Notre Dame's Confusing Contraception Decision

If an institution does not defend innocent life, it can be called many things, but it should not be called Catholic.

University of Notre Dame
University of Notre Dame (photo: Unsplash)

There was a brief glimmer of hope back in 2012 when those who believed that the most well-known Catholic college in the U.S. might actually be… well… Catholic. That was when the University of Notre Dame filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana seeking relief from a mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that required the university named for Our Lady to provide through their insurance plans (or a third-party administrator) contraceptives, sterilization procedures and abortifacients.

The university which had infamously honored the most pro-abortion president in our country’s history was suing the administration of that same president. Some cheered. Some felt betrayed. Some simply scratched their heads. Unfortunately, among those scratching their heads was Circuit Judge Richard Posner who ruled against Notre Dame, noting the university’s “awkward” delay in challenging the so-called “accommodation,” and questioning why the university initially complied with the accommodation if it was so antithetical to their Catholicism.

At the time, Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president, clarified his intentions by saying, “at its core this filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission.” But exactly what Notre Dame’s mission is must be called into question now that the Trump administration reversed the HHS Mandate and the university has reportedly decided to not only provide contraceptive coverage but actually supply contraceptives in its wellness center.

The university’s website states on its mission statement website that the university is committed to “a sacramental vision” which “encounters God in the whole of creation.” While admitting in a statement that “the use of artificial contraceptives to prevent conception is contrary to Catholic teaching,” Fr. Jenkins added that “many conscientiously disagree with this particular teaching.” So, in short, the University of Notre Dame “encounters God in the whole of creation” except if enough employees and students disagree?

Confusingly, Fr. Jenkins continued: “We must be unwavering in our fidelity to our Catholic mission at Notre Dame, while we recognize that among the values in our Catholic tradition is a respect for other religious traditions and the conscientious decisions of members of our community.” Given that many disagree with the Church’s teaching on contraception, Fr. Jenkins concluded that “the University will provide coverage in the University’s own insurance plans for simple contraceptives (i.e., drugs designed to prevent conception).” By “simple contraceptives” he seems to be attempting to differentiate them from “abortion-inducing drugs.”

But is that accurate? The Sycamore Trust, an organization committed to restoring the university’s Catholic identity, states plainly in their latest bulletin titled “Conveniently Blind” that it isn’t.

Father Jenkins made a point of saying that only “simple contraceptives” would be covered — only those, that is, that “prevent conception.” No doubt he wanted people to believe that Notre Dame was not running afoul of the Church’s teachings on abortion: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” (Catechism 2270).
But when it came time to specify the approved contraceptives, Father Jenkins’s “simple contraceptives” morphed into contraceptives whose “primary purpose” is to prevent conception. One immediately wonders what the unmentioned “secondary” purpose might be. Since that purpose is to cause abortions, it is scarcely surprising it was left unstated.
The incriminating fact is that the many hormonal contraceptives covered in the Notre Dame plan have a “fail safe” abortifacient function.

You see, many advocates of contraception argue that a woman is only officially pregnant when a living embryo implants in her uterine wall. But that is not the Church’s view which says that the unborn are human beings from the moment of conception. The child’s DNA is also formed at the moment of conception; it doesn’t wait until implantation.

As a quick side note, I’m always a little perplexed when advocates of contraception and abortion point out that a high percentage of embryos, or as they call them “fertilized eggs,” fail to implant in the woman’s uterus so therefore contraception shouldn’t be a big deal. But pointing out the fragility of life, doesn’t make it more disposable. In fact, shouldn’t the opposite be true?

The point is that many contraceptives, including some of those available through Notre Dame’s coverage, alter the lining of the uterus, making them inhospitable to a human embryo. It is essentially a backup plan that destroys an embryo.

“This taking of human life is called ‘embryocide,’ and Notre Dame is evidently willing to facilitate it provided it is not as frequent as with the abortifacient ‘morning after’ pills, which are excluded from the Nore Dame policies,” writes The Trust. “It is a distinction without a principled difference.”

The university did take the step of prohibiting the University Health Services on campus from filling prescriptions for contraception for undergraduates while agreeing to fill those prescriptions for mainly graduate students and employees in the pharmacy in St. Liam Hall. Presumably, the souls of graduate students and employees aren’t as important as undergrads who now have to walk to an off-campus pharmacy for the free contraceptives provided by the university’s plan. But what does this decision say about the soul of Notre Dame?

“No good can come of a Catholic school’s decision to provide students and employees with instrumentalities that cause abortions and provide the means to commit actions the Church teaches are gravely sinful, not simply contraception but the fornication and adultery it facilitates” the Trust writes.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend made it clear that he “strongly disagreed” with Notre Dame’s decision to provide funding for contraception in its health insurance plans, saying the decision “involves it even more directly in contributing to immoral activity.”

For all of this to be done in the name of “respect” for others views is galling. It doesn’t seem to respect the views of the unborn, does it? But this shouldn’t surprise us. In our current culture, many words are used for odd purposes. When it came to inviting President Obama, Fr. Jenkins said it was a call for “dialogue” and now he’s having the university cover abortifacients and calling it “respect” for other points of view. Similar words like “tolerance” and “inclusivity” seem to have more cache on Catholic campuses today than words like “Catholic.”

Increasingly, politically correct jargon act as weaponized buzzwords to remake the mission of the university into something foreign to Catholicism. In the end, it seems to me that if an institution does not defend innocent life, it can be called many things, but it should not be called Catholic.