- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

A Sign Of Hope At Notre Dame

Elderly man visits students in Notre Dame’s Tocqueville program. Soren Hansen (center) and Jarek Jankowski

I see from my social media feeds that Catholic friends of mine are disappointed that the University of Notre Dame, under no government compulsion, decided to offer free birth control coverage to its employees. [1] I understand their distress, but let me tell you some good — no, great — news about Notre Dame.

As regular readers know, I recently spent a couple of days on campus, the guest of the university’s Tocqueville Program [2]on religion and public life. I had a terrific time, and came away extremely impressed by the students in the program. Most of them were (are) faithful Catholics or other Christians, sharply intelligent, and engaged with the big questions.

But here’s the thing: I met one young man who identifies as an agnostic, and another who suggested that he was probably “the first black liberal atheist” that I’ve ever met. We had a laugh over that, but here’s the thing: in conversation, I found that those guys who aren’t sure if they believe in God, or deny the existence of God, took theology far more seriously than most believers I know, and displayed an admirably honest sense of inquiry.

I sat at a table and listened to a conversation between the atheist and a visiting Dominican priest. It was deep and substantive. The Dominican — Father Dominic Legge of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC — took the student’s questions seriously, and gave him answers. It was thrilling, to be honest.

I learned that Catholic and other Christians students who want to have a serious and sustained engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition, both in and out of class, can find their tribe at Notre Dame. Yes, it’s easy to find nominal Catholics at a university that big. But if you’re serious about your faith and the life of the mind, there’s a home for you among professors and students at Notre Dame — especially in the Tocqueville Program. It’s important to remember that. There is hope.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "A Sign Of Hope At Notre Dame"

#1 Comment By Rjak On November 9, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

That was certainly my experience when I did an MA at Notre Dame a few years back. Yes, of course, there were plenty of nominal Catholics & non-believers. But there was also a very strong community of committed believers, several of whom remain among my closest friends to this day. I wouldn’t trade my 2 years there, and the formation in the study of Catholic theology & Church history I received, for the world.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 9, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

The email continued, “Recognizing, however, the plurality of religious and other convictions among its employees, it will not interfere with the provision of contraceptives that will be administered and funded independently of the University.”

I think you’ve mischaracterized what the university did. It acknowledged that it has hired employees from a large pool, not limited to confessing Roman Catholics, and that what employees use their medical benefits for (part of their compensation for the work they were hired to do) is not the university’s business.

It would be even better to shift to a single payer system where the employer is not contracting for the medical benefits at all. But in the meantime, its a labor issue, not a religious liberty issue.

#3 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On November 9, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

good post, Rod.

#4 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On November 9, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

I am so glad to hear it. It is one of the schools I want my children to look at.

Any notion of the Orthodox community or parishes there?

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On November 9, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

Maybe the University of Notre Dame realized that offering birth control to its employees would attract a better set of candidates?

What your religious friends are whining about is the fact that the hiring of employees by nominally Catholic universities are subject to the same set of market forces as the rest of the economy. Boo hoo.

#6 Comment By rob On November 9, 2017 @ 2:06 pm

I thought they (notre dame) had no choice because the insurance company (aetna) was going to cover it anyway because its still cheaper for the company (aetna). Not to mention there are some valid reasons to be on birth control other than to have lots of …

#7 Comment By Sancho On November 9, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

I’m glad you had this positive experience. I hope it will encourage you and other pundits to turn the dial down a bit on all the anti-university rhetoric. The modern campus culture should not be defined by the worst statements by particular cranks in some tiny humanities departments or the silliest protests by a small, but vocal group of students. But you often wouldn’t know that by reading and listening to conservative commentators.

#8 Comment By GregR On November 9, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

Rod the Pew Survey: U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey has consistently found that Athiest/Agnostics know more about religion than any other group. As a whole we are not religious not because we don’t know the Bible, but because we know it all too well.

Way back when I was a comparative religion major more than half the program, at a small Methodist school, was comprised of Agnostics.

#9 Comment By T.S.Gay On November 9, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

“A Sign of Hope..”
George Frederick Watts set out to re-imagine the depiction of Hope in a society in which economic decline and environmental deterioration were increasingly leading people to question the notion of progress and the existence of God. Most often used by our African American brothers and sisters in our culture. Nicholas Tromans, using Watts themes, has written that if Faith is going to resume its importance for humanity, it will have to be in a role deferential to a more constant Love and Hope.

#10 Comment By first black liberal atheist On November 9, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

How does one take theology seriously without believing in God? I’m honestly curious.

#11 Comment By Alison On November 9, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

As the saying goes, “It’s a great gig, if you can get it.” With less than a 20% admittance rate; an average 34 ACT score; and 51,000+ in yearly tuition, I would hope those conversations would be serious, indeed. (Aren’t you glad to be finished with your son’s college apps!)

#12 Comment By John On November 9, 2017 @ 4:46 pm

Boy the Roy Moore bit is going to be interesting here on the blog.

#13 Comment By Leroy Huizenga On November 9, 2017 @ 5:38 pm

This post is so positive. Who are you, and what have you done with Rod?

