Michael Bradley, Editor-in-Chief
Last year, English professor John Duffy penned “Virtues of Discourse: The Notre Dame Pledge” in an effort to foster a conversational environment in which what Duffy elsewhere calls “virtues of rhetoric” are paramount and observed.
Posters—created by the Center for Social Concerns and peppered throughout academic and residential buildings alike—featured an image and direct quotation from Father Jenkins, urging students to sign Duffy’s virtual pledge with a view toward banishing demonization, animosity, bad faith and other destructive vices from campus conversations. Father Jenkins himself has authored a forthcoming book on civility within discourse, titled Conviction: The Power and Peril of Our Passionate Beliefs.
Duffy also notes elsewhere that social, moral and political improvement is very often unachievable apart from a foundation of civil discourse and charitable rhetoric. Indeed, some of Notre Dame’s most noteworthy leadership commitments and public moral witnesses are built upon—and in turn consciously encourage—exchange grounded in such ideals. Thus, Notre Dame performs a doubly meritorious service to the Church and to society in pledging itself to civil and virtuous discourse and rhetoric generally, while also being proactive and courageous in speaking out against societal injustices specifically.
Take for example Notre Dame’s defense of innocent human life.
I love hearing lectors at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart offer a prayer, during the Prayer of the Faithful in Mass, especially for the unborn.
I was very happy to see Fr. Jenkins leading the annual Rosary for Life—planned by John Cavadini’s Institute for Church Life—last month during Respect Life Week, which was organized and executed by Notre Dame’s outstanding Right to Life club. That same club also sent more than 600 students to the annual March for Life in Washington, DC last January, commuting on more buses than any other university in the country present at the March.
Last spring, the Rover’s Nick Mahan conducted an extensive review of the university’s embryonic stem-cell research policies, noting that Notre Dame had taken a proactive leadership role in the research community by refusing to conduct research with embryonic stem-cells (a refusal that stands in stark contrast with many of its peer institutions).
In a similarly proactive spirit, Notre Dame announced this August that the university’s admissions policies henceforth will allow for the matriculation of undocumented residents to the university, which has pledged to meet the full financial needs of all its students, including those who are ineligible to receive federal educational funds (such as Pell Grants).
But Notre Dame is utterly silent on an issue that arguably challenges healthcare as the most salient, heated, live socio-political issue of the day: marriage.
Since we last celebrated New Year’s Eve, 6 states in the Union have decided to grant marriage licenses to coupled members of the same sex. New Jersey and Illinois—right next door—are the latest states to join the growing number of political entities that understand the belief that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman to be unjustly discriminatory. Fifteen states, along with the District of Columbia, now grant marriage licenses to members of the same sex; more than one third of Americans live in states in which this is the case.
Much of the rhetoric employed by advocates of same-sex marriage directly contradicts the civil discourse to which Fr. Jenkins, Duffy and many other members of the Notre Dame community are pledged. One high profile same-sex marriage advocate who employs such rhetoric is Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Writing for the majority in Windsor on June 26, Kennedy wrote that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was motivated by its signees’ “bare desire to harm” same sex couples, and their intent to “demean,” “injure” and “humiliate” the children that those couples either adopted or contractually purchased from donors and surrogates.
The nature of this rhetoric—and Kennedy’s words are but a glimpse into this rhetoric—clash tremendously with Duffy’s description of the duty of generosity (which bears resemblance to charity) in his pledge:
“I will listen carefully, thoughtfully, and respectfully to the other side in an argument. I will consider how my own biases may inhibit me from appreciating viewpoints contrary to my own. I will endeavor to ensure that I understand others’ meanings and intentions before I argue against them.”
Indeed, when one comes across articles posted on prominent gay rights websites—as I did last weekend—denouncing Blessed Pope John Paul II as a “homophobe” for teaching that marriage is conjugal, one has clearly departed the realm of generosity and even sanity.
Does Notre Dame realize that its reluctance to speak out in opposition to this sort of demonization, mischaracterization and presumption of ill-will enables this uncharitable rhetoric to increasingly dominate the cultural narratives about the marriage debate, and the Catholic Church’s role in that debate?
It is because Notre Dame is a Catholic university that it has a responsibility to challenge these stereotypes (and should emphasize that the Church’s teaching on marriage is the furthest thing from Kennedy’s description), precisely so that the Church’s voice will be viewed as a meaningful and worthwhile participant in this cultural discussion; will be met with civility and charity, not demonization or dismissal.
Yet the university made no public announcements in response to this summer’s landmark Supreme Court decisions on marriage.
This despite the fact that the university released an unsolicited question and answer video of Fr. Jenkins, along with his public statement, in response to Pope Francis’ controversial September interviews.
To be sure, Notre Dame recognizes that some cultural events and discussions merit public statements and institutional public witness; it is a good bet that if the Court ruled on, say, a hate-speech case, Notre Dame would instantly release a statement on the ruling. Why Our Lady’s university hasn’t seen the marriage debate as one such discussion worth having is inexplicable to me.
But the time to enter into this discussion is right now.
The Indiana State Legislature has already passed once a resolution proposes amending Article 1 of the Indiana Constitution. Should this resolution pass again in early 2014, it will be put to a popular vote next November.
Section 2 of the House Joint Resolution No. 6 suggests amending Article 1, Section 38 of my home state’s Constitution to read as follows:
“Only a marriage between one (1) man and one (1) woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.”
Sounds like a cause that the university could get behind; a cause for which Notre Dame could and should fight; something to show on commercial breaks during home football games.
Alas, Notre Dame has not made a peep about this legislation.
Why not? The university cannot claim in excuse that it doesn’t wish to speak out about “political” matters; it publicly signed its support for the DREAM Act, Fr. Jenkins participated in a celebration and prayer service in the Dillon Hall chapel last spring as part of that endorsement, and no debate is politicized if abortion is not.
Why has the university distanced itself from the marriage debate, of all discussions, even within its own state and its own campus—where addressing arguments against marriage is almost never the formal topic of programming or initiatives or lectures?
Yes, “Beloved Friends and Allies” gives voice to the Church’s teaching on marriage, albeit briefly. But if Notre Dame’s heartfelt conviction is that marriage is foundational for a healthy society, and that the Church’s teachings about marriage are true, then why not repeat it often and proudly, the way Notre Dame unequivocally and very frequently emphasizes its pastoral support for individuals struggling with their sexual identity and inclinations, or its stand against “hate” speech?
Notre Dame’s failure to even attempt to publicly challenge or correct the hateful rhetoric of Kennedy and his like flies in the face of its commitment to civil discourse and the sort of authentic dialogue that only civil discourse makes accessible.
Father Jenkins, administrators of Notre Dame, priests of Holy Cross: Our nation, our Church and our students stand badly in need of Notre Dame’s public leadership, witness, preaching, prayer and catechesis on marriage. Our nation, our Church and our students need more than Notre Dame’s private backing; they need its voice in the public square, combatting the cultural narratives about the irrational, malevolent “bigots” who support traditional marriage.
What is holding you back? What are you waiting for?
Soon enough will be too late. This is not an issue on which the “university where the Church does its thinking” can afford to be silent for much longer.
Michael Bradley is a senior living in Dillon Hall who spends considerably more time on extra-curricular projects than he does on schoolwork…which will very likely prove his ruin come finals week. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.