In February of this year, Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a letter explaining that after years of fighting in court, and even after being granted an exemption by the federal government under the Trump administration, Notre Dame would allow for their health insurance programs to directly cover “simple” and non-abortifacient contraceptives. In this statement, Fr. Jenkins referred to the “conscientious” decisions of Notre Dame’s employees and students who disagree with the Church’s teaching on this matter, explaining that not covering contraceptive would be an unacceptable burden on them.
Within the context of this letter, the “burden” Fr. Jenkins is referring to is primarily financial, as in, the cost of obtaining contraception outside of a health insurance program is financially burdensome, in the view of the University. Implied by Fr. Jenkins’ statement is the belief that the University is at least partly responsible for any financial or physical harm caused by revoking or denying contraceptive benefits. This provides the foundation for its justification.
To exculpate itself from any potential moral harm caused, the University makes two arguments: First, it will provide a statement of the Catholic view on contraceptives with the goal of educating all those receiving benefits under the University’s health plans. Secondly, Fr. Jenkins argues that it is a good to allow Notre Dame’s students and employees to discern in freedom, which in Fr. Jenkins’ view is “a process of weighing thoughtfully considerations for and against various courses of action. Yet it also demands prayerful attention to God’s guidance through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”
Notre Dame’s actions and the statement together, I believe, reflect a sinister form of Gnosticism, related to relativism. Why? I believe that they satisfy the words of Francis when he describes Gnosticism in Gaudete et Exsultate: “[Gnostics] think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions. In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer ‘a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people.’”
Gnosticism – Separating the intellect from the flesh
In simple terms, providing its employees and students a statement on Catholic teaching but at the same time accepting on equal terms both artificial and natural birth control is a form of gnosticism. Gnostics believe that knowledge saves, a purified knowledge that is offered to those who wish to accept it. True, the Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality is good teaching, but it is not enough to merely share an education on Church teaching in a benefits package. To do so and tolerate brokenness points to a separation between “intellect” and “flesh.” Notre Dame admits to letting people make their own decisions but also won’t go out to meet them “in the flesh.”
What does Francis mean by “flesh”? In all cases in G&E, it refers to the “suffering” or “wounded” flesh of others. By this simple allusion to Christ’s passion and death, Francis is illustrating the profound Christology behind Matthew 25 and calling us to reach out to others in need. This isn’t about just physical wounds or physical suffering, but any suffering including their “troubles” and their “profound desolation.”
Who are suffering today? They are those who struggle to make ends meet, who worry about how to feed their families and provide for them, who suffer in mind and spirit so greatly that they feel unable to welcome another child into their homes. They are those who have fallen prey to “consumerist” ideologies, whose hearts are closed to others, who live in fear of change and of their own weaknesses. In the lives of so many of these suffering men and women, artificial contraception is sadly seen as a good choice.
In imagining the multitude of ways that spouses and families may suffer, I find particularly poignant the words of Francis in Amoris Laetitia: “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
As an answer to these modern harmful tendencies, I believe Francis is calling us to a much more dynamic and energetic faith through which we can share the mercy and love of God with others. He is calling us to an active support of marriage and family so that we can truly help “form consciences” of those we serve. Such support would be in keeping with Francis’ vision of holiness that he expounds on in Gaudete et Exsultate.
Gnosticism – Denying Christ in others
In this way, I find Notre Dame’s statements to be indicative of a Gnosticism which refuses to “touch the suffering flesh of others.” By refusing to support families in a positive vision of human sexuality and love and by facilitating the use of artificial contraceptives even while other permissible methods to avoid pregnancy are available, they deny the christology of Matthew 25.
Francis writes about the Beatitude about “those who mourn”: “Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds.”
In its statement, I don’t believe Notre Dame has made a legitimate attempt to “draw near” and to “touch their wounds.” What could Notre Dame do instead? Notre Dame must insist on the truth taught in Humanae Vitae and by the Church over the last several decades but also offer the possibility for real help, including financial, spiritual, and psychological, to those that need it.
As to teaching the truth, Francis writes that, “The use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility’ (Humanae Vitae, 11) are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favor the education of an authentic freedom’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370).” Here, Francis makes clear that the Church’s teaching is an opportunity for healing and for goodness.
As to the possibility for real help, there is no simple solution for the university, which has a number of non-Catholic students and employees. I would expect that Francis would agree that here is required immense creativity on the part of the Notre Dame leadership to position the truth of the faith in a loving and charitable way and to make it an encounter of joy. The dangers have been described above: Notre Dame must strive to teach authentically to avoid making the truth become a “burden” as if it were merely imposed upon the suffering by a powerful educational institution.
Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring.” Later in Amoris Laetitia, Francis describes the balancing act that pastors typically must take between presenting the fullness and the ideal of marriage and family, but also the individual’s capacity for transformation at their respective stage in life. If pastors struggle to present the truth well, then it is much more difficult for a modern university, which has an increasingly limited role in the formation of others.
Gnosticism and Complacency
Still, the complete lack of creativity is indicative, I believe, of Notre Dame’s complacency in this regard. Notre Dame has expressed no urgency regarding the role it plays–indeed, the role we all play–in extending the grace of God that we have received to others. And so, Notre Dame essentially says in its statement that if God really wants to bring someone into the fullness of truth, that is between him and the Holy Spirit. Notre Dame can only do so much.
Francis warns us, “Complacency is seductive; it tells us that there is no point in trying to change things, that there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been and yet we always manage to survive. By force of habit we no longer stand up to evil. We ‘let things be’, or as others have decided they ought to be. Yet let us allow the Lord to rouse us from our torpor, to free us from our inertia. Let us rethink our usual way of doing things; let us open our eyes and ears, and above all our hearts, so as not to be complacent about things as they are, but unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord.”
Gnosticism and Community
Finally, Notre Dame’s statements are indicative of Gnosticism most notably for its apparent denial of the grace that is living in community. In G&E, Francis writes that “living community” is a gift of God: “The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, “like a bride bedecked with jewels” (Is 61:10).” Later in the Exhortation, Francis writes several paragraphs describing the way in which community is itself a sign of holiness. Community is the opportunity to “care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.”
Assuming that Notre Dame seeks to be an authentic community, Notre Dame’s statement betrays this desire, and in so doing separates the “Church” from her “people.” Notre Dame will provide a statement of belief regarding the Catholic view on contraceptives, but will also accept or tolerate individuals’ opinions in this matter, whatever they might be. This is not a true community but rather a collection of individuals who live in freedom under the shadow of the Golden Dome.
Notre Dame says this freedom is essential to discernment, but Francis warns us: “Ultimately, it is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible. The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome.”
With specific reference to the beauty of human sexuality and insisting that the Church’s teaching is not a negation of joy, Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “God himself created sexuality, which is a marvelous gift to his creatures. If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the ‘impoverishment of an authentic value’”
A contrast from Amoris Laetitia
Fr. Jenkins explicitly cites Francis here but Notre Dame’s statement differs from the vision Francis presents in Amoris Laetitia. In 295, Francis makes clear that what he is proposing is not a “gradualness of the law” but rather the acceptance of the way in which people come to the fullness of truth in their own way through time. For this reason, I believe it would be problematic to fire or expel students and employees for using artificial contraception. It would be sinful to treat employees and students with such disregard (e.g., through low pay or failing to provide good living conditions for young married students) that they feel unable to have another child in love.
Such intolerance would, I fear, be a form of financial and psychological manipulation designed to “replace consciences” and not “form them.” There must be an acceptance for people’s various stages in life, but rather than shirk from the joy of marriage and family, Notre Dame must proudly proclaim it as a life-giving truth and actually support couples and families to that end. The urgency is needed now more than ever because, as Francis writes, ““It is… evident that ‘the principal tendencies in anthropological-cultural changes’ are leading ‘individuals, in personal and family life, to receive less and less support from social structures than in the past’.”
Other Concerns – Cost
There are two additional points here that I wish to address. The first is the cost. Artificial contraception can cost $160-$600 a year out-of-pocket based on widely available online resources. (This cost does not include any potential discounts under various state provided insurance programs or through independent agencies like Planned Parenthood.) Thus, those that have “conscientiously decided” to use contraception may be on the hook for an additional $160-$600 a year if they continue to use the pill and if Notre Dame refuses to provide contraception coverage. Other forms of contraception have different costs but last different lengths of time.
Is it a form of unfair manipulation or coercion, like that warned by the Church in Dignitatis Humanae, to expose people to the natural costs of their decisions? By refusing to cover artificial contraception, is Notre Dame forcing individuals to betray their consciences? I believe not.
Many women are currently part of health insurance plans that provide full contraception coverage but do not provide coverage for natural family planning methods. These women are still free to choose among methods and many do choose natural family planning. The only “cost” is the cost of the respective methods, be it the pills (as an example) for artificial contraception or the teaching and/or equipment that may be required as part of natural family planning methods. In short, a person can freely decide among birth control methods even if the financial costs of those respective decisions are not $0. No choices have been outlawed here. No penalties have been applied.
