The recent student body elections provided a predictable occasion for a great deal of student grumbling about the poor “gender relations” at Notre Dame.
References to such problems often take the form of diatribes against one or more of the various institutional components of the status quo: parietals, same-sex dormitories, Catholic “moralism,” or something similar.
Very often, such complaints come from the mouths of students who discern structural impediments to the realization or actualization of healthy “gender relations.” These structures, they say, are the “direct cause” of poor “gender relations.”
By contrast, every student whom I know who is very satisfied with his “gender relations” at Notre Dame says (or doesn’t say) two things. First, these students never speak of “gender relations” at all. Second, none of them thinks of any aforementioned component of the status quo as relational inhibitors. Instead, they understand them as reflections of (if not facilitators of) the norms, goods, virtues and actions that constitute healthy relationships.
(Of course, the number of students whom I know is very limited; I am not making claims that depend in any way on unanimity of opinion. Rather, I am illustrating a real contrast between perspectives.)
Most of my friends are very satisfied with their relationships, which they root in reference to their own relationship with God. They focus on particular persons in their lives, and strive to build their relationships on firm ground, not the sand of raucous weekend activity. Rather than fretting about abstract “gender relations,” they focus on fashioning themselves into the sort of person they wish to befriend, or to date, and then seek out like-minded persons in places where they are to be found, realizing that healthy relationships are the product of sacrifice and a shared commitment to self- and other-cultivation.
But if for the moment we accept abstraction, what makes for “healthy” “gender relations?” What relational norms guide and facilitate the realization of whatever goods the individuals in relationship come together to realize jointly? What is the nature of those goods? What virtues of character does one need to positively realize those goods, given the guidance and facilitation provided by those norms? And what activities foster the formation of those virtuous habits?
Are these questions that students reflect upon seriously?
Fortunately, those who decry “gender relations” at Notre Dame suggest rather directly what their vision of “healthy” “gender relations” is. A reliable representation of this vision can be found in Stephen Hawn’s Feb. 5 Observer Letter to the Editor, “Is that a girl?” There, Hawn—a junior—writes,
“She asked me what I considered to be controversial, so I named the obvious topics: same-sex dorms, parietals, lack of condom distribution on campus, the quota that 50 percent of our faculty must be Catholic. She replied by saying that the administration would never change…
“You might have guessed I think Notre Dame is on the wrong side of every controversial issue I named above. I think it is exceedingly clear that the segregation of the sexes here at Notre Dame is the direct cause of its abysmal gender relations. Interactions with the opposite gender are largely restricted to classes and weekend nights.
“But per usual, a rigid interpretation of the antiquated social teachings of the Catholic Church is more important than the welfare of the student body.”
Echoes of Hawn’s final sentence are heard in Gary Caruso’s latest Observer Viewpoint, dated February 14, called “Rushing into romance.” There, Caruso writes:
“At campuses like Oral Roberts, Liberty University and Notre Dame where moralistic dogma permeates the lifeblood of the institution and hangs like a raincloud over the student body…”
Hawn’s and Caruso’s argument, like the broader narrative it parrots, is regrettably unreflective; regrettable in part (but only in part) because it is thrust upon incoming students, who inherit a web of dogmatic beliefs that are remarkably self-fulfilling. What I mean is this: Any student who comes to hold these views is very likely to have “abysmal” “gender relations,” for the reason that any student who locates the “direct cause” of his “gender relations”—for ill or for good—outside of his own character, and who fails to reflect seriously on the questions mentioned above, is sure to miss the real source of whatever legitimate relational difficulties he encounters at Notre Dame.
At the heart of argumentative conclusions like Hawn’s and Caruso’s—that Notre Dame hinders and hurts “gender relations” through its ‘Catholic rules’—is one metaphysical premise and one normative premise, an “is” and an “ought.”
The “is” premise is that no non-subjective substantive norms guide and inform relationships: only procedural ones do.
By substantive norms I mean those standards that comprise the goods in which healthy relationships consist. As Carson Holloway wrote in his January 31 Public Discourse essay, “Liberalism’s Biggest Lie,” the substantive norms of sexual relationships are marriage and procreation. Substantive norms of friendship include intellectual and spiritual unity in pursuit of and participation in various goods.
By procedural norms I mean those standard understandings according to which relationships “proceed” in a contractual manner.
So, relationships (of all stripes, but especially those that are sexual in kind) are sufficiently “healthy” when the parties involved give and obtain consent to relate according to a shared understanding of what they hope to achieve. The Observer editorial staff expressed this sentiment succinctly when it wrote in its September 26, 2013 Viewpoint, “Changing sexual assault culture,” that “you deserve someone who fully consents to be with you, and they deserve to be asked for consent.” “Be with” in this context can only mean one thing, and so can the sentence itself: Consent is all that matters when it comes to sexual expression. (One immediately notices that reflexive sexual expression automatically qualifies as non-objectionable by this standard.)
The “ought” premise is that Notre Dame ought to enforce a culture in which procedural norms are respected, but non-subjective substantive norms—and whatever penal or structural expressions those norms take on in within an institution—are abandoned or downplayed.
The conclusion that Hawn and Caruso, who represent a non-negligible perspective, draw is that Notre Dame is responsible for “abysmal” “gender relations” here, rather than those selfsame students whose perspective on relationship is no more robust than a need for mutual agreement about what is desirable.
The dissatisfaction with “the way Notre Dame is” is nothing other than an extension and externalization of those individuals’ rejection of non-subjective substantive relational norms. As such, these students locate the problems with “gender relations” out there: somewhere beyond themselves. In doing so they ensure that they spend less time cultivating the sorts of virtues that make for healthy relationships—“self-control, respect, maturity,” as my little brother use to scold me when I would tease him too much—and more time persisting in whatever habits and activities are detrimental to the formation of character.
The solution to Notre Dame’s “gender problems” is a recovery of non-subjective substantive relational norms, which frame and facilitate the pursuit of shared goods, in which persons participate by means of virtuous habits, which are fostered by and through meaningful activities. More robust condom distribution on campus won’t quite do the trick, nor will being able to spend the hours between 2 and 7 a.m. in somebody else’s dorm room, nor will sharing a bathroom or study lounge with a member of the opposite sex.
Hawn writes that “interactions with the opposite gender are largely restricted to classes and weekend nights.” One can see how Hawn is dissatisfied, if this is his experience at Notre Dame.
What one cannot understand is how a student’s failure to participate in social activities apart from parties (for this is surely what “weekend nights” means here, given Hawn’s earlier statement that he felt “surprise” at “actually hearing a girl’s voice in the hall when it’s not after 10 p.m. on a weekend night,”) can be pinned on Notre Dame rather than to the individual.
More likely, the plethora of opportunities that offer students occasions on which to come together in environments that are conducive to the establishment of relational roots that last—meaningful conversations, stimulating lectures, intellectually-oriented conferences, liturgical events, and so forth—are being ignored by those who need them most. Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar observation during his keynote lecture at the ninth annual Edith Stein Project, which far too few Notre Dame students attended, two weekends ago.
Thus, the dissatisfied are left only to complain about structures, rules and penal codes. This is only a kicking of the can: There will always be something else, something “out there,” that fails to please, that sullies one’s plans.
GK Chesterton was once asked what was wrong with the world. He is said to have responded quickly and simply, “Dear sir, I am.”
Those students who find themselves dissatisfied with “gender relations” at Notre Dame would do well to take note.