Late last year, the University of Notre Dame announced that its insurance plans for employees and participating students would be eligible to receive contraceptive drugs through a third-party administrator. In light of this, university president Father John Jenkins reiterated that Notre Dame still remained “unwavering in our fidelity to our Catholic mission.” The reason for this action, he said, was that the school was respecting the other beliefs and practices of their Notre Dame community who made “conscientious decisions about the use of such drugs.”1 Without indicating which drugs were permitted, he claimed that no abortifacients would be provided.
Responsibility for Sins
If only it were as simple as Father Jenkins stated. Paragraph 1868 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them [emphasis retained]:
- by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
- by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
- by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
- by protecting evil-doers.”2
The university’s position of having a third-party provide contraceptives under the provisions of its insurance plans runs afoul of two of these aspects. The third applies in that the university had within its power to hinder the use of contraceptives. Instead, it washed its hands a la Pontius Pilate and passed it off to a third-party provider. Regarding the second point, while not openly approving the morality of contraceptive use, Notre Dame, by its actions gives tacit approval. To find a similar example, this university would never give a third-party approval to provide for abortions on a limited basis just because some employees or students feel that rape or incest is a justifiable excuse for one. — Or would it?
Contraception and the General Role of the Conscience
Paragraph 2399 of the Catechism addresses contraception with:
“The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).”2
Father Jenkins acknowledged “conscientious decisions” made by some of their community regarding the use of these drugs. Nevertheless, the various contraceptives have differing degrees of immorality regardless of the individual’s level of conscience formation. Regarding consciences and how we should respond to them:
“While it is taught that a man may follow his conscience even if it be erroneous, this does not make the conclusions of an erroneous conscience true or worthy of respect… And even if their erroneous consciences may lessen their culpability, Jesus does not leave them free of any role in their deformed consciences. Thus, He adds, ‘They will do these things because they have not known the Father or Me.’ (John 16:3) So the Church’s response to an erroneous conscience should not be to affirm it or to pronounce it worthy of respect. While we want to respect that some people are sincerely wrong and wish to treat them with dignity, we must continue to insist that those who have erroneous consciences are wrong. We must teach both them and others what is true and why.”3
It’s appropriate that “Notre Dame” means Our Lady (Virgin Mary). Because the traditional date of March 25 celebrating the Annunciation occurred during Holy Week this year, the U.S. bishops moved its 2018 commemoration to yesterday (April 9). This annual solemnity reminds us that we Christians are grateful that Mary was totally open to life as God willed it. May the University of Notre Dame do as its namesake by striving to promote openness to human life.
1 – “’Simple Contraceptives’ Added To Notre Dame Health Plan,” by Catholic News Agency as reported in the March 4, 2018 issue of National Catholic Register.
2 – The Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, twenty-fifth printing, November, 2013.
3 – “What Conscience Is and Is Not,” by Msgr. Charles Pope (dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.), same issue as in footnote #1.