(As an aside, I’ll add here that It is when the “natural costs” of true goods are inordinately expensive that we are speaking of a situation of injustice. As it is, in many cases and with certain methods, natural family planning can be a low-cost option.)
Notre Dame, as indicated above, should tolerate their employees’ and students’ decisions to buy artificial contraception under a different program, accepting that not all agree with the Church on this matter or that some have come to rely on these drugs. It would be in keeping with a sound pastoral strategy to ensure plenty of lead time was given, so that participants could pursue the lowest cost options and make necessary arrangements to get contraceptives elsewhere. However, Notre Dame should also confirm their students and employees in the life-giving truth of marriage and sexuality by refusing to provide coverage in any way for artificial contraception which diminishes health and damages relationships.
Other Concerns – Conscience
The second point I wish to bring up is Notre Dame’s language regarding “conscientious decisions” and contraception. Can one conscientiously decide to use artificial contraception? Artificial contraception, insofar as it is used as contraception and not for a legitimate medical purpose, is used to prevent pregnancy. That is to say that couples using artificial contraception, properly speaking, have made a conscientious decision to avoid pregnancy and to that end have made the decision to use a particular method, artificial contraception.
Avoiding pregnancy can be an action ordered to the good of the couple and family, and the Church recognizes the couple’s right to discern this for themselves in good conscience. But if there are other effective means of achieving this good, such as natural family planning, why is Notre Dame concerned with the possibility of denying coverage of artificial contraceptives?
When Notre Dame says that it recognizes that couples have “conscientiously decided” to use artificial contraception, they are not just affirming the couple’s freedom to avoid pregnancy. More specifically, Notre Dame is affirming the couple’s freedom to use a specific method of birth control, artificial contraception, which allows the couple to have sex at any point in a woman’s cycle and avoid pregnancy.
Notre Dame knows that the most functional difference between artificial contraception and natural family planning, when avoiding pregnancy, are the several days each cycle which couples should not have sex. But Notre Dame also knows that artificial contraception is harmful to women, to marriages, to families, and to society at large. Notre Dame explicitly cites Pope Paul VI when he warned of certain dangers of artificial contraception:
“Although Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical letter, Humanae vitae, written nearly fifty years ago now, has been controversial within and without Catholic circles since its publication, its prophetic quality is clear. It remains an important and thoughtful challenge to tendencies in our culture, even more pronounced today, toward the sexual objectification of women, the decline of committed and faithful marriages and family life, the threat of government intervention in human procreation, the lack of a healthy respect for the natural processes of our bodies and the threats of manipulation of our bodies and our environment through technology.”
In this modern era, with the development of modern methods of natural family planning, no one could decide in good conscience that these immeasurable harms are not much greater than the temporary harm caused by periodic abstinence. Research suggests that on average there really isn’t a meaningful difference in frequency of intercourse between methods anyway. Additionally, with proper support, encouragement, and resources, these trials of periodic abstinence can be transformed into opportunities for the couple to reaffirm their marriage and build intimacy in other ways, including emotionally and spiritually.
Ultimately, a “conscientious decision” to use artificial contraception points to a serious failure in formation or education, both of which can and should be at least partly Notre Dame’s responsibility now that these students and employees are a part of the Notre Dame community and rely on its insurance programs to pay for actual healthcare.
The vision of holiness and conscience presented by Gaudete et Exsultate and Amoris Laetitia is dynamic, energetic, faithful, charismatic, and loving. At no point are we to consider others or ourselves as fixed points in history, incapable of change or unresponsive to mercy. Francis calls us to open our hearts to the possibilities of a life in the Spirit, most concretely through our interaction with others. In Gaudete et Exsultate, these are largely demonstrated through corporal works of mercy, and Amoris Laetita references the importance of “fraternal love” through which we share in the sorrows and joys of each other. We are connected to each other.
To avoid compartmentalizing the faith and turning into merely a kernel of truth for good living we share in a benefits package, Notre Dame, in the case of contraception coverage, should recognize the difficulty of so many couples and families trapped into believing artificial contraception is a real good. It should reach out to them,in their suffering flesh, and invite them into a true community where the Spirit is present. The challenge seems impossible especially with the prominence and pervasiveness of our throwaway culture, but nothing is impossible by the grace of God whose infinite love and mercy has the power to heal even our deepest sufferings.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.