The following column was published in The Observer on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.
In its recent student government endorsement, Scholastic Magazine criticized one ticket for its proposal “to instate a prayer before home football games.” Scholastic insisted that such a proposal “contradicts their platform of inclusion.” No doubt, furthering the inclusivity of the campus environment at Notre Dame has been a very important focus in recent years. After publishing an offensive comic strip by The Mobile Party in January 2010, The Observer issued a statement condemning the “cruel and hateful” comic printed in its pages. The comic made an offensive joke about gay men being assaulted.
Two months later, Charles Rice, Notre Dame professor of law and Observer columnist for nearly 20 years, submitted a column outlining the Catechism’s teachings on homosexuality. The Observer’s editor, in an email rejecting the column, expressed concerns about the column’s length, as well as “some concerns with the content of the column, particularly considering The Mobile Party comic incident earlier in the semester.” He suggested that, should Professor Rice choose to write on this topic, he submit it in a “point-counterpoint format . . . That way, each ‘side,’ to speak, would have the opportunity to present relevant facts, evidence and analysis to define its position.” The exchange ended in the discontinuance of Professor Rice’s column.
In discourse in the contemporary university, neutrality is prized as an exemplary virtue. At religious universities, neutrality often indicates a kind of ambivalence towards the university’s religious mission, seeking to be inclusive to those who are not a part of the school’s religious tradition. Student government candidates are criticized for advocating public prayer, and columnists are censored for promoting religious teachings. Religious acts and advocacy are deemed non-inclusive and one-sided. These publications insist that all opposing sides must be permitted to present their own facts in their own ways.
The Scholastic, The Observer and other publications and institutions reveal their own rejection of neutrality, however, in their “endorsements.” This becomes quite clear in Notre Dame’s annual student government elections, in which these publications allow each side to present itself and then inform campus which side it should elect. In such endorsements, we learn that no publication is in fact “neutral.”
Indeed, a publication’s ability to write “staff editorials” comes from its lack of neutrality.
Such a lack need not be considered a bad thing. Those who would insist that opinions and beliefs be kept private insist on a country whose citizens are unable to engage each other in the public sphere on the most important matters. However, America is often celebrated as a uniquely diverse country, a country that grows through the intersection and dialogue of competing viewpoints.
We must keep in mind, however, that viewpoints are not only held by individual citizens. They are also held by institutions. A society that respects diverse viewpoints must not only be tolerant of individuals, it must also be tolerant of institutions. As social creatures, human beings desire to have beliefs that are shared and lived out in community. One test of our tolerance is our ability to cultivate and promote institutions and communities that manifest particular sets of beliefs. Indeed, all institutions and communities arise from shared beliefs.
We often discuss the marginalization of minority individuals. We don’t, however, discuss intolerance within institutions. Refusing public prayer or religious teachings at a Catholic university is not a call for neutrality. It is a refusal to let an institution be what it is. Notre Dame does not have a choice between Catholicism and neutrality. There is no such thing as institutional neutrality. We have a choice between Catholicism and Agnosticism, a competing religion.
Some students choose to attend Notre Dame and then pretend to be surprised by its Catholic elements, such as theology requirements and Catholic-oriented health plans. We ought not to be fooled by their feigned ignorance, however. When students make arguments beginning with, “I didn’t come to Notre Dame because it’s Catholic,” they aren’t making arguments for neutrality. Rather, they’re insisting that the University abandon its own beliefs in exchange for their own. They would replace Catholicism with themselves.
Notre Dame is both a University and a woman, and she is most worthy of protection from those who would damage her integrity. We may encourage students to cultivate their own personal beliefs, but we must allow and encourage Notre Dame to have, express, live by and promote her beliefs as well. For those of you who disagree, good luck covering 132 feet of Jesus Christ for “College GameDay.”
Christopher Damian is a senior studying philosophy. He can be contacted at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.