Editorial: Contraception clarity

When the Trump administration last fall widened the Obama-era contraception mandate’s religious accommodation to cover all who object on religious or moral grounds, the University of Notre Dame embraced it. After spending the last five years in litigation over that very issue, the university announced that it would cease to provide birth control via its health plan as of the end of the year. Less than a week later, however, the school reversed course, saying that it would “not interfere with the provision of the contraceptives that will be administered and funded independently of the university,” in order to accommodate “the plurality or religious and other convictions among its employees.”

The policy changed again earlier this month when Father John Jenkins, university president, announced in a Feb. 7 letter that the school no longer would provide “abortion-inducing drugs” from its third-party insurance plans to the more than 17,000 students, faculty and staff. It would, however, offer “simple contraceptives” via the university’s own health insurance plan. This “contraceptive whiplash” has sparked outcries from both sides of the debate. In January, the Executive Board of the Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life published an open letter to Father Jenkins making clear that many on campus remain “committed to the holistic teachings of the Church on the sanctity of all human life.”

This group and other supporters of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life received a great boost via a statement from Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, which includes Notre Dame. (While Bishop Rhoades is the chairman of the Our Sunday Visitor board, he had no involvement in the planning or the execution of this editorial.) After offering his strong support for Notre Dame’s decision to reverse course on offering abortifacients and sterilization services, Bishop Rhoades said in a Feb. 8 statement that he strongly disagreed with Notre Dame’s decision to provide “simple contraceptives” within its own university health plan — a move that “involves it even more directly in contributing to immoral activity.”

“I wish to remind all the faithful of the diocese, including the faithful who are part of the Notre Dame community, of the Church’s definitive teaching that ‘every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil,’” Bishop Rhoades wrote. For those who find this teaching challenging, Bishop Rhoades encouraged a prayerful studying of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 document Humanae Vitae, as well as Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

“I understand Notre Dame’s desire to respect other religious traditions and the conscientious decisions of members of the Notre Dame community on this issue,” Bishop Rhoades said. “Members of the community who decide to use contraceptives, however, should not expect the university to act contrary to its Catholic beliefs by funding these contraceptives.”

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Notre Dame is not the first Catholic institution to drift from the teachings of the Church in the name of pluralism, nor will it be the last. But because of the school’s premier status, the decisions it makes regarding adherence to Church teaching within its diverse environment will doubtless be watched and cited by others. Bishop Rhoades understands this dynamic. “Not providing funding for contraception would not be popular with some, but it would truly be a prophetic witness to the truth about human sexuality and its meaning and purpose,” he said.

Bishop Rhoades’ remarks, too, will not be popular with some. But his commendable clarity about what actions are and are not acceptable for Catholic institutions serves as its own prophetic witness to the truth and are a reflection of his deep concern for the salvation of the souls in his care.

OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young