Over the last five years, the University of Notre Dame has changed its stance on whether or not to provide contraceptives to its employees three times.
In a letter published this week, President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., stated that the university will begin providing coverage for “simple contraceptives” through its university plan, but will ban “abortion-inducing drugs,” which the university had technically been granting since January when it began providing healthcare through a third-party company.
In 2013, Notre Dame, along with numerous other religious nonprofits, sued the government for requiring them to provide contraceptives of any type. Notre Dame lost. In October 2017, however, President Trump handed the school the victory it sought, stating that religious nonprofits need not comply with the mandate. Immediately following this decision, Notre Dame reversed course and decided that it would continue to provide access to contraception through a third-party provider.
Now, the university’s leadership has sought what appears to be a middle way — taking neither side (even that of Catholic doctrine) and attempting to please all parties involved.
Father Jenkins wrote, “The use of artificial contraceptives to prevent conception is contrary to Catholic teaching.”
However, he continued by stating, “Many conscientiously disagree with this particular teaching. [...] A tension exists between establishing policies in accord with Catholic teaching and respecting the religious traditions and decisions of the many members of our community.”
Thus, the decision seeks to balance what Jenkins frames as the competing interests of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and individual needs of its community.
Rather ironically, Jenkins also wrote that the university will also “provide to all who sign up for health care benefits a statement on the Catholic teaching on contraceptives.”
Despite directly contravening this teaching through actions, Jenkins cited their “prophetic quality,” writing that Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae “remains an important and thoughtful challenge to tendencies in our culture [...] toward the decline of committed and faithful marriages and family life [...] and the threats of manipulation of our bodies and our environment through technology.”
“Some will ask why the University sued the government over the provision of ‘contraceptive drugs and services’ only now to provide contraceptives in its plan,” Jenkins wrote. “What we sincerely and firmly fought for in court was the ability as a Catholic institution, to make decisions about the provision of health care consistent with Catholic principles.”
Now that Notre Dame has that decision-making power, however, it appears to have chosen to placate its various factions rather than being unapologetic about its beliefs.
Kate Hardiman is pursuing a master's in education from Notre Dame University and teaches English and religion at a high school in Chicago.