Ever since the University of Notre Dame announced that it would no longer cover contraception in its health insurance plan, there has been a deluge of outrage, protest, and debate across campus and various media outlets. For me, the experience has been somewhat disheartening; birth control has always been at the forefront of the platform for women’s “reproductive rights,” but to witness it being called for at a Catholic university—and sometimes in the name of Catholicism—especially pains me.
For a Catholic institution, there should be no question about this matter, as the Catholic Church has long taught that contraception violates the Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage. Knowing this, I welcomed Notre Dame’s initial decision, and I find the recent announcement that employee insurance will continue to cover abortifacients and contraceptives utterly disappointing.
Observing the majority response has also been enlightening for me; I have seen more clearly why some of my peers and educators, especially my fellow women, interpret the university’s decision as discriminatory and degrading. I have listened to their arguments with care, and I wish to acknowledge their sincere motivations and sentiments as I respond.
One overwhelming sentiment I have encountered is that birth control constitutes an essential element of acceptable health care. In a recent article in Motto, two Notre Dame seniors draw upon this claim for their argument. “When we decided to enroll at Notre Dame almost four years ago,” they write, “we didn’t realize that we were relinquishing our right to basic healthcare.” It is absolutely true that every student, every person, deserves access to “basic” health care. The conflict only arises in defining what “basic” entails.
The culture, institutions, and sometimes political platforms that permeate our society often associate health care rights or women’s rights with contraception. It is described as “preventative care” and therefore a necessary asset for supporting overall health.
Despite the popularity of this description, it need not be and is not the only one. Pregnancy, the object of birth control’s ostensible “preventative care,” is not a disease to be prevented. Rather, it necessarily stems from the sexual act that expresses complete love between a man and a woman in marriage. Contraception breaks the link between sex and family, thereby obstructing the full purpose of human sexuality and marital love. There are other, healthy ways to avoid unplanned pregnancy without breaking that special link.
The Church proclaimed this perspective in response to the Pill with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Although addressing a new circumstance, this document unveiled nothing new about fundamental Church teaching. As the section on the sixth commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, Pope Paul’s statement draws from the same, consistent tradition of an anthropology based on natural law that the Church has embraced since its beginning.
To claim that birth control is necessary basic health care is to neglect another, reasonable perspective about human health and relationship that has shaped an ancient tradition and built loving families for centuries. The argument essentially leads to the claim that the popular view of health care should come before religion. And that creates problems under our constitution.
A counter-argument might persist, “The Church believes that, but others don’t. Why should they have to follow what it teaches?” True, not everyone at Notre Dame is Catholic. We are a diverse community with different beliefs and values. Shouldn’t that mean that we can all make the medical decisions we want to?
Last month, All Our Lives, a non-profit organization that defends birth control as a right, voiced this objection in a series of tweets in response to Notre Dame’s decision. One of the tweets reads, “Does it seem appropriate to literally have priests go over medical records to approve prescriptions?” It might seem like the Church hierarchy is imposing medical decisions on others, especially women, but the foundation for the Catholic teaching and the university’s policy comes from a commitment to principle, not a manipulation of action. In other words, a genuinely Catholic Church, institution, and individual must embrace and uphold the values of the faith even if they contradict the values of others. This does not mean that we break ties with those with whom we disagree. It does mean that we cannot assist or support in any way—monetarily or otherwise—actions that contradict Catholic values.
Everyone is free to believe what they like about sexuality and contraception. But joining a Catholic university—and especially accepting the insurance it offers—necessarily calls for recognizing and respecting the university’s efforts to preserve its Catholic identity. In other words, we cannot make Notre Dame follow non-Catholic standards just because not everyone here is Catholic or agrees with Catholic values. In fact, to do so would be to infringe upon Notre Dame’s right to freely uphold the faith upon which it was founded.
The authors of the Motto article claim, “Notre Dame’s interpretation of the Catholic faith fails to uphold the principles of Catholic Social Thought, which emphasizes that ‘we are all part of one human family—whatever our national, racial, religious, economic or ideological differences.’” Unfortunately, this claim misconstrues what Catholic social teaching means in its entirety.
The Catholic Church welcomes all people, and that welcome never compromises the core identity of the Church herself. On the contrary, the Church welcomes all in order to lead them closer to the truth through love. The Catechism emphasizes how the transmission of the faith lies at the heart of the Church’s mission. Pope Francis has stressed that a genuine life of faith “leads to frankness, to giving witness to the point of martyrdom; it is against compromises or the idealization of faith.” Anything else would present a false image of what being Catholic means.
I understand that not covering contraception in the university insurance plan would inconvenience many people who want contraception, especially if the university’s plan is their most feasible option. Alternative decisions might be difficult, but at the end of the day no one is actually forced to take the university’s plan. It is a hard truth, but Notre Dame cannot support contraception, however popular it may be.
What Notre Dame can do more is offer the faculty and student body information about health care and lifestyles that are effective and also conform to Catholic teaching, such as Natural Family Planning. Everyone is free to accept or reject the offer to lead a life toward full beatitude and happiness, as the Church teaches, but Notre Dame must be free to keep the light upon that path of life bright and clear.
Sophie Buono is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies with an Education, Schooling, and Society minor. She is the Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the Rover. Some say she’s good, but here at the Rover, we say she’s buono. Let her know you agree at firstname.lastname@example.org.