Pope Francis to Notre Dame: Defend Religious Freedom

In the wake of Notre Dame's announcement that it would comply with the HHS mandate, the pontiff calls for "unambiguous testimony" to "Catholic identity."

We read a lot about how Pope FRancis wants to back off from hot-buttom topics like abortionand religouis freedom. But you wouldn't guess that from the pope's remarks during a Jan.30 meeting with the University of Notre Dame's president and members of the board of trustees.

The meeting took place about a month after the university drew unwelcome headlines when it announced it would comply with the HHS contracepiton mandate, after a court denied its petition to secure an 11th hour reprieve. Guess the news reached the Vatican, because the pope used the occasion to offer  pointed remarks about the need for Catholic universities to defend religious freedom and to embrace, rather than retreat, from from their religious mission.

 The pope called for Catholic institions like Notre Dame to embrace an ethos of "missionary discipleship." Rocco Palma posted the full text here.

Essential in this regard 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.

Francis also urged Notre Dame to resist efforts to undermine the university's witness to the faith. 

It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it! 

And from what "quarter" would the threat to Notre Dame arise? After the papal meeting, Gerard Bradley, a professor of law at Notre Dame, offered this explanation:

One such “quarter” is surely the Obama administration, which has required the university to trigger free distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients to all Notre Dame women (employees, spouses, dependents) of reproductive age. Notre Dame continues to seek judicial relief from this requirement, but has chosen to comply with it in the meantime.

Bradley also questioned how, precisely, Notre Dame will comply with the HHS mandate, and, at the same time, still adhere to the pontiff's counsel.

The mandated  “preventive services” (as the University’s own HR department describes them) are being delivered to those who ask for them by a Saint Louis-based pharmaceutical  giant called “Express Scripts.”  This mega-firm’s relationship to Notre Dame and/or to its third-party provider (Meritain) is not yet apparent.  Nor is the funding source behind these mandated free “services” apparent from the federal regulations, which assert that the objecting religious employer is not to be that source without making clear who is. 

Meanwhile, Notre Dame's lawyers returned to court earlier this week to refile a petition for a temporary injunction, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to grant relief to the LIttle Sisters of the Poor, who have refused to comply with the HHS contraception mandate.

UPDATE: The Cardinal Newman Society in its report on the meeting between Francis and Notre Dame's leadership,noted that the U.S. bishops have called for prayer during Catholic Schools Week, and specifically cited the pontiff's remarks.