An Open Letter to: June 2, 2014
Rev. John J. Jenkins, CSC, President, University of Notre Dame
Richard Notebaert, Chairman, Board of Trustees
Fellows of the University and Members of the Board of Trustees
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades
The occasion for this letter is provided by the issues surrounding the recent activities of SCOP (Students for Child-Oriented Policy) and attempts to prevent its recognition as a student organization at Notre Dame. I write at a certain distance from the University, and am privy to no deliberations of faculty or administrative committees regarding this organization. I read materials generally available, however, and have many friends at the University. The best that I can glean from informants who have been closer to the decisions than I is that there has been a degree of obfuscation, if not positive misdirection, on the part of the administration concerning the genuine reasons for the University’s refusal to recognize SCOP. This obfuscation, coupled with the recent recognition of a student organization whose reason for existence in some respects counters the orthodox concerns of SCOP, suggests a duplicity that ought not to characterize administrative decisions at Notre Dame.
At the outset I must also say that I write out of concern for and love of the University, with a decent familiarity with its operation, and with admiration for what it has done in many areas for the good of its immediate communities, for a more sane social life in America and elsewhere, for the Church universal, and for the life of the mind and spirit of mankind. For the sake of what I presume to be our common concerns, then, I ask that you pass over lightly whatever passages in this letter might appear to some of you to be presumptuous.
Beyond the immediate occasion, however, my purpose in writing is to suggest a few procedures or principles of appropriate action at the University regarding agitation by partisan ideological groups whose orientation and agendas are tangential at best to the scope and nature of a Catholic university. “Homosexual Rights” organizations would be among such groups. This is by no means to suggest that the University should not appropriately exert its pastoral care for such once-persecuted or neglected minorities. For this suggestion of principles, then, intimate knowledge of administrative politics is less necessary than were I writing only about SCOP and its apparently disingenuous opponents.
If there is such an entity as the Catholic Church, even if it is only a legal fiction, it has an at least semi-definite form or structure, some principles of operation, and a stated purpose. Assuming for the time being that the University has an at least quasi-legal relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, then it would seem incumbent on the University administration to issue with some immediacy an unequivocal statement of support for the Church’s traditional and regularly iterated position on homosexuality and the oxymoronic “homosexual marriage” issue and to instantiate the statement with effectual campus policies. The University will not only lose face if it fails to do so, it will lose its identity and thereby what remains of its credibility.
My basic contention is neither theological nor philosophical nor legal, but brutally pragmatic and political: If there does not issue from the Office of the President an unambiguous statement setting forth and supporting the traditional Catholic teaching on homosexuality, privileging campus organizations that support it and at best tolerating others, then campus life for the foreseeable future will degenerate into the academic equivalent of street-fighting in the Weimar Republic between Brown Shirts and Reds. Whatever might be thought of its antecedent, perhaps the organizational equivalent of Fr. Hesburgh’s “fifteen-minute Rule” should be in place. Thomas Hobbes is supposed to have said that, in politics, when nothing else turns up, clubs are trump. If there is no articulable, enforceable, and enforced set of standards; if there is no hegemonic group in a society, then there is no society, no commonweal, but just a bunch of rag pickers poking at a heap of muck, and fighting over the injustice of the disparate length of the sticks that fortune has allocated each of them.
The issues that are tearing our once-civil society apart—“equal rights,” “gay rights,” family structure, abortion, genetic engineering and other bioethical dilemmas—will not go away. They must be faced, stated as clearly as possible, and movement must be made toward such a resolution as these issues allow. If we equivocate on them for the sake of temporary peace and out of misplaced pastoral concerns, the Gordian Knot they present to our great Alexandrine societies of state and church will not be unraveled thereby; an Alexander—a caudillo of left or right—will come along and, grand simplifier that he or she will be, cut it in pieces.
Anyone seriously concerned with the ramifications of the “gay rights” issue, perhaps particularly administrators at Catholic universities, ought to read Robert R. Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything (Ignatius Press: San Francisco; 2014). Reilly cites the following summary of our present situation from the work of Dr. Abram Kardiner, who is identified as co-founder of the first psychoanalytic training school in the United States and as once Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University:
There is an epidemic form of homosexuality, which is more than the usual incidence, which generally occurs in social crises or in declining cultures when license and boundless permissiveness dulls the pain of ceaseless anxiety, universal hostility and divisiveness. … Supporting the claims of the homosexuals and regarding homosexuality as a normal variant of sexual activity is to deny the social significance of homosexuality. To do this is to give support to the divisive elements in the community. Above all it militates against the family and destroys the function of the latter as the last place in our society where affectivity can still be cultivated. Homosexuals cannot make a society, nor keep ours going for very long. Homosexuality operates against the cohesive elements in society in the name of fictitious freedom. It drives the opposite sex into a similar direction. And no society can long endure when either the child is neglected or when the sexes war upon each other.
In the national imbroglio over the HHS mandate, Notre Dame has been in an exceptionally advantageous position to proclaim the good news it supposedly subscribes to, even though its legal manoeuvers appeared ill-timed and inconsistent. The University might well have turned the national conversation around had it taken a principled position, and stuck to it. It apparently chose not to do so. It is in a similar position regarding Church teaching about homosexuality, homosexual marriage, and how to manage the ideological pressure groups that advocate for such causes on campuses across the country.
I have been on the faculty, and at times have held administrative positions, at two high schools, two colleges, and five universities. As a consequence, I have some idea of the difficulty of squaring the circle of academic politics, and of the onerous burden borne therein by trustees and administrators. One of the dominant lessons that I have learned from this experience, however, is that what matters most, both in the day-to-day life of the institution and in its overall influence on its various constituents, is whether or not there is a firmly articulated and maintained tradition “at home” there. In the absence of such a tradition, talk tends to become bleating and blathering, and action sheer utilitarianism. The Church’s tradition has indeed tried to follow the advice sometimes ascribed to St. Augustine: In essentials, unity; in doubtful issues, liberty; in all things, charity. The Church, and the Catholic university as its academic offspring, however, seems increasingly incapable of distinguishing essentials from doubtful issues. In the absence of that ability we are in the throes of Kafkaesque and Ovidian metamorphoses and all bets are off. Religion comes to be characterized by equivocations about love and fear.
The University’s “trimming” and apparent uncertainty appear to belie its supposed beliefs. What is an “outsider” to make of it all? Does the University exist for other than legal and secular purposes, or is it simply a ménage of warring factions, each contesting the others’ right to speak on behalf of the educational LLC? Are the issues faced by the University so complex that there is simply no comprehending them and one must just act more or less blindly and trust in fate, fortune, or Providence? Or is it the case that belief—in dogma, discipline, indeed in “nature and nature’s law”—has merely deliquesced like fungi, and left a professional caste there to mop up the liquid remains?
With best wishes and prayers for you, yours, and your work, I am
Dr. John Lyon