Investigating the university’s approach to sexual conduct

The University of Notre Dame’s policy on sex is summarized succinctly in Du Lac, Notre Dame’s guide to student life and standards of conduct: “The University embraces the Catholic Church’s teaching that a genuine and complete expression of love through sex requires a commitment to a total living and sharing together of two persons in marriage. Consequently, students who engage in sexual union outside of marriage may be subject to referral to the University Conduct Process.” 

Notre Dame purports to be a leader in forming its students in the Catholic intellectual tradition. The first of its five institutional goals is to “ensure that our Catholic character informs all our endeavors,” its mission statement includes a dedication “to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” The Rover talked to students outside of LaFortune Student Center to get a clearer picture of how well the Catholic sexual ethic is taught to the student body. 

Many students expressed confusion when reading the policy: “It just happens so often that I’m kind of surprised,” one senior said, attributing his lack of awareness to the fact that the policy isn’t enforced. “I think back to my freshman year, and my roommate and his girlfriend would sleep together 2–3 times a week,” he recalled. Other students conveyed discontent with the policy, “even idealistically it’s not something that should be enforced by an institution. Not all that is immoral ought to be treated as if it were illegal,” said a sophomore from Siegfried. 

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s really stopping anything … the fact that we have [the policy] does not say that it’s not going to happen, it just says that people are going to be more secretive about it. And unfortunately with the university taking this stance, there are less ‘safe sex’ options,” argued a freshman. 

A junior from O’Neill who “personally [is] not a religious person at all” but “likes how chill Notre Dame is about people not being Catholic” had heard about the “sex policy” before speaking with me. He called the policy “meaningless,” and merely an attempt by the administration to show its “target audience” that they are “good Catholic people.” 

Many students “assumed” there was a rule such as this, but they had no idea the University provided free STD and pregnancy testing, mandated by Title IX laws, or provided support to pregnant and parenting students. Likewise, they failed to recognize any instance in which Notre Dame supported its policy through instruction on the Catholic understanding of sex and procreation. 

In an interview with the Rover, Dr. Abigail Favale, expert on the Catholic perspective of women and gender and recent hire at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, said, “Students at a Catholic institution should be exposed to the ‘why’ of Catholic sexual teaching—not so they can be indoctrinated, but so they can encounter a different way of seeing sexuality and the human person than what is offered in the broader culture. Most people assume they know what the Church teaches, but I’m guessing few know why she teaches it.”

While most students strongly disagreed with punishing those who are having sex on campus, a majority supported implementing at least some part of the Church’s teaching into the curriculum to instruct students on why Notre Dame has such a rule. Many were confused why Notre Dame has a policy that isn’t backed up with any positive action from the university. 

Junior Dane Sherman observed: “I think there is something fundamentally broken with how young people are sexually relating with one another right now … A lot of young folks are having sex to feel connected to others and to try to form intimacy, but a lot of times that isn’t the something that is satisfying that deep hunger for intimacy.” 

Senior Emily Major spoke similarly: “There are plenty of people on campus who are Catholic and still have sex. I think the problem that we’re facing here on campus … [is] a lack of understanding of what sex really is.”

Currently enrolled in Professor Tim O’Malley’s Nuptial Mystery theology course, Major recalled their discussions: “Consent isn’t enough. If you are going to engage in the sexual act, something so intimate, then a recognition and honoring of the whole person is required, not just a distillation of the person to a sexual being.” 

Professor O’Malley’s syllabus covers topics which he believes “most address [the students’] existence.” Asking questions like: “What is the nuptial bond? What is consent? How does the mundane quality of family life sanctify the cosmos?” O’Malley sets students, “who accept and those who vehemently reject ecclesial teaching” into dialogue with one another. 

Another freshman currently enrolled in the Moreau First Year Experience noted that the university’s only official discussion of the topic, which occurs in this class, focuses exclusively on consent. “It’s the lowest bar that people should be able to reach … it’s not enough,” he said. 

O’Malley told the Rover, “Consent unto itself is insufficient. It’s a legal term. There has to be a positive proposal about the nature of human relationships. As a Catholic university, we can admit that we are created in the image and likeness of God … At Notre Dame, we can propose a way of communion relative to human sexuality that is distinct from our peer institutions.”

As one student said, “it’s the university’s duty to educate people on the fullness of what she teaches. The university’s whole aim is the formation of its students—not just their minds, but also their hearts—in the Catholic tradition. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Catholic tradition—that we have this full picture of what it is to be human, what it is to be a sexual being.”

Catholic theology offers a rationale for its rules and doctrine, a rationale according to Favale, that is “profoundly beautiful and affirming” of the dignity of our personhood. As pointed out by some of the most prominent names at Notre Dame, without challenging hook-up culture, without instruction on the profound beauty of marriage, and without a deeper understanding of the nature of sexual relations, students are unaware of the ‘why’ behind the rules and policies. The common good promoted by the university fails to be practiced. 

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death” (¶2361).

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity requires adherence to these words of the Catechism—both in policy and in the formation of hearts and minds on campus. As students and faculty revealed, reforming sexual education at a Catholic university does not require embracing modern sexual practices, but rather, cultivating an understanding among its students of the truth behind Catholic teaching, the dignity of the whole human person, and what it means to truly love another human being.

Merlot Fogarty is a junior studying theology, political science, and constitutional studies. If you are interested in Catholic sexual ethics, contact her via; she’d love a chance to chat about JPII’s hot takes.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons