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Contraception controversy at Notre Dame

| Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Admirable and justifiable is Notre Dame and University President Fr. John Jenkins’ recent handling of the case of the contraceptive insurance coverage at the University for its employees.

On Feb. 7, 2018, Fr. Jenkins made the following clarification: “[I]t is best that the University … provide coverage in the University’s own insurance plan for simple contraceptives. … The University’s insurance plans have never covered, and will not cover, abortion-inducing drugs.”

To recall: Previously during the Obama administration, the University had made the contraceptive-coverage accommodation funded by the government for its employees and students.

Last year, President Trump rescinded the Affordable Care Act mandate to the effect that employers claiming religious freedom arguments no longer have the duty to arrange for birth-control coverage for their employees. Surprisingly, immediately on Oct. 27, Notre Dame dropped birth-control coverage for its employees and graduate students. But now, lo and behold, the University eventually flipped and decided to provide contraception coverage to its employees and students — though Fr. Jenkins has since clarified the University will only provide coverage for “simple contraceptions.”

Why this change of heart now?

What happened is that, after about eight years, the University reportedly changed course out of respect for the differing religious views of its constituent Catholic and non-Catholic students and employees. However, religious-freedom defenders felt that Notre Dame’s move is not in compliance with Catholic faith and teachings. Not true. On the contrary, Catholic Notre Dame lives by Catholic tradition and paid close attention to Catholic teachings when it assured its employees that they would not lose contraception-insurance coverage. How so?

The right to hold differing views in the gray areas of moral behavior is the hallmark of all free societies. That same freedom applies to Catholics’ practice of contraception, which leads to the following conclusions:

First, Church teachings on changing morals are teachings and not necessarily commands like the ones given by a commanding officer under threats of punishment and legal sanctions. As theologian Yves Congar reminds us, it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite another to obey an order (“Autre chose est agréer une doctrine, autre chose obéir à un ordre”).   

Second, many Church teachings have changed over time; therefore, teaching — like in our classrooms, per se — are subject to change and therefore not immutable at all. The best-known example of the Church’s doctrinal change is its reluctant rejection of the geocentric theory, found even in the Bible, that the sun goes around the earth.

A thoughtful Catholic will say the following on the widely accepted practice of contraception by Catholic couples: There are conflicting teachings issued by popes, bishops and priests on contraception; for example, Pope Francis has openly admitted that even Pope Paul VI, the architect of “Humanae Vitae,” “permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape” in the 1960s in the former Belgian Congo. Pope Francis himself does not find any problem with contraception against the Zika virus, just as Pope Benedict XVI had no problem with the use of condoms in order to avoid HIV infection. This means that there are acceptable uses of contraceptives, according to the popes, in order to avoid greater evils.

The moral principle at issue in disputed moral matters is often that we should choose the lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil — the principle of double effect. President Kennedy invoked this principle while negotiating with Chairman Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which resulted in the Soviet Union removing its missiles from Cuba when the U.S. agreed to secretly remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in order to avoid a suicidal war.

Fr. Jenkins explains it all better, saying “The [current controversial] situation is one that demands discernment — something to which Pope Francis has called the church in his various writings and addresses. … Discernment, which has a long history in the Catholic spiritual tradition, is, of course, a process of weighing thoughtfully considerations for and against various courses of action. Yet it demands prayerful attention to God’s guidance through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”

It is through thoughtful discernment that we practice toleration of differences of opinion, which is a virtue of the principle of probabilism, accepted almost universally in most societies and in the Catholic Church, especially on disputable moral issues.

According to the moral principle of probabilism, when there are divergent views as to the lawfulness of an action — for each of which there are solid arguments — the probable opinion can be followed, even if its opposite is more probable; for example, the views of one statement in the Christian Bible or of one pope or of one council is adequate enough to establish the probability of the morality or acceptability of a proposition, say, on birth control or capital punishment. Why? The probabilist position is based on the time-honored principle that a doubtful law does not impose any obligation (in dubio libertas).

Thus, Notre Dame and Father Jenkins’ well-thought-out decision to allow the University’s insurance company to continue to provide contraceptives to their employees and students is in full accord with the Catholic Church’s own teaching of probabilism, the guiding light in the gray areas of life. Note well, neither Fr. Jenkins nor the University is commanding its employees to use contraceptives to defy Catholic teaching, but it is asking objectors to use discernment to resolve controversial issues.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s well to remember that Notre Dame’s decision on the contraceptive controversy is eminently Catholic and in full compliance with the spirit of the Bible. In the words of St. Paul, “[Jesus] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). The following 16th century motto echoes Paul’s thinking and Notre Dame’s policies: “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas,” or “Unity in essentials, liberty in open questions, in all things charity.”

Zacharias Thundy

class of 1969

Feb. 9

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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