What Hath Notre Dame to Do with Harvard?

Universities must embrace truth, not 'freedom of inquiry' and 'diversity of opinion'

An Indiana state judge dismissed Notre Dame sociology professor Tamara Kay’s defamation suit against a Notre Dame student newspaper for exposing her abortion advocacy, including her seeming facilitation of abortions by providing students information where they could obtain abortifacients. Kay wanted to exact punitive damages from the paper for exposing her.

Judge Steven David’s decision was a trifecta swat: Kay did not prove the claims the paper made were false; free speech made her views a legitimate topic of discussion; and, Kay could not “voluntarily put herself into the national abortion issue … on the campus of Notre Dame and expect that it will not become newsworthy at Notre Dame.”

Kay’s defense was “abortion is a policy issue. And yes, my views run afoul of Church teaching, but in other areas, my positions are perfectly aligned [with the Church].”

Before coming to Notre Dame, Kay began her academic career at Harvard. Can the Church learn a lesson from Harvard?

As I’ve written [here], most people who observed the support for Hamas killings on college campuses were rightly repulsed. They instinctively recognized there was something radically wrong when collegians — supposedly educated young people to whom we hope someday to turn over social leadership — could stand in support of murderers who killed, raped, and/or took as hostages men, women, and children.

Those same Americans were further repulsed when they watched academics wring their hands about how to fix the situation and the presidents of three major American universities saying that whether using slogans which advocate genocide violate their institutional student codes is a “context-driven” question. A public consensus that the trio had to go developed almost immediately, and Penn’s Liz Magill was promptly given the heave. After Harvard’s elite governance board initially circled the wagons around Claudine Gay, it found that her “context-driven” ethics also apparently applied to her academic writing. When the water got a little too hot for the privileged folks of the Harvard Corporation, Claudine Gay’s plagiarism provided a secondary excuse to defenestrate her, while still blaming her departure on those who found her ethical sense and academic standards lacking.

Where are we in America that the presidents of our elite institutions have students chanting genocidal slogans on their campuses and those “leaders” quibble about the “context” of that advocacy? I can assure you I am not crying for Gay or Magill; I rather hope MIT’s Sally Kornbluth joins them.

But, while I was not surprised by the reactions of Penn, Harvard, and MIT — secular institutions where the dictatorship of relativism is a moral absolute — I expect far more of Notre Dame.

The moral relativism that infuses the atmosphere of the Ivies and Ivy-wannabes ought not poison the air of a Catholic university—and Notre Dame has long preened itself as a “Catholic” university, at least when it was culturally or financially advantageous to feign that identity. Catholic universities combine reason and faith. The science of when human life begins is clear.

Catholic teaching — the Second Vatican Council — is clear on what abortion is. Vatican II calls abortion and infanticide “unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et spes, no. 51). The Council labels abortion and genocide “infamies” (Gaudium et spes, no. 27).

These are not marginal teachings, “peripheral” to the faith. These are solemn teachings of a conciliar constitution, adopted by almost all the bishops of the world and ratified by the pope. It reflects consistent Catholic teaching. It embodies the position of the Church on what the Catholic bishops of the United States, exercising their own reading of the signs of the times (which involves surveying the bloodletting of 63,000,000 babies in the U.S.), has called the “preeminent issue.”

So, why is Tamara Kay still at Notre Dame?

No doubt, we’ll be told that universities must embrace “freedom of inquiry” and “diversity of opinion.” No: universities must embrace the truth, and the confusion of secular universities about truth is no excuse for Catholic universities to share in it.

Tamara Kay tells us her views are “aligned” with the Church on all other issues but abortion.

Does anybody believe Notre Dame would keep a professor for five minutes if she rejected the Church’s teaching on racial equality? How would Notre Dame split the difference if Kay said she supported abortion as a woman’s “choice” for whatever reason a woman may want it, including having decided that the fetus was the “wrong” race? 

Does anybody believe Harvard would have kept a president for five minutes if she opined that whether holding a Ku Klux Klan rally violates the student code of conduct is “context” dependent? (What context? If you “lift high the burning cross” eight feet instead of six?)

The fact that a “Catholic” institution is ready to make excuses in the case of abortion makes clear that institution really does not believe either in what the Church teaches on the matter nor in the humanity of the victim. It’s been that kind of accumulated progressive erosion of humanity, at Catholic and secular universities, that led to the spectacle of prestigious university presidents equivocating before Congress whether using genocidal slogans always violates at least student codes of conduct.

And the only way we are going to clean these academic Augean stables is if we call out the dictatorship of relativism poisoning our academic discourse and call out the complicity of Catholic institutions in selling their souls for secular accolades.

Notre Dame is in the situation it is because the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, with a bad rash of Ivy envy, was far more interested in gaining accolades than in leading a Catholic university. He, in fact, led the mutiny to overthrow that institutional identity in the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” a malignancy with effects not confined to South Bend.

If Hesburgh was lionized for diluting Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, retiring President Rev. John Jenkins proved a paper tiger when it came to restoring it. His nearly 20 years at the head of the University were primarily marked by extended handwringing, followed by justification of whatever concession to secularism the Zeitgeist demanded.

Notre Dame gets a new president this July in the Rev. Robert Dowd, C.S.C. Might one dare hope that the University find a prophetic leader who, imitating Judge David, engages in a dismissal of his own? I’m not holding my breath but, like those who defend various forms of universalism, dare we hope?


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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