The University of Notre Shame

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November 10, 2017
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November 10, 2017

By John Zmirak, a Senior Editor of The Stream, Nov. 10, 2017

John Zmirak

Notre Dame University in Indiana has long been one of the flagships of Catholic education in America. But that school just made a shameful, scandalous, but most of all ludicrous decision. The issue? Contraceptive coverage for employees of the school.

The Catholic Church teaches that we can know by reason alone that contraception is evil. It also points to a long, unanimous and ecumenical consensus on the issue. Right up through the early 20th century. If you believe that teaching, you think that buying someone else contraceptives is wrong.

Standing Up to Uncle Sam

In light of that teaching, Notre Dame had joined a high-profile lawsuit against the U.S. government. The goal? To avoid the Obamacare mandate that it pay for employees’ contraceptives. The Trump administration has suspended that mandate. Religious orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor had already won exemptions.

Now the point was made. So the University has decided to go ahead and pay for employee contraception anyway. Why? Supposedly because its insurer said so.

As the National Catholic Register noted:

Just over a week ago, the university notified its employees that the cost-free coverage, which was initially introduced through the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, would end Jan.1. But Nov. 7, the university said it would provide the coverage.

“Notre Dame, as a Catholic institution, follows Catholic teaching about the use of contraceptives and engaged in the recent lawsuit to protect its freedom to act in accord with its principles,” the university informed its employees in a Nov. 7 email.

“Recognizing, however, the plurality of religious and other convictions among its employees, it will not interfere with the provision of contraceptives that will be administered and funded independently of the university.”

In an email message responding to the Register’s request for further clarification, Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s vice president of public affairs and communications, explained that the university changed its policy after it received updated information from Meritain Health/OptumRx, the insurance provider that manages health benefits for Notre Dame’s employees.

Do we really believe that a school with the financial heft of Notre Dame can’t find another insurer? There are even religiously-based “health share” companies. Believers founded them to protect their 1st Amendment right not to act against their conscience, especially on abortion. Such companies would get a much-needed boost for their worthy missions if large customers such as Notre Dame contracted with them. They certainly deserve the help. They have every right to expect it. Progressive, leftist and gay organizations make sure to support the companies that adopt their favored policies. But Catholics? Nah, that’s too much to ask.

Cowering Before an Insurance Company

Notre Dame has decided to twist itself into a contortionist yoga pose. It affirms the (official, if unpopular) Church teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil. From that, what logically follows? That it’s wrong for the university to choose an insurance company that funds contraception. Especially when there are alternatives. Think something is evil in itself? Then you think that it’s bad for anyone. Even if he doesn’t know it. To help someone do what you know is wrong is wrong. It’s bad for his soul, whether he knows it or not. But since you know better, it is deadly for yours.

When the U.S. government demanded this course of action, Notre Dame said no. Now a measly private contractor issues a memo and the university backs down. Imagine a pagan emperor demanding that Christians worship him. Then he relents. But the Christians instead kneel down to worship … an insurance broker.

The Innocence of Serpents, the Wisdom of Doves

There are only two logical possibilities here.

The first is this: Notre Dame believes that if there is one level of remove between it and an evil action, its hands are clean. Let’s test that out. Notre Dame rightly would not practice racial discrimination. Would it choose a contractor that did? Even if the school could avoid any legal liability? Of course not.

The second is: Notre Dame does not in fact consider the Church’s teaching on contraception true and binding on Catholics. For instance, its administrators. It won’t come out and say that. That would be yet another black eye for its Catholic “identity.” And that appeals to donors, parents and students. But it’s just for public consumption. Red meat for the rubes.

The school’s choice to wink at its founding Church’s teaching is already winning it praise. The Los Angeles Times just lauded it for “re-entering the 21st century.”

Hiring Old Podesta Pals

None of this should surprise us. As Catholic educational watchdog group the Cardinal Newman Society reported just this summer:

The University of Notre Dame has named Denis McDonough, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, as an executive fellow of the Global Policy Initiative in the university’s new Keough School of Global Affairs where he will teach graduate students, The South Bend Tribune reports.

McDonough has called Obama “our most Catholic of presidents,” despite his strident support of abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, the HHS contraception mandate, and transgender policies.

Before becoming chief of staff, McDonough was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, John Podesta’s infamous leftist lobbying group that was exposed in leaked emails to be attempting to undermine the Catholic Church.

McDonough once wrote a piece arguing against excommunication for pro-abortion politicians, and in another one, he argued that Catholic bishops should not support criminalizing abortion.


Can we imagine Notre Dame hiring, say, Steve Bannon? Perhaps to teach about immigration policy? On that topic, Bannon is actually in line with the official teachings of the Catholic church.

Remember when Notre Dame honored rabidly pro-abortion President Barack Obama? Notre Dame is still straddling the fence between heaven and hell. It wants the lingering prestige that comes with the Catholic academic heritage. It just doesn’t want the pesky moral reasoning that’s central to it. Apparently, Catholicism for Notre Dame is now mostly a branding opportunity.


John Zmirak is a Senior Editor of The Stream, and author of the new Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. His focus was the English Renaissance, and the novels of Walker Percy. He taught composition at LSU and screenwriting at Tulane University, and has written screenplays for and with director Ronald Maxwell (Gods & Generals and Gettysburg). He was elected alternate delegate to the 1996 Republican Convention, representing Pat Buchanan.

He has been Press Secretary to pro-life Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, and a reporter and editor at Success magazine and Investor’s Business Daily, among other publications. His essays, poems, and other works have appeared in First Things, The Weekly Standard, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, FrontPage Magazine, The American Conservative, The South Carolina Review, Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, Commonweal, and The National Catholic Register, among other venues. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. From 2000-2004 he served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. During 2012 he was editor of Crisis.

He is author, co-author, or editor of eleven books, including Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, The Grand Inquisitor (graphic novel) and The Race to Save Our Century. He was editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to higher education, Choosing the Right College and, for ten years, and is also editor of Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind.