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Disagreeing as neighbors

| Wednesday, November 10, 2021

A few years back, Student Affairs invited a student to talk to us about his experience as a gay student in his time at Notre Dame. The young man was poised, confident and eloquent as we hope all our graduates will be. He told us how growing up and experiencing same-sex attraction in a small town in the Great Plains was very lonely, and how he had come to Notre Dame with great hopes that here he would find a larger, more sophisticated community in which to come to know himself and his way in the world. What he found on that first weekend, he told us, was the worst weekend of his life, as a group he’d hoped to at least find friendly and hospitable was quick to call anything objectionably out of the ordinary “gay” and any guy acting in any way out of line any of various anti-gay slurs. Hearing him share his experience was eye-opening for many of us, and our eyes were not dry. Fr. Ralph Haag, C.S.C., Rector of St. Ed’s, and I, set about to create a training session for all of our Welcome Weekend staffers to alert them to the danger that this story raised: That casual indifference to language and inattention to other’s experience and dignity might be terribly, sinfully harmful. We had to do better.

Around that same time, a first-year student stopped by one morning for coffee and to ask me some questions about life. He wanted to know how to deal with a situation in which his significant other (whom he referred to in gender-neutral terms) was not ready to be physically intimate. We had yet to reach October break of his first year in college, so I was less concerned about the crisis than my resident was! Eventually, he said, “What I’m saying is, it’s hard to be gay and Catholic, Father.” I said “Well, I can understand that. But let’s maybe slow down. So, you’ve decided the Church is wrong about whether you can ever have sex with a member of the same sex. OK. So, when should you have sex with someone? You’ve only been here a few weeks. We have handsome, well-adjusted seniors, men and women, straight and gay, who have yet to have sex. They’re OK! You’ll be OK. My advice is: Don’t worry about having sex until you’ve figured out not just what you think is wrong but what you think is right. I think the Church is right, but we can keep talking, and you’re welcome here despite our disagreement.” That student and I maintained a very good relationship the rest of our time on campus together, and he wrote me a most touching note about our walking together in faith and life here. This, despite my commending Church teaching to him; this, despite his rejecting it (so far as I know). I did and do think very highly of him.

These two anecdotes have been prominently in my mind as the pages of our campus newspapers have roiled with talk of hate speech and bigotry because a student, Mary Frances Myler, wrote that she wanted more clarity from Notre Dame on where it stands with respect to Church teaching and human sexuality. She wrote from a perspective endorsing that teaching. So far as I could see, she said nothing contrary to the dignity of LGBTQ students, and certainly seemed to be embracing “the recognition that students who experience same-sex attraction are human beings created in the image of God and loved immeasurably by Him.” Yet her Irish Rover piece has been castigated as bigoted hate speech. This latter fact disturbs. I’ve asked some students to point out to me what in the article they found hateful or bigoted, and they couldn’t do so. One noted, “But she doesn’t think they should have sex.” Well, true. So teaches the Church, and so argue some (a minority, to be sure) very smart and talented gay Christian thinkers and writers like Eve Tushnet and Wesley Hill. They are not hateful or self-loathing; they are not bigots. Moral disagreement is a fact of life in our pluralistic country and university, and in particular, at a university, we must learn to live with it in love.

We here at Notre Dame disagree amongst ourselves about some very fundamental things. As I began writing this piece, an email from a law student to the law school community (which I serve as chaplain) invited us to a talk by a prominent advocate of abortion rights. A lot of us in the law school annually attend the March for Life precisely to end the regime of abortion rights, and to build a culture of life and civilization of love where mothers and babies (born and unborn) are protected by law and cared for by all of us. It’s a vital issue as we all see it. But we have to love one another even in our vigorous disagreement about this most fundamental issue. Indeed, it was precisely a controversy over that issue, when he had invited then-President Obama to speak at commencement, that led University President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., to begin regularly calling us to civility as a university community. A university community should stand out precisely for its ability to wrestle with moral questions with respect for diversity and charity in interpretation.

The Church’s teaching on human sexuality is simple enough: Sex is a powerful dimension of the human person ordered toward procreation and the bonding of husband and wife, and expressions that willfully sever sex from its nature are immoral. It’s a hard teaching! Many straight people (though not all) and many gay people (though not all) reject it. But it would be strange to hold all and only those moral views that most people hold (I doubt, dear reader, that’s true of you), so we still must find and serve God in the tangle of our wits and think for ourselves about where conscience and moral truth are. And we won’t be unanimous in our conclusions. But we can be unanimous in seeking the truth in love, in presuming the goodwill of those who challenge us, and in forming a university community in which moral disagreement is a fact of adult life and not a cause for rhetorical warfare.

Too often, many in the Church have seemed to pay special attention to gay sex outside of marriage, ignoring the rigorous demands that chastity places on us all, gay and straight alike. This has seemed to many LGBTQ people a stiff-arm from the Church, a sign of unwelcome, and has led to harrowing weekends like the one that Notre Dame student shared with our Student Affairs group. We can and must do better to provide a loving welcome to every son and daughter of God on this campus and walk with them toward the truth together. But we can challenge one another without thinking that disagreement — even about very important things — is a moral failure, bigotry or hatred. Notre Dame’s policies, built upon the same Church teachings Ms. Myler wrote about, apply equally to all our students, and call them to chastity. We approach them this way in the residence halls — where none of our student residents are married — and we are places of respect and welcome for all, not despite, but because of Church teaching.

You and I probably don’t agree about everything important in life, if we were to look at it together. That fact is what makes universities interesting. Sometimes people say that the reason they want to stifle such moral disagreement is a desire to create a safe space. But it’s far likelier that reducing moral disagreement to group affiliation, and ascribing disagreement to bigotry or hatred, will create an unsafe place for us all, than that disagreement itself would. We can do better, and we must.

William Dailey, C.S.C.

Rector, Pangborn Hall

Nov. 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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