 decision to recognize PrismND.
"It’s the new political correctness. In certain Catholic circles, anti-Catholicism is the new cool," Reilly said. "Very often, the same students who scream censorship in nearly every other instance are the ones who would silence those who promote Catholic teachings. Those who advocate difficult teachings are shunned or ridiculed."
Professor Bradley said that SCOP’s denial "reflects very badly on the University of Notre Dame."
"That is why I expect that Father Jenkins will see to it that the decision is reversed promptly, with due apologies to SCOP for the shabby treatment it has received," he said, "so that SCOP can resume its activities next semester as a fully recognized student club."
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.