Just four days ago, the University of Notre Dame announced it “would no longer provide birth control coverage to students and employees.” It fought long and hard for this right. Shortly after the Affordable Care Act became law back in 2012, Catholic organizations such as Notre Dame claimed that the law’s requiring them to provide contraception coverage violated their religious freedom. In response to these complaints, President Obama offered a compromise: religious institutions could offer their employees a health insurance package that does not cover contraception; their insurer would then automatically enroll employees in a plan that covers contraception alone.
But this accommodation left the University of Notre Dame grievously unsatisfied. Explaining his decision to sue the Obama administration, University President Fr. John Jenkins argued:
We have concluded, however, the government’s accommodations would require us to forfeit our rights, to facilitate and become entangled in a program inconsistent with Catholic teaching and to create the impression that the University cooperates with and condones activities incompatible with its mission. In these ways, we contend, the regulations compel us to violate our religious beliefs.
Although Notre Dame eventually lost this suit, President Trump recently granted Notre Dame and other like-minded institutions the right to deny its employees contraception coverage.
But, today, Notre Dame announced that it would not be exercising that right. As President Jenkins explained,
“The University of 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. 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.”
How should we interpret this ethical about-face?
Regardless of one’s opinions about birth control or religious freedom, anyone remotely affiliated with the University should be deeply disturbed by today’s decision. This announcement admits one of the following: either Obama-era rules did not require the University to violate either its institutional conscience or church teaching, or the Obama-era rules did require the University to violate both its institutional conscience and church teaching but the University has no actual desire to follow the strictures of either conscience or magisterium.
Let’s consider the implications of the former interpretation first. If the former, then the University’s entire premise for waging an expensive, high-profile suit that cast former President Obama has been exposed as a farce. In other words, it’s not that the University was the President’s victim, but that it wanted to be.
The University in fact wanted to a be a certain type of victim. Obama, they charged, had taken away their freedom. We cannot underestimate the gravity of this charge: those who lack freedom, after all, are slaves. If you don’t believe me, just ask Patrick Henry. Or Peter Singer.
For this reason, freedom rhetoric also carries a typically unrecognized racial import. In this country, only black people have been denied real freedom; all other groups yearn for a merely metaphorical freedom. Thus, when non-black people declare themselves somehow un-free, they position themselves as analogous to black people. We do not need to do this consciously or deliberately: this sort of political blackface has been baked into our language. If you don’t believe me, just ask Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
What does this have to do with Notre Dame? Well, Notre Dame isn’t just one of the most Catholic universities in the country; it is also one of the least black. In invoking a particularly religious freedom, Notre Dame has gathered political debate around its self-consciously Catholic character. But perhaps we should consider Notre Dame’s not so conscious whiteness as well.
We then frame our narrative differently: one of the whitest universities in the country felt like the first black President of the United States was treating it like a slave. In perceiving itself this way, the University acts like many whites bodies before it: for many white people, black power has always felt like white slavery. Maybe Notre Dame just didn’t want to be told what to do by Obama.
But what about if we select the second option? Maybe the University’s suit wasn’t a farce. It would then hold that the University does not actually want to follow church teaching; it only wanted the right to. But this is perverse. Morally speaking, it is much worse to possess the ability to do the right thing but choose not to than it is to want to do the right thing but be denied the ability to actually do so.
In other words, according to the University’s own moral logic, when Obama was President, they were being forced to commit a sin. Now, during Trump’s presidency, they are voluntarily choosing to commit a sin.
And surely, sinning freely proves much more serious than sinning against one’s will.
So, Notre Dame, I must ask you, what were you fighting for?