Many members of WIT are institutionally affiliated with Catholic universities—and once you start talking about Catholic universities, you’ll eventually end up in a discussion about Notre Dame. While I speak only for myself in this post (as all of us do in all of our posts!), I’m standing on fairly secure ground when I say that all of us agree with a claim that’s gotten increasing press over the past week: that Notre Dame has got to get better for its LGBT students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional), faculty, and staff. As such, WIT has joined the “4 to 5 Movement Coalition” in its commitment to “take actions that promote a safe and welcoming environment at the University of Notre Dame for members of our community who identify as LGBTQ.”
The undergrad-led 4 to 5 Movement (their webpage explains that the name comes from studies showing that four out of five residents of the US between the ages of 18 and 30 support “the general package of LGBT civil rights;” I take it that the “4 to 5″ expresses a goal of moving that from 4/5 to 5/5) has received solid national press coverage and sustained campus coverage (also check out their running tally) in response to a video featuring students, faculty, and staff explaining why Notre Dame needs to get better for LGBT people. You’ll get a much better sense of the background to all of this from the articles or the video itself, but in brief: Notre Dame is the only “top-20” university which does not include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause, and it has denied LGBT/Ally student club applications on 15 separate occasions. Without university recognition, such an organization cannot advertise on campus or in the campus newspaper–two privileges, strangely, which have been afforded to a restaurant which advertises itself as a Celtic-themed Hooters. Hmm.
Lest you assume that this is an inevitable consequence of Notre Dame’s Catholic affiliation, Notre Dame’s sister school, Saint Mary’s College, has both an inclusive non-discrimination policy and an officially-recognized GSA. Boston College, Marquette, Fordham, Loyola Chicago, and Georgetown all have inclusive non-discrimination policies. Moving into the non-Catholic theological world, Yale prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as does Chicago. And Emory. And Vanderbilt. Also Duke. In short, if you’re interested in doing doctoral work in theology, odds are you’re going to end up at an institution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation… or at Notre Dame.
But you can read about these things at the various above links — the point I’m interested in hovers somewhere around the intersection of sacramentality and speech-acts. The speech-act is a concept taken from J.L. Austin that pops up often in contemporary sacramental theology, and while I’m not making a point about sacramental theology proper, I am making a point about our longing for effective symbols… and I see that as a fundamentally sacramental instinct. So when I hear critiques of calls for inclusive non-discrimination policies that run something along the lines of “If you can’t demonstrate the precise way in which it would change your day-to-day life to have a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation but instead say it would make you feel more safe and more welcome, then you’re just whining,” what I think is that those critiques fundamentally misunderstood the notion of the human person that underlies a Catholic sense of sacramentality.
Now, Notre Dame’s official stance is not “We are a Catholic institution; only those living in accord with Roman Catholic sexual ethics belong at a Catholic institution; openly LGBT people should go elsewhere;” rather, Notre Dame’s refusal to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity sits alongside an official claim that, “We welcome all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality … We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community” [emphasis added]. (Long story short, when the issue was pressed in the late 90s, Notre Dame decided against a non-discrimination policy and for a nonbinding “Spirit of Inclusion” statement.)
As a side note: Notre Dame, if you value gay and lesbian members of your community, then perhaps those few resources you do offer shouldn’t implicitly reprimand them for using the words “gay” and “lesbian,” as in Campus Ministry’s reference to “students who deal with same-sex attraction (typically classified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning).” But I digress.
The stance taken by the university is that this affirmation of “valuing” gay and lesbian people does what a non-discrimination clause should do — “consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish” — but without the legal risk of permitting civil courts to determine what does and does not constitute discrimination. It’s an odd line to walk — condemning people’s family bonds on the one hand while insisting they’re welcomed and valued on the other; insisting that the ethos of the place is such that there’s no need for a non-discrimination policy (hence the not-non-discrimination statement: to clarify that the words which should come to mind when a person hears “Notre Dame” and “LGBT” are welcome, value, hospitality, respect, warmth, and flourish, and not discrimination) while simultaneously refusing to adopt an actual non-discrimination policy: We already do what you want us to do, and that’s why we won’t commit ourselves to doing it.
And here’s where the sacramentality piece comes in. The university’s claim is that a non-discrimination policy adds nothing but potential lawsuits to the already-existing Spirit of Inclusion. But if Notre Dame “welcomes” and “values” gay and lesbian students, faculty, and staff, then we should be listening to their claims that those words ring hollow when they are said in order to evade commitment, rather than to make a commitment. The 4 to 5 Movement, it seems to me, is calling upon Notre Dame to render present its avowed desire to create an environment of hospitality and warmth. It’s asking Notre Dame to put those words in a place where they can effect what they signify.
The Spirit of Inclusion, as it stands, is an inefficacious sign. It’s not a reality that LGBT community members can grab onto. It’s not something people can smell. It’s not something people can taste. It’s not a self-involving declaration.
Or, draw from J.L. Austin, the “Spirit of Inclusion” offers LGBT students a declarative statement: “Notre Dame values LGBT people.” But declarative statements can be true or false, and without further evidence, it’s impossible to judge their value. To declare “We value gay and lesbian members of this community” yet make no administrative or pastoral statement to a university community when its newspaper runs cartoons about beating gay men into comas is to make a false declaration. To declare “We consciously create a mutual respect, hospitality and warmth” and yet continually deny the application of a student group which aims precisely for that is to invite skepticism.
But a non-discrimination clause is something closer to a promise. It’s something closer to a self-committal. It’s not yet at the level of performative language. To say “The University of Notre Dame does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation” is not automatically to effect that reality, but it’s closer to an illocutionary act, committing the university community to make that so rather than simply asserting it already is, and thus excusing the community from any encounter with LGBT people. And its perlocutionary effect is actually to welcome, actually to value, actually to extend the hospitality of a Lord whom the university itself describes as constantly extending an inclusive welcome–unlike a “welcome” immediately followed by an explanation of the limitations placed upon that welcome.
Because it’s strange to declare that “individual and collective experiences of Christians have … provided strong warrants for the inclusion of all persons of good will in their communal living” yet reject the request of your students that spaces be provided for such persons to come together in service. And it’s strange to declare that a Christian community should be tested by the extent to which it follows the one who “sought out and welcomed all,” yet insist that publicly committing yourself before the “lower” authority of civil law and society to precisely the “welcome” and “inclusiveness” inspired by the higher authority of Christ is to run afoul of that higher “welcoming,” “inclusive,” and “loving” authority.