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Sexual morality and business ethics at Notre Dame

John Madigan | Monday, October 13, 2008

Okay, I admit it, when recently visiting campus I could be mistaken for just about any other alumnus wandering his old haunts with a nostalgic gleam in his eyes…

It’s hard not to be impressed by this university – and I visit many colleges and universities through my work. Notre Dame – its students, priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross, incredible facilities including numerous jewel-like chapels, each reposing the Blessed Sacrament – is remarkable. I am proud to be a product of this special place, and do hope that one or more of my children might study at Notre Dame, too.

Having said that, we all know that Notre Dame bears special responsibilities as a Catholic university. And that contrary to the “Catholic Disneyland” feel, this place is, as it was in my days on campus more than 20 years ago, deeply conflicted – torn between its yearning for academic and worldly respect and its mission of service to the Church.

A case in point: Cathie Black, President of Hearst Magazines and a Notre Dame trustee, recently spoke as part of the Berges Series in Business Ethics. Why would the University “proudly invite” her (per Observer ads) to deliver an endowed address on business ethics?

Having worked in the magazine business, I am familiar with Hearst. Its flagship magazine is Cosmopolitan. Anyone who frequents supermarket checkout lines knows Cosmo – Hearst Magazines spends millions to place Cosmopolitan right square where American consumers pause several times each week – one step shy of the cash register.

As a father of children aged 4 to 14, I have squirmed, hoping my boys would not view its formulaic, fleshy covers, or that my girls would not be drawn by its lurid taglines inviting them to view themselves as sexual objects. I daresay it’s worse inside.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the cover of the October issue: “Guys talk Sex. SHE DID WHAT?! Outrageous things chicks do in bed; For Naughty Girls Only; His Body; How Long Guys Want Sex to Last …” Try Googling Cosmopolitan and you’ll see the first subjects which come up: “sex positions and sex.” Or try cosmopolitan.com’s link to “our friends at Marie Claire,” another Hearst property. Cosmo points you there to learn “Ultimate Sex Tips from the Pros: We asked the five leading sex experts in the U.S. for their most frequently asked questions. Here, their answers about hooking up, kinky sex, taking charge in the bedroom and more.”

Is it fair to tag Cathie Black with responsibility for these products? Her biography posted on hearst.com does just that, quoting a business publication: “… During Ms. Black’s six-year tenure at the $1.5 billion company, she has maintained the health of big brands like Cosmopolitan [and] brought forth new favorites like Marie Claire.” Health, indeed.

I do not know Ms. Black, but I do know this: she is an aggressive purveyor of moral and cultural poison that stands in direct opposition to Catholic teaching – deriding the Church’s notion of the truth and beauty of human sexuality, standing in marked opposition to Catholic teaching on the dignity and vocation of woman.

Ms. Black’s products are an attack on children’s innocence, an affront to parents, and a danger to vulnerable women whom her sex-saturated products manipulate. Not to mention that Cosmo’s trivialization of sexual intimacy and de-sensitization to timeless moral issues serve predatory males quite well, thank you.

Has anyone asked why she was feted to lecture students in business ethics?

Or how the talk’s sponsors – the Mendoza College of Business’s Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business and its Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide – square the profligate immorality of her leading products with any notion of business ethics in a Catholic context?

Or why University leaders hold her up as a model to the Notre Dame community by inviting her participation as a University trustee?

I watched Cathie Black’s talk late last night on the University’s website. She fairly bragged that Cosmo and other Hearst titles sell with sex, displayed several covers specifically to make that point – then proudly identified the Russian language edition of Cosmo as the most widely read publication among young women in Western Europe. Incredibly, she called Cosmo a “bible” there, one that “even the guys look to” as a “playbook.” A follow-up quip that she’d spoken enough about sex, something “we know Notre Dame students never, ever think about …” added a touch of insult to the injury.

I’m not too surprised by those comments – one rarely reaches her level of professional accomplishment without believing in the products she sells. What did surprise me was the plain-vanilla, welcoming introduction she received from a business school professor and the marked lack of challenging questions from the audience. And that The Observer’s next-day coverage referred blandly to her professional accomplishments and her description of “success” as being related to “what is going to fulfill you”.

I wonder if it ever occurred to Cathie Black, or to her hosts, that her success has come – and continues to come – at a substantial cost to others.

Exceptionally talented students, leading faculty, outstanding facilities and increasing scholarship support alone do not a truly great Catholic university make.

In spite of its dazzling attractiveness, something is missing at Notre Dame. Still.

Holy Mary, our hope, seat of wisdom, pray for us.

John Madigan is a 1984 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at jepmadigan@yahoo.com

The views expressed in this column are thoes of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.