Identity Crisis at Notre Dame: ‘Irish Rover’ Editor Talks Confusion and Catholicism at University
Notre Dame senior Mary Frances Myler called the Catholic university’s conflicted approach to human sexuality into question, generating conversation on and off campus.
The University of Notre Dame is widely regarded as America’s “flagship” Catholic university, but it has faced increased criticism in recent years for actions that seem to go against its Catholic identity. For instance, in 2016, the university honored pro-abortion then-Vice President Joe Biden with the Laetare Medal, its highest honor for American Catholics. More recently, the school’s June message for “Pride Month” urged students “to explore what it means to be an ally in the effort to achieve equality for all” and provided links to resources from the pro-“LGBT” group the Human Rights Campaign.
Mary Frances Myler, a senior at Notre Dame and editor in chief of the independent, student-run paper The Irish Rover, wrote an editorial on Oct. 13 weighing into Notre Dame’s conflicted behavior, specifically regarding the university’s approach to human sexuality. Proactively titled “No Man Can Serve Two Masters,” Myler’s piece critiqued the university’s pastoral plan for “GLBTQ and Heterosexual Students,” which she said simultaneously speaks of the university’s commitment to both the Church’s teaching that “sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman” but also to “secular standards set by the LGBT movement.” Decisions guided by this pastoral plan, Myler wrote, have included “a picture of the student government executives in front of a pride flag,” the College of Arts and Letters choice to accommodate “students’ preferences for the use of singular ‘they/them’ pronouns in news articles,” and an upcoming Notre Dame Press book “Gay, Catholic, and American written by Greg Bourke, who was a named plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the decision that legalized same-sex unions nationwide.”
Myler’s piece sparked controversy, both on campus and beyond. Her editorial and the courage it took to write it have been publicly lauded by First Things magazine and prominent Catholics like Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari. But much of the reaction has been critical. The Observer, Notre Dame’s administration-sponsored newspaper, wrote a piece earlier this week that simultaneously celebrated “LGBTQ+ History Month” and slammed Myler’s concerns as having “no place on … campus.”
Myler spoke with the Register Wednesday about why she felt it was important to speak out on the topic, some of the reactions she has received, and why it’s important to have a dialogue around these issues.
Why did you decide to write this editorial?
The Irish Rover has a very specific mission, which is to preserve the Catholic identity of the University of Notre Dame. When I was thinking about what I was going to write this editorial about, I was really thinking about what are the topics and the issues that I think are particularly prescient to the conversations about the university’s Catholic character.
I decided to write on the topic of the university’s treatment of LGBT issues because I have found in my time as a student that there’s an incoherence in the way that the university addresses this topic: that, on the one hand, they have a pastoral plan called “Beloved Friends and Allies” — which draws on Church teaching; it draws on USCCB documents [to shape] this authentically Catholic response to the “LGBT” communities on campus — [but] in practice, they also promote aspects of the secular “LGBT” movement in ways that I, as a student, have found confusing. For instance, the different groups on campus will distribute stickers with the gay pride rainbow on them. And, for me, there has always been the question, “What does that mean? What does it mean if there's a sticker that says ‘ally’ on it?”
Are the symbols simply a recognition of the humanity and dignity of all students? Or by promoting these pins and stickers are we additionally pushing the whole social agenda that goes with them in a secular context? It’s the lack of clarity about the meaning of the symbols that is confusing. There is a charitable way to read some nuance into the administration’s actions and try to square them with Catholic teaching, but that’s not the only way to interpret the symbols, and, in fact, it’s not the most obvious interpretation.
Did you anticipate the reactions this story has gotten?
When I wrote this piece, I did anticipate that it would bring about some conversations, more particularly in the circle of friends that I have or people that I know in class or from extracurriculars. I really had no idea that the piece would become this widely read. So a lot of the response has been very unforeseen, but I’m glad that this conversation has been started at Notre Dame, that we can start to look at the ways that the university approaches this topic, particularly in light of Church teaching.
There was some negative reaction from the Notre Dame community in The Observer, while people like conservative commentator Rod Dreher have celebrated your piece. So reactions seem to be mixed. Has that also been the case among your peers?
Yes, I would say that I received mixed feedback. On the one hand, I have received some emails from various members of the Notre Dame community, especially right after the editorial was published, that were filled with ad hominem attacks. Just asking why I would even think that this would be an okay editorial to publish. On the other hand, I’ve received a lot of very supportive emails from people within the Notre Dame community, and even people outside of the Notre Dame community, saying thank you for bringing attention to this topic. I’ve had alumni write in saying, “Thank you, this has been a concern of mine that I haven’t seen the university address satisfactorily.” I have even had some people write in from other Catholic schools, saying, “This is something that I’ve seen on my campus. Thank you for writing about it, because it’s important that Notre Dame has this conversation.”
I would say that some of the most meaningful responses that I have received are from people who I know personally, who have said, “Can we talk about this? I think I disagree with you, but I want to understand your position better. I want to understand why you chose to write this editorial. I want to have a conversation.” And those have been the most meaningful responses because, even if they disagree, they haven’t taken the path of insult, but they have really shown a willingness to talk and to have a conversation.
In your editorial, you referenced internal rebellion from the German bishops regarding same-sex relationships and the Church's response. Could you talk a little bit about the way the Church responded to that and how that might be a clarifying approach on this issue?
The one thing that I really was struck by when I was writing this editorial was part of the “Responsum” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that they released in response to the questions posed by the German bishops, and there's a beautiful passage that I really feel is kind of the anchor of my argument, but also provides, I think, an authentically Catholic response to these questions that are raised by the university’s actions or by different students wondering, “What do we do?”
They wrote: “The Church recalls that God Himself never ceases to bless each of His pilgrim children in this world, because for Him ‘we are more important to God than all of the sins that we can commit.’ But he does not and cannot bless sin: He blesses sinful man, so that he may recognize that he is part of his plan of love and allow himself to be changed by him. He in fact ‘takes us as we are, but never leaves us as we are.’”
What advice would you give to students in situations at schools where it does seem secular beliefs are encroaching on or even replacing the Catholic identity?
My experience really has been limited to Notre Dame, so I can’t speak to other campuses and their situations. But I think that, really, the heart of it all has to be prayer — that there has to be an active sacramental life among the students in order for any progress to be made towards really the full embracing of the Catholic identity. Institutionally, you can talk about faculty and staff and policy, but in terms of student life during the four years that a student is at a university, I think that prayer is really the foundation from which a lot can be built.
The Irish Rover is not Notre Dame’s official student newspaper, but an independent student newspaper. Why do you think the mission of The Irish Rover is so important? And what impact has the Rover been able to have on the Notre Dame campus over the years?
The Irish Rover is important because it’s uniquely situated to be able to draw attention to the various aspects of campus life that directly impact the university’s Catholic identity, whether it is through reporting on events that are harmful to that Catholic identity or reporting on events that are very affirming and helpful to that Catholic identity. Over the years, the Rover has done exactly what this editorial has done; it has ignited these campus conversations and given kind of a different viewpoint than perhaps the other paper on campus would. It has allowed there to really be a true dialogue on issues that can often be contentious, or very tied with people’s emotions or identities. But it allows this dialogue to happen in a fruitful way.