#14 Comment By stephen cooper On November 9, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

I am sure that there are many Christian people – undoubtedly, large numbers of them who are better Christians than me – at the University that still, dishonestly, calls itself the University of Notre Dame. Still, it is not really the University of Notre Dame, it is just the University that dishonestly calls itself the University of Notre Dame. It was an act of hubris to give a little school in our fallen world that beautiful name: I wish the people of earlier generations had felt more humility in naming their school. They may have been very good people but we now have the facts to know that they engaged, more than they should have done, in hubris. Well God has forgiven all of them long ago, one hopes. For us the living, though, it is sad beyond telling, when you really think about it, what that university has become, in general (leaving aside the islands of Christianity within it). It is possible that a prayer that many of the people who make their living there will ask that the name be changed, as an act of Christian humility, will be successful. They probably won’t: they live there, after all, and do not want to be seen as being the unpopular person who bravely says that the “University of Notre Dame” forfeited its right to calling itself that long ago. Well, as Rod said, there is hope.

#15 Comment By charles cosimano On November 10, 2017 @ 1:21 am

Grump said, “What your religious friends are whining about is the fact that the hiring of employees by nominally Catholic universities are subject to the same set of market forces as the rest of the economy. Boo hoo.”

LOL. What they are whining about is that no one is interested in following their rules. Sucketh to be them.

#16 Comment By GregR On November 10, 2017 @ 1:52 am

First Black Liberal Atheist,

In my case I found, and still find religion fascinating. While I reject the premise of the supernatural the study of those stories that are important to generations of people, and why they chose the stories they did tell us an amazing amount about who they were, what they cared about, and what they feared.

Just as an example, almost every mythology in the world has a a destructive flood myth. Which is a pretty clear indication about the types of destruction they faced, generally from a vindictive god. On the other hand there are a few religious traditions that have the opposite, the anti-flood, where floods failed to occur causing rampant famine and strife, also because of a vengeful god (normally). The later stories occur exclusively in areas where regular and repeated flooding was a necessary part of the annual agricultural harvest like the lower Nile Valley.

So when you run across a flood mythology even from a culture that you know nothing else about, you can have a pretty good guess about the nature of that culture just by wether the flood is seen as destructive or beneficial.

Virgin births for god figures are found regularly wherever sexuality has been repressed, while it shows up rarely in places where temple prostitutes are common. However in the temple prostitute cultures you tend to see a lot of weird births, clams, balls of spit, pulled from a tree. So again just by knowing the religious mythology of a place and time you can have a very good idea of the culture.

Think of it as intellectual archaeology and it becomes clear why it can be so revealing.

Additionally the study of different religions can tell us an awful lot about the general human condition. The meditation of Buddhist monks and the solemn processionals of Eastern Orthodox Priests have a lot more in common than you might think. The 10 commandments may be in Leviticus, but they also show up in one form or another all over the world.

#17 Comment By galanx On November 10, 2017 @ 5:22 am

Maybe it affected the football program? I mean, speaking of religion….

You are surprised to discover an atheist who takes religion seriously? Then again, my own son, who has a degree in philosophy, wondered why I spent time on religious sites discussing it. (Of course he said the same thing about the Rolling Stones when I was listening to their music one day- “Do you really like that
old stuff?”- blasphemy! Alas, my nieces and their boyfriends are more representative of the new generation- assuming a polite smile when the subject comes up, as when people talk about model trains or other hobbies they are not interested in.

#18 Comment By cka2nd On November 10, 2017 @ 7:49 am

Leroy Huizenga says: “This post is so positive. Who are you, and what have you done with Rod?”

LOL! But I do love reading about hearty philosophical/political/economic discussions across boundaries.

#19 Comment By catbird On November 10, 2017 @ 9:21 am

Greg R:
The 10 commandments are in Exodus and Deuteronomy, not Leviticus. You don’t know as much as you think you do.

#20 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 10, 2017 @ 10:35 am

How does one take theology seriously without believing in God? I’m honestly curious.

You start with the same sense of humility you insist on from religious believers… “I could be wrong.” Then you recognize that some of your fellow humans deeply and sincerely believe the theology they adhere to, to be true, not merely a rationale for a socially convenient fraternal order. And then you remind yourself once again that, while there is no empirical proof for the existence of God or the divine imprimatur on any given canon or doctrine, it may be true. Then you apply the principle “By their fruits shall you know them,” and you get everything from Torquemada to Albert Schweitzer. And then you look in detail at how and why theology can produce either, or a lot of other outcomes.

#21 Comment By first black liberal atheist On November 10, 2017 @ 12:00 pm


I get that, but I think of that as more, like you said, “intellectual archaeology.” Or mythology. Or “religious studies.” I don’t consider reading the Iliad “theology”

I don’t see how you can take Theology seriously without believing in God, though. I mean, “Theos” is right there in the name. It’s like taking alchemy seriously without believing in alchemy. Now, alchemy as part of history is interesting, and some people credit it as being a predecessor to later actual chemistry. Even Newton dabbled in it. But I don’t take actual Alchemy seriously.

#22 Comment By first black liberal atheist On November 10, 2017 @ 2:09 pm

Siarlys Jenkins

I guess I have a different idea of Theology. What everybody seems to be talking about is more like sociology, or general philosophy, or anthropology. I can do the same thing as you propose with, say, Bigfoot enthusiasts or Flat Earthers or whatever. I can try to understand their deeply held convictions, and how they arrived at their beliefs, and where it leads them, and so on. But it’s not Theology.

I guess I don’t understand the concept of an Atheist Theologian. Atheist Philosopher, Anthropologist, Sociologist, Folklorist, and so on, yes. Or maybe the problem is the phrase, “taking seriously.” Can you