Madeline Gillen, Campus Editor
Since 2009, freshman women entering Notre Dame have received a copy of Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-Five Years of Notre Dame Coeducation, a tribute to Father Hesburgh’s decision to open our university to women. This compilation of letters powerfully communicates the extent to which Notre Dame has been transformed by its women as they have lived, studied and worked at Our Lady’s University.
The university has done a great disservice to its women, however, by failing to make them a priority since the 2012 Health and Human Services Mandate and subsequent accommodations.
The mandate forces employers to provide (or at least to facilitate provision of) contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization services to its employees. Though the efforts of some professors, groups and events at Notre Dame to explain the ways in which the mandate violates the First Amendment and to discuss Notre Dame’s legal action against the mandate are commendable, the administration has not participated in this process. More troubling, however, is the fact that the administration has not taken steps to get to the heart of the matter. Noticeably lacking in a Notre Dame undergraduate education—the education of the mind and the heart—is any introduction or exposure to the beauty of the Church’s teachings on sexuality that are the objects of the conflict over the mandate.
Notre Dame’s failure to educate its students about the Church’s sexual teachings is a failure that most affects its women. Most Notre Dame women remain unaware of the mandate’s relevance to their lives even though it pertains to them especially. Educating Notre Dame women about the Church’s important teachings on sexuality should have been one of the administration’s natural reactions to the mandate.
Coming to Notre Dame, most female students were probably aware that they would not be able to purchase artificial contraception at St. Liam’s. But many of these women were not aware of the Church teachings that are the cause of this conspicuous absence. Many Notre Dame women have never been properly introduced to the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the way in which these teachings provide for a more organic lifestyle. Students should be taught about the medical foundation for the Church’s teachings on contraception, as well as writings that present the Church’s idea of femininity and the unique dignity of women, such as Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women and the writings of Catholic feminist Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross).
There are many ways Notre Dame could better serve its women. First, Notre Dame students deserve faculty and staff who can help them along their journey of holistic development, not just academic development. Notre Dame women deserve role models. In the past, the Irish Rover has reported on Notre Dame professor Dr. Cathleen Kaveny, a member of the Notre Dame Theology Department as well as the Law School, who is listed on the Notre Dame website as an expert in the ethical aspects of assisted suicide, biomedical ethics, cloning, death and dying, the pope and the papacy, but who has spoken out explicitly in opposition to the Church’s teachings on sexuality and life issues. Though her academic expertise is something to which female students should aspire, her deviance from Church teaching undermines her effectiveness as a role model for Catholic women.
Second, the university should purposefully promote groups that model a dynamic orthodoxy and have created effective organizations to answer young people’s questions about sexuality. Programs like Endow deserve an automatic place among the myriad resources at Notre Dame. Also, books like Helen Alvaré’s Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves and My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell have been helpful for women like myself as we work to grow in our understanding of the Church’s teachings. The administration should work to make our students aware of the stories of Catholic women striving to live out the Church’s teachings in both their careers and family life.
Third, Notre Dame women should be introduced to Church teachings as early as freshman orientation. During orientation female students are bombarded with descriptions of Notre Dame male stereotypes, warnings concerning the dangerous parts of campus and anecdotes illustrating the “weird” gender relations at ND that result from single-sex dorms. Lacking from that first weekend’s programming, however, is reference to the fact that as women we have a special place within the Church. The administration considers alcohol consumption important enough that freshman attend informational meetings about state drinking laws. It considers swimming an important enough skill to require a swim test for all students; and if you can’t swim well enough to pass the test, you must take a swimming course. But the Church’s teachings on sexuality, ever relevant in light of the campus hook up culture and misunderstood by so many young Catholics, are not addressed.
Finally, Notre Dame should require a class that includes a section on Catholic sexual ethics. A sexual ethics class could present the Church’s teachings from a theological, philosophical and historical perspective. Such classes could discuss the history of the Church in America—particularly in modern times—and the crisis in catechesis that has affected Catholic students in the past half century. Notre Dame students and faculty have not escaped the effects of this poor catechesis. Many Notre Dame students fall in the category of “cradle” Catholics who know little of the Church’s teachings. Among these cradle Catholics are Notre Dame women who need to be more fully informed about the history of contraception, the feminist movement and the Church’s idea of femininity. Notre Dame women would likely be interested to know that the inventor of the pill and founder of the American Birth Control League (later renamed Planned Parenthood), Margaret Sanger, was a white supremacist and proponent of eugenics, while Blessed Pope John Paul II called himself “the feminist pope.”
According to a 2004 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute, Notre Dame students shift from 22 percent approval of fornication to 36 percent in their four years at ND. A Catholic institution should actively work to keep such numbers from increasing. While attending a Catholic university all Notre Dame students have been required to complete theology and philosophy classes, PE segments and alcohol information sessions, but they have not been properly introduced to the reasoning behind the sexual teachings of the Church. Our university must better educate its students about these truths.
Through the university’s gift of Thanking Fr. Ted, Notre Dame women were reminded of our special place at Notre Dame and in the world. We are a special group of people with great contributions to offer through our love of faith, family, work and service to others. Notre Dame women, whatever their religious or personal convictions, should leave our university having been exposed to and equipped with the beauty of the sexual teachings of the Church in which Notre Dame takes root.
Notre Dame women have now been present at the university for forty years, and the administration should look anew at the attention it gives to its women, the ways in which it honors its women and the ways in which it nourishes its women. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame should celebrate the beauty of women from a Catholic perspective.
Madeline Gillen is a junior history major living in Welsh Family Hall who enjoyed spring break on the beach with her Floridian family. Contact her at email@example.com.