A decades’ long struggle: Catholic identity and the University of Notre Dame…


One of the first, unspoken rules of assuming the presidency of an institution of higher education is “Remake the board in your image.”

That rule contains a lot of wisdom. The president may have only had a slim majority to be elected. And, as the stormy petrels will surely be stirring up all sorts of challenges to one’s leadership from all sides, to garner a significant base of support and win re-election, the challenge confronting any first-term president is to ensure that trustworthy and erstwhile allies are appointed to seats on the board. That requires working very closely with the board’s membership committee and selecting candidates who share the president’s vision of what it means to be a university and here, a Catholic university.

In that regard, the President of the University of Notre Dame (UND), the Reverend John Jenkins, CSC, has done extremely well. Recently re-electing him to UND’s presidency, UND’s Board praised Fr. Jenkins’ “unfailing commitment to the University’s Catholic character.”

Juxtapose that effusive praise to a recently-published opinion piece concerning the morality of UND’s conduct under Fr. Jenkins’ leadership in extending spousal benefits to those recognized as married by civil law (e.g., health insurance and student housing to same-sex employees and students).

The authors of that opinion piece—Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law; John Finnis, Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy Emeritus in the University of Oxford and Professor of Law at UND; and, Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies and Director of UND’s Center for Civil and Human Rights—concluded that the extension of those benefits by an institution like UND is “morally indefensible” and will have “far-reaching and very damaging” consequences.

How so? Citing the Catholic moral principle concerning cooperation with evil, they state:

Where homosexual unions have been legally recognized, one must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation.


The benefits extension undeniably has the direct effect of encouraging same-sex couples to make or persist in an immoral commitment. It constitutes an endorsement of this commitment, promotes it with direct benefits, and cooperates in it in a way that, on widely used theological conceptions, constitutes formal cooperation with wrongdoing.

Since UND is not compelled by law to implement this policy, the authors observe that doing so constitutes “a morally corrupting scandal, needlessly given,” to persons tempted to enter into, or already in, a same-sex “marriage,” as well as to all others, who “can readily infer that the university actually does not regard any kind of sex acts between adults as grave matter.”

Their conclusion? UND’s policy “imperils the souls and the earthly fulfillment of those whom it has undertaken to support in a Christian life.”

In light of this policy, UND’s Board of Trustees’ ringing endorsement of Fr. Jenkins’ leadership provides an object lesson in what is mortally wrong with much of U.S. Catholic higher education today. Many, if not most of those who hold in “sacred trust” the institutional mission—the members of the board of trustees—apparently are not adequately prepared for the trust which they hold, as this evidences itself in the continuous, creeping secularization of the nation’s institutions of Catholic higher education since the 1960s and 1970s when most of those institutions were turned over to lay boards.

It was the presidents of those institutions who successfully built their boards of trustees in their image and likeness. This is how U.S. Catholic higher education came to the precarious state in which it finds itself today where its universities and colleges implement policies that might be acceptable in secular institutions, but not Catholic institutions.

All of this was quite conscious and deliberate, as those presidents sought to have their institutions emulate their secular peers while retaining a patina of Catholic to please the folks and donors that they’re still Catholic institutions of higher education.

And so it is today at UND. As the authors of that opinion piece note:

[Implementing this policy] violates the institution’s duty of love for same-sex couples, who will inevitably be confirmed and encouraged to continue in their wrongful commitment; it also violates the University’s duty of love for everyone in the campus community, many of whom will be misled about the meaning of marriage and the truth about sexual morality, as well as about how a Christian community rightly responds in love to persons living out a public commitment to an immoral relationship.

If that’s not enough, by “build[ing] into the bricks a norm that leads members of the community directly away from a life lived in friendship with Christ,” UND creates a “structure of sin” that “will be difficult to contain.” How so? It will be increasingly difficult to bar from academic administration those who live openly in immoral relationships.

Does this not present a proximate threat not only to the institution’s Catholic identity but also to the freedom in a Catholic university or college to uphold Catholic teaching?

Nearly two decades ago, a UND professor of history, George M. Marsden, narrated the same story as it pertained to Protestant higher education in the United States. Marsden wrote:

In the context of all these forces, we can understand the residual formal role left for religion in universities. Clearly, despite the presence of many religion departments and a few university divinity schools, religion has moved from near the center a century or so ago to far on the incidental periphery. Aside from voluntary student religious groups, religion in most universities is about as important as the baseball team. Not only has religion become peripheral, there is a definite bias against any perceptible religiously informed perspectives getting a hearing in university classrooms. Despite the claims of contemporary universities to stand above all for openness, tolerance, academic freedom, and equal rights, viewpoints based on discernibly religious concepts (for instance, that there is a created moral order or that divine truths might be revealed in a sacred Scripture), are often informally or explicitly excluded from classrooms.




To read the UND’s Board of Trustees’ letter, click on the following link:

To read the opinion piece concerning UND’s policy, click on the following link:

To read Marsden’s article, click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, Omnibus, click on the following link:


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  1. “….retaining a patina of Catholic to please the folks and donors..”

    Excellent post. The facade is not the foundation! Religious and Higher Education are found together in few institutions. God bless those universities.

  2. If Fr. Jenkins has been remaking the board in his own image, then it’s
    disheartening to reflect on the fact that in 2011, one trustee was forced
    to resign when it became public knowledge that she was a longtime, vocal,
    substantial contributor to the pro-abortion group Emily’s List. Last year,
    another trustee came under fire when it came out that she’d authored
    an editorial piece supporting “reproductive justice” and castigating the
    US bishops for opposing the HHS mandate.

  3. Clinton,
    Surely you must be savvy enough to understand the strategy and face-saving behind those.

    In his half-hearted support (at least to those of us on the outside it looked this way) for the lawsuit re the mandate, he would have looked foolish to the court (already looked foolish enough with the tardiness of the filing, and prior offering of coverage for abortifacients to employees and students?) and it would have added fuel to the fire on both the already weak attempt to fight the mandate, and, perhaps more importantly, since it gave the appearance that these persons were openly and notoriously advocating abortion, and one funding an abortion group, even donors on the fence or ambiguous to the abortion issue, not just the ‘right wingers’ would find this off-putting and would likely reduce, or decline to, donate at all.

    And besides, they were both women–easily dismissed by the men behind the throne that only play women. And the ‘progressive’ women that ally with them are usually all too willing to go along with whatever the rulers want (cognizant of this or not) as they live to be seen as “running with the big boys” and fail to see the pathetic truth that they are being played to make a group appear more gender-balanced.

  4. Excellent article! It is fitting to write such a piece and post it the day of, or before, the death of Fr. Hessburg. The decline of ND was helped in a big way when Hessburg invited pro-contraception interests to ND which culminated in the “Land of Lakes” statement. Face it, this is a very costly University and it has one of the biggest endowments on the planet and they get government money. That is contradiction enough. The catholics in the US still focus on the football team while the students undergo social engineering. This place was subverted about five decades ago.

  5. You mispell University of Notre Dame and these “Catholic Institutions;” the correct spellings, which provide insight into what they have become, are: Univer$ity of Notre Dame and Catholic In$tituion$. Guy McClung, San Antonio

  6. “And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.” Matthew 7:26

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