Who is Notre Dame?

More on the Notre Dame lawsuit regarding the federal contraceptive coverage rule from Kathryn Pogin and Bridgette Dunlap at the Huffington Post.

The claim to RFRA’s protections for “persons” would seem to rest on one of two theories: either that the term “person” should be read to include a corporation, or, that the corporation represents as-of-yet unidentified human persons, as when a church sues on behalf of parishioners. Notre Dame’s court submissions exhibit confusion on this point, referring to Notre Dame both as having a “conscience” in the singular (suggesting the former), and as having plural “consciences” (suggesting the latter). . .

Regardless of who the lawsuit envisions as the protected belief-holder(s), we believe the proposition that Notre Dame can hold one unified religious belief is antithetical to the very purpose of a university. Notre Dame’s administration appears to disagree. Should it appeal the dismissal of the lawsuit or refile once the contraceptive coverage rule is finalized, the plaintiff should plead who or what is the person that holds the beliefs alleged. Perhaps more importantly, it should inform the members of the Notre Dame community, and those considering joining it, who can rightly claim “We Are ND.”

13 thoughts on “Who is Notre Dame?

  1. I’m at a Catholic college too, and we have an Issue–though not this particular one. But the problem is always a matter of sucking up to alumni and other donors. Faculty, including clergy (the few we have left) are not opposed to academic freedom, or contraceptives, or whatever. It’s the administrators, in charge of raising funds, that promote these policies because some of the moneybags are conservative Catholics with axes to grind.

    I’m saying this because I want to respond to a common misconception about how most religiously affiliated colleges operate. In house we have complete academic freedom, in both teaching and research. (and I, like most faculty, am not Catholic) It’s all a publicity/fund-raising issue.

  2. Harriet, if you read the full article it notes that many faculty and students disagree with the university’s policies. I think there have been some issues of academic freedom at other religiously-affiliated schools though.

  3. Fair. I just read the article. But didn’t see anything about other religiously-affiliated colleges, and I’m not sure what, if anything, has happened there. There are probably a few religiously-affiliated colleges–like Bob Jones or Oral Roberts “Universities” or whatever where there are constraints on what faculty can publish or teach but that is not the case at the overwhelming majority of religiously-affiliated schools.

    Most of my colleagues are atheists, like most academics. The religious affiliation of my university has absolutely no bearing on the content of any courses–and that, I think, is likely true for most religiously affiliated colleges.

    This of course poses the question of what religious affiliation means. My own take is that it means providing a social environment in which religious belief and practice are socially acceptable. And that is what makes religiously affiliated colleges different from secular universities, where faculty are contemptuous of religion and where there is no support for students who are religious believers.

  4. Yeah, and I don’t want to comment on other universities because I’m not certain I’m remembering the case I was thinking of accurately. I just meant to point out that I don’t think this article is contributing to that misperception you noted is common; rather, the authors were claiming that because of the very religious diversity amongst community members at such universities it raises a question of standing regarding whose belief is being burdened.

  5. Agree: no problem–we have no argument here. I’m not responding to your comments or to the article so much as to the common misperception that religiously-affiliated schools like mine are in the business of inculcating doctrine. We get this from General Public, who assume that Catholic Colleges are in the business of catechism and from job applicants who ask whether, if hired, they can teach anything, without worrying about some special constraints or inquisitions. But, jeez, that is not the way it works! and even leaving aside the issue of religious diversity, those of us who are religious believers do not support bans on contraceptive coverage, and fully support academic freedom.

    BTW, job applicants–a tip: if you’re interviewed at a Catholic college do not ask whether you can “teach anything” or whether there are any constraints on academic freedom. It kinda insults us.

    I repeat though, leaving aside the article–this issue is not religion but sucking up to donors.

  6. Harriet, I know you were expressing your “own take”, but wouldn’t you agree that most Catholic universities cleave to the idea that their Catholic affiliation makes them different from secular institutions in ways that go far beyond providing a supportive social environment for believers? If you’re affiliated with a Catholic institution of higher learning, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, to which the authors of the essay linked in the OP refer approvingly) is probably something you know better than most of us, but I note that it states:

    “Through the encounter which it establishes between the unfathomable richness of the salvific message of the Gospel and the variety and immensity of the fields of knowledge in which that richness is incarnated by it, a Catholic University enables the Church to institute an incomparably fertile dialogue with people of every culture. …

    If it is the responsibility of every University to search for … meaning, a Catholic University is called in a particular way to respond to this need: its Christian inspiration enables it to include the moral, spiritual and religious dimension in its research, and to evaluate the attainments of science and technology in the perspective of the totality of the human person.

    In this context, Catholic Universities are called to a continuous renewal, both as ‘Universities’ and as ‘Catholic’. … Such renewal requires a clear awareness that, by its Catholic character, a University is made more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind.”


  7. Generally, Harriet is quite right, and it’s an important point (I did my undergrad degree at a Catholic college, and absolutely adored the intellectual climate). But it’s also important to note one important exception: in the recent decade or so, the Vatican has cracked down on religious studies departments at Catholic colleges and universities, urging them to be more orthodox in their teachings. It’s not clear to me what effect the crackdown has had — Jesuits, for one, are not known for bowing to pressure for Rome. But it might mean that the question that Harriet finds insulting above may in fact be appropriate if one is seeking a job in the religious studies department.


  8. As a former grad student and current postdoc in Notre Dame’s Philosophy department, and having taught four different classes there (Intro to Philosophy, Intro to Gender Studies, an intro to political philosophy, and a philosophy and food course), I would second pretty much everything Harriet said above. Our Intro to Philosophy courses are supposed to touch on the Catholic intellectual tradition; usually this is done by reading a little Aristotle and textbook philosophy of religion. The local campus of Indiana University has a more demanding syllabus approval process.

    Because it’s a significant front in the Culture Wars for some religious conservatives, there is an influential minority who think Notre Dame has strayed too far from Ex Corde Ecclesia and needs to reclaim its Catholic Identity. This minority did succeed in getting rid of the Queer Film Festival and the Vagina Monologues, and probably influenced the decision to file the suit against HHS. But the impression I have is that this minority recognizes that efforts to change the curriculum would be strongly opposed by the overwhelming majority of the faculty.

  9. Why does Dan’s comment make me want to cite Niemoller? ” First, they came for the trade unionists…”?

  10. The climate at Catholic colleges varies–I can only speak for how things are at my place. “Catholic social teaching” here is interpreted to mean commitment to “values”–social justice concerns and such. As far as Ex Corde Ecclesia, we’ve had seminars on this: the interpretation we were given was that it only applied members of the theology/religious studies dept who taught as “Catholic theologians.” This means that it not only exempts non-Catholics in the theology dept–like our Buddhist nun, Lutheran minister and the many non-believers: it also exempts theologians who happen to be Catholic but are not teaching as “Catholic theologians.”

    We aren’t even advised to touch on the Catholic Intellectual tradition by such things as teaching Aristotle or phil of religion issues in intro philosophy courses. I suspect we’re more secular than ND.

    However, as soon as something that attracts the attention of actual or potential donors the administrators go into spasms of orthodoxy. So the president recently “disinvited” a theologian who was to visit, and all hell broke loose. If you’re interested check out our Trouble in Paradise website at http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/trouble/

  11. Harriet:

    Just curious, but could you teach a book that is violently anti-Christian, for example, Nietzsche’s Antichrist?

  12. It’s an interesting article. I can’t speak to the legal merits, because I don’t know the law well enough to do so. I imagine I’m not the only one. I find the idea that anything other than a human person or a democratic collective of human persons has First Amendment rights to be absurd, though I’m well aware that plenty of legal scholars disagree. So I guess I’m not worried about the former of the two theories.

    Regarding the latter, wouldn’t that interpretation only work for colleges and universities that require a stringent statement of faith to be signed by its faculty and students? You surely can’t run a university that is open to non-Catholics (as Notre Dame certainly is), and then claim that the human persons who make up Notre Dame (because that’s how the theory goes) hold certain beliefs about birth control.

    It seems that the latter theory, as identified by the author, just falls apart without there being a document signed by all faculty and students that identifies them as holding the belief(s) in question.

    A more interesting question would be whether this argument works for colleges and universities that *do* require statements of faith.

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