In a stunning reversal, the University of Notre Dame has retreated from its decision to stop providing contraception to students and faculty through the university health-care plan. This decision is just the latest evidence to suggest that the Notre Dame administration is less committed to its Catholic identity and mission than it is to conforming itself to the demands of popular culture and societal pressure.
In 2013, the university brought one of the most high-profile lawsuits against the Obama administration in the wake of the Health & Human Services contraception mandate, which required all employers — regardless of religious or moral objections — to provide birth control and abortifacient drugs to employees free of charge.
Just last month, the HHS under President Donald Trump expanded the existing exemptions to that mandate, a move that resolved over 70 pending lawsuits (including Notre Dame’s), which were filed to seek relief from the coercive policy on religious grounds.
In late October, Notre Dame announced that it would end contraceptive coverage for faculty and students after receiving this exemption. The reaction from most quarters of the media, and from small groups of left-leaning Notre Dame graduate students, was exactly what one might expect — general shock and horror over Notre Dame’s “War on Birth Control,” magnified by the university’s status as the largest employer (so far) to eliminate coverage.
But these brave birth-control warriors needn’t have troubled themselves. If they had paid any attention to the controversies brewing at Notre Dame in recent years, they would’ve had plenty of evidence to reassure them that it’d only be a matter of time before the university managed to find a way to reconcile its Catholic convictions with its desire to blend in among its Ivy League peers.
And critics wouldn’t even have had to wait very long. It took no more than week for Notre Dame to announce that it would, in fact, not be ending contraceptive and abortifacient coverage for its employees and students, after all. Very conveniently, the university’s insurance provider, Meritain Health, graciously agreed to continue funding contraception indefinitely.
According to Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown, the university had believed that Meritain would automatically discontinue no-cost coverage at the end of the year, and that was the university’s reason for its previous announcement.
“The university’s interest has never been in preventing access to those who make conscientious decisions to use contraceptives,” said Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins on Tuesday. “Our interest, rather, has been to avoid being compelled by the federal government to be the agent in their provision.”
There are a couple of key problems with these claims. For one thing, allowing Meritain to continue providing free-of-cost birth control of its own accord is precisely the “accommodation” offered to Notre Dame by the Obama administration just after the HHS mandate went into effect — and that accommodation was rejected by Notre Dame as insufficient.
In other words, Notre Dame sued the federal government not just for relief from the mandate, but also for a more substantial exemption than the weak accommodation the Obama administration proffered. Under that proposed arrangement, Notre Dame would sign a form saying that its religious beliefs precluded it from providing contraceptives and authorizing its insurance provider to do so instead.
According to Notre Dame’s own lawsuit, this accommodation was “contrary to its faith” because it still compelled the university to “facilitate practices that Catholic doctrine considers morally wrong.” By allowing Meritain to continue covering birth control, is the university essentially admitting that its claims in court were untrue?
This leads to a second issue with Notre Dame’s latest gyrations: They are founded on the fiction that Meritain is operating completely independent of the university’s control. But presumably the insurance plan in question is subject to the university’s input and approval. Meritain surely could not continue providing contraception if Notre Dame told it not to.
On this point, a particularly revealing quote from another Notre Dame administrator, Paul Browne: “We have made the decision not to interfere with the provision of contraceptives administered by insurance administrators and funded independently.”
If Notre Dame truly objected to playing any role in distributing contraception and abortifacient drugs to its employees and students, it could very easily direct Meritain to cease providing those services altogether. The university has evidently chosen not to do so. But its administrators continue trying to make it seem as if the matter is entirely out of their hands. It remains unclear whether the university has formally filed for an accommodation, which would allow Meritain to be reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of contraceptive services.
Notre Dame alumni group Sycamore Trust perhaps put it best in a bulletin announcing this latest flip-flop: The decision to continue providing contraception and abortifacients is a “breathtaking repudiation of [the university’s] judicial representations” and a move that “has set the precedent for this sort of insurance system for surgical abortion, sterilization, and any other procedure that has a significant constituency in the university community.”
We need not get into the ugly history of the recent controversies that have led many to believe that Notre Dame grows less committed to its Catholic mission by the year. It is enough to say simply: Notre Dame has once again shown itself to care more about the verdict of powerful cultural influencers than about upholding the convictions of the faith it purports to represent.