I deserved it. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was a decision of retributive justice. I had broken the rules, and removal from my dorm was a reasonable response.
At the time I had a number of personal issues. I didn’t have the psychological, intellectual, social or spiritual resources to manage some of the most difficult aspects of my life. I acted out.
In light of what I had done, my rector, a priest, made the decision that I was to be transferred to another dorm. The decision was fine. The way it was handled wasn’t. He never asked to meet with me to discuss this decision. The only meeting we had was initiated by me and consisted largely of me trying to explain myself. Later, the decision to remove me from my dorm was first communicated to me by another student that my rector had been speaking with. It was humiliating.
When I had that self-initiated meeting with my rector, he told me the ways in which a student in spiritual direction was troubled by what I had done. I think it was an attempt to make me feel guilty. He didn’t need to do that. I had already been so ashamed that I spent a few nights sleeping in the library, afraid to be in my dorm. The pain and shame weren’t over with that decision, though. Just before the next semester started, my former rector emailed me asking me to refrain from entering my former dorm, even to attend Mass.
I thought of this experience a few years later while learning about the ways in which Catholic social teaching can permeate business practice. In promoting a “logic of gift,” in contrast to the relativistic “logic of the market,” Dr. Michael Naughton points to a Montreal food processing company. At that company, if a manager fires an employee, he must meet with the former employee twice within the next seven months. The CEO of the company explained two motivations for this requirement: “1) it transcends the ‘fault’ issues, giving space to the very human experience of asking someone, ‘How are you doing?’ and 2) when people are fired or laid off by their manager, a deep rift is formed. The CEO wanted to create an opportunity for reconciliation.”
It seemed to me that the primary goal of my removal was to get rid of a problem — me — rather than to provide a space for healing and eventual reconciliation. Perhaps my rector hoped that healing could occur, but the mode he chose to facilitate that healing was to remove me from my home and to never check on me again. I don’t remember him asking me if I was ok or how I was doing. From my perspective, it seemed he wanted to maintain a certain order in his dorm community, and, as a threat to that order, I needed to be gotten rid of. I would just become someone else’s problem. From a certain perspective held in many American Catholic circles, this solution doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it implemented in Catholic dioceses across the country, some of which have gone bankrupt.
Years later, there’s nothing that can be done about what I experienced. I still carry some of the scars, and they sometimes hurt when touched. But in some ways the experience has been valuable, not because I believe the situation was handled well or correctly, but because it’s made me much more sympathetic to students in situations similar to my own. And it’s made me tougher, both as a friend and as a legal advocate. I’ve worked as a student attorney with people convicted of sex trafficking, drug trafficking and murder. My understanding of human failure and forgiveness, even my own failures and forgiveness, has very much been shaped by this work.
In many ways, I find myself challenged by a calling for collaborative and reconciliatory solutions that include the person who committed the harm, those who were harmed and their respective communities. Pope Francis argues that punishment must come with a posture of mercy and communion, rather than isolation. During his visit to the United States, he stated that we must “offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
You may not have the Notre Dame experience you dreamed of. For some, it’s a nightmare at times that lingers even after graduation, but be strong. Own up to your mistakes, and even if you have failed at times, don’t give up. Others will rely on you to know that they can too.
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, November 5, 2015.