Catholicism, Consent, and Notre Dame Football

I was at a dorm party my freshman year, and one of my friends was dancing with a guy she had never met before.

The following column was written for, though not submitted to, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, the Observer. I have copied it here, as I had originally written it in November 2012:

I was at a dorm party my freshman year, and one of my friends was dancing with a guy she had never met before. Both had consumed several drinks. After the party was over, everyone gathered in the hallway, and he asked her, “Hey, how about we go back to my room?” He held her by the hand and motioned down the hall. I grabbed her other hand and said, “Come on, time to go downstairs.” I don’t know if she would have been assaulted otherwise, but I do know that sexual assault happens at Notre Dame.

DuLac defines consent as “informed, freely given agreement, communicated by clearly understandable words or actions, to participate in each form of sexual activity.” It also lists various circumstances which do not guarantee consent. It fails, however, to clearly state when consent has been determined.

Last year, the “Lizzy Seeberg case” came to national attention. A freshman at St. Mary’s College committed suicide 10 days after she reported being fondled by a Notre Dame football player against her will. Following a very controversial investigation, from which Notre Dame has received much criticism, police determined that the activity was consensual.

ND Alumna Melinda Henneberger reported in a Politics Daily article, “The accused, a star whom head coach Brian Kelly has publicly praised in interviews both before and after Lizzy’s death, has a history of behavior problems that continued even after he was recruited by Notre Dame; he was suspended during his senior year in high school for throwing a desk at a teacher who’d taken away his cell phone. Yet after Lizzy’s allegations, he never sat out a single game.”

Presumably the player was not benched, because the actions were determined to be consensual. This may be true in relation to the police report, but is this true in relation to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity? Dulac also states that “the University embraces the Catholic Church’s teaching that a genuine and complete expression of love through sex requires a commitment to a total living and sharing together of two persons in marriage.”

Very few students know how to determine whether sexual activity is consensual. How are we to determine when consent is “freely given” or “communicated” with “clearly understandable words or actions”? Surely, these mean different things to different people. People consent to different things in different ways. It shouldn’t surprise us that the University’s definition of consent is ambiguous. How do we determined whether or not a woman felt pressured, intimidated, or coerced? Many women don’t report sexual assault, because they don’t know whether or not the aggressor’s actions can be truly defined as assault. Should the University make available a “consent contract,” to be signed by any students engaging in sexual activity and an uninterested third party?

Surely such a contract would be at odds with our identity as a Catholic institution. However, if the University is to take seriously the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality, it would promote the understanding that truly consensual sex can only occur within marriage. For Catholicism, sex outside of marriage is dishonest and premature. Outside of marriage, sex and sexual touching cannot be truly consensual.

This does not mean that every form of extramarital sex is assault, but it does have consequences for how we deal with cases like Lizzy’s. This case has cast a shadow over recent achievements by the University, being featured in Sports Illustrated’s cover story about our football program. The player may not be convicted of assault, but Lizzy knew that something was wrong with the way he had touched her. Others knew something was wrong, aside from the fact that the player gave beer to Lizzy, a minor. A friend of the player texted Lizzy, “Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with notre dame football is a bad idea.”

In the end, the University expressed no disappointment with the player or his actions. This is a great black mark on the “Miraculum Dominae Nostrae MMXII.” If we take the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality seriously, the player did commit sexual misconduct. Yet, it is likely that he will be playing in a game in Miami on January 7. As Notre Dame students cheer in the stands on that day, how can they not be conflicted? What are we cheering for?

To report an incident of sexual misconduct or sexual assault, you can contact NDSP at 911 or (574) 631-5555; they are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you have been sexually assaulted, you can also find resources at Please know that it is not your fault, you did not deserve it, and you are not alone.

5 comments on “Catholicism, Consent, and Notre Dame Football

  1. Cornelius Griggs

    Um, is advising anyone to report a sexual assault to NDSP wise? Is there no county police who might conduct a more reasonable investigation?


  2. The issues of whether the sexual activity was immoral and whether it was consensual seem to me to be entirely distinct.


    • I think that there is a distinction, but I have a hard time as seeing them being “entirely distinct.” Surely, they must be related in some way. One has a responsibility to form oneself to 1) know when and how oneself can properly consent to something, 2) know when and how another can properly consent to something, and 3) act on this knowledge properly. I see this as very bound up in morality.


      • Fair enough. What I meant to (but admittedly did not) say was that whether or not a legal rape/sexual assault took place doesn’t seem to be related to whether or not the two parties involved were married.


Leave a Reply (but please keep it respectful. See the comment policy on the "About" page)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: