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 GSABoston College, MarquetteFordham, 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, respectwarmth, 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.

17 thoughts

  1. Brava. What a great way to look at all this. Also, thank you for introducing this reader to the concept of a speech act — really powerful, especially when brought into conversation with our notions of sacrament. Thanks.

  2. yes yes yes, Bridget. This is a good one.
    Also, Austin is the best. If you google “Austin How to do things with words” there are links to the full text of the lecture series where he lays out the concept of speect act/performative utterance, which for my money is one of the most interesting topics in language study. (I also wrote a paper on speech acts in Romans for Mary Rose.)

    But I digress. The point: Right on the money, Bridget–you put your finger exactly on the problem with ND’s choices of statements, and link that to larger ideas of sacramentality (which you should write more about! Because I think it is awesome.)

  3. Bridget,

    This is the best piece I’ve ever read about our current situation here at Notre Dame. So clear, so simple, so insightful and direct. So critical, so fair and evenhanded, so constructive. I applaud you. Thank you for writing this.

    I think your central analogy to the sacramental economy of the church is spot on. Initially, I had to take some time to think through the implication that civil litigation–or the possibility of it–is a substantive part of what is needed to transform a declaration of values from an inefficacious sign to an efficacious sign. (Is kerygma subject to legal verification?) But I think you’re right. How can an institution be accountable to its members if the institution itself is the sole arbiter of what amounts to discrimination? There is a regrettable pattern in the Catholic church of skirting external legal review; it is eminently reasonable to respond with a well measured hermeneutic of suspicion.

  4. Nice piece, Bridget, with a very good introduction to Austin. Thanks!

    In a sense the canon law requirements for a valid sacrament might play the same role for the sacramental rites, I think, Noel. I’m not sure it has to be external to the organization, intrinsically (because I’m thinking of canon law), but it has to be reviewable in some way; the declarative has to issue forth in an illocutionary to guide performance and give an opportunity for evaluation.

    1. An interesting point, I think the sacramental analogy works well if we recognize that God’s grace and the demands of Christian community animate both the “sign” of non-discrimination AND its “efficacious enactment” (viz. it is not [only] the civil legal evaluation that allows the the sign to show itself as an efficacious sign). Likewise, canon law does not animate the sign value of sacraments, nor does it make them efficacious, but it does work to their benefit. Still, there is a little more causal vigor behind civil law, here, than in canon law, by comparison. But, look, the way I’m pressing the analogy is steering us more towards the schoolmen (sacrament sunt in genere causae ET signi) than the discourse of speech acts, and perhaps that’s the wrong way to go. After all, the task is to reduce the heterogeneity between cause and sign as much as possible, without collapsing them into one.

  5. Thanks for this, Bridget. Your presentation of locution is helping me think through the ND situation. I’m also connecting it with the recent public discussion on Rush Limbaugh’s apology to Sandra Fluke; reading that apology, I felt like Limbaugh wanted to place the words “sincere” and “apology” in the reader’s head without committing himself to either (and my prior comparison was to the way that McDonald’s wants to put “real food” and its positive implications in the consumer’s head without changing its products). Now I feel like I have a better set of concepts around which to consider “speech acts” like this!

  6. At the risk of upsetting the author and all previous commenters, bravo to ND for denying LGBT groups on campus. It is umfornate, though, that they don’t just come out and say that supporting/allowing such a group would be contrary to ND’s Catholic mission. I do agree, however, that the Hooters ad should not be allowed.

    1. Brian–
      But it’s so difficult, sometimes, to discern what the Christian mission looks like in practice.* If you think about “mission” in terms of fulfilling God’s commandments, well, “love your neighbor” springs to mind for me here–NOT because I think it’s simple that ND’s policies are wrong, but precisely because it’s difficult for some to see why they might be wrong and for others to see how they could be right. What feels like acting with love to a mother who beats her children often feels like abuse to those children as adults.

      When I was a Protestant at Notre Dame, a lot of the culture was geared enough toward Catholicism specifically that I, rebellious and questioning as I was, often felt like a second-class citizen. Was that wrong of them? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I believe in ND AS a CATHOLIC university. I think that’s a good thing (though complicated also). But the fact remains that my spiritual hunger went unfed during my time there. What would it have meant for them to act with love toward their neighbor?

      I think Bridget’s whole point here is to break down why this is important, why and how what’s at issue here is the Christian mission of love.

      *Substituting “Christian” for “Catholic” because I’m not Catholic; by it I mean the mission that is common to all Christians.

  7. ND truly does not discriminate against same-sex attracted people in practice (the Observer comic a sad and repulsive exception to this – but even here we must understand the Observer and the editorial staff’s (oversight? intentional hate?) as not reflective of ND in its entirety). Not having a NDC in the bylaws is because it is legally allowed. If ND were to include such a clause, they could be sued for millions if Indiana were ever to allow same-sex marriage and someone wanted to have a same-sex wedding in the Basilica, which is absolutely against the Church’s teaching. The legal implications for ND are much different than St. Mary’s essentially because of ND’s size and property.

    Personally, I stand behind any kind of movement that wants to eliminate discrimination and extend compassion and acceptance. In one sense, then, I think this 4>5 movement is really something great. It’s grassroots, it seems driven by compassion, and it raises an awareness that people are called to compassion. But I don’t think ND leaves out the NDC for being anti-compassionate, or even, as you insinuated, insincere. I think ND is very sincere about about culturing an ethos of acceptance, but I think it is equally sincere about protecting itself from an avalanche of legal accusations that would potentially follow as it is an enormous, reputable and (worst of all) Catholic institution.

    1. Dana, this hypothetical situation could never actually happen: Episcopalians have the legal right to marry in the state of Indiana, but this does not mean the Basilica is at risk of being sued for a refusal to permit Episcopal weddings. Marriages in a church get into religious practice proper, and the law is actually quite clear on its unwillingness to intervene there — see the unanimous Supreme Court ruling on Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

      1. Well, I stand corrected!

        Although I think legal issues are still a reason for the denial of a NDC clause, perhaps we must consider that this is a matter of identity. It’s is difficult for such a high profile school to not officially back non-discrimination clauses, and in doing so Notre Dame makes a statement. The way that statement is read, however, is what I think needs to be the topic of dialogue.

        From my perspective, I don’t at all think that ND harbors an intolerant or abusive ethos at all. The idea of a NDC as a sacramental, “tangible” thing is interesting, but I don’t think having something on paper will change the way a LGBT person feels if the community they are immersed in actively ostracizing them. The best way to foster love and community is to constantly emphasize those values from official and non-official posts, which ND does quite often.

        I think your impulse to discuss sacramentality is a good one. In many ways, this discourse must circle back to the one around the Eucharist and its admittance. The Catholic Church does not deny community, though it does reserve the right to deny communion. Similarly, not hiring certain employee’s because of their personal history – or not officially advocating certain theological/political perspectives – is NOT the same as hating them, slandering them, or dehumanizing them. Their position is one of religious distinction, not hate.

      2. Three points: first, you’re arguing against a position I did not put forth. You’ve introduced the word “hate” several times. I have not accused Notre Dame of being “hateful;” let’s keep the conversation on what’s actually been said. Second, I don’t know that questions of eucharistic admissibility are the most immediately relevant here. There is a very serious conversation to be had about the meaning of the eucharist and what is brought about through the periodic exclusion of LGBT individuals. I’d rather not have that conversation here. So instead, we’re sure to agree that matters of eucharistic inclusion and exclusion are serious because of the character of the eucharist as the “source & summit” of Catholic Christian life. The standard for full participation in the eucharist would surely not be identical to the standard for full participation in a university community. Finally, and most importantly, when a question arises as to whether a community is intolerant toward a minority member group, or whether a community does enough to emphasize its welcome toward that group, it’s the members of that group who need to have the privileged voices. LGBT members of the Notre Dame community don’t feel that enough is being done. Theirs is the perspective that needs to be heard.

      3. RE: “but I don’t think having something on paper will change the way a LGBT person feels if the community they are immersed in actively ostracizing them.”

        If I were being harassed at my school for being gay, I would sure hope that it was something that was actually prohibited, so that when I reported it, something could be done.

        The point about “speech-acts” isn’t that they make us feel warm and cuddly, but that they perform what they describe. A non-discrimination clause provides resources for people who are discriminated to report behavior and for those reports to be taken seriously.

  8. Bridget – I apologize for bringing in the word “hate” here. You’re right in that there is an important distinction to be made between intolerance and hate.

    Concerning the eucharist I only mean to point to an analogy, namely, that eucharistic admittance is a point of distinction based on theological/religious rational (and so it may be with participation within this University). Of course the participation within the Church and the University are two very distinct things, I only mean to emphasize the similar types of rational behind them.

    Finally, I agree with you entirely that the voices that need to be heard are the LGBT members of the Notre Dame community. Just the fact that the 4>5 movement exists should direct our attention to a problem that may have been in the periphery of the public (it certainly has mine). I hope, then, that considering the rational behind the University’s position on LGBT issues isn’t misunderstood as a dismissal of the LGBT communities’ voices, but rather a desire to engage in dialogue.

    Anyhow, thanks for the post – despite any disagreement we have I think we both agree that intolerance is something that requires consistent dialogue (as intolerance is dynamic) and subsequent action.

  9. You are to be lauded for bringing forth this topic – and I am grateful to know that some folks at Notre Dame are actively seeking justice in this way. There is too much either/or rhetoric in the Catholic world about LGBT people and not enough compassion and love, at large.

    We’ve got to stop reducing this to sexual acts.

    How do we welcome all and seek the dignity of every human person without marginalizing people? Kindness and inclusion are good beginnings.

    Thank you for pursuing “fides quaerens intellectum,” so beautifully out here. You all encourage this late-to-theology-study 54 year old tremendously.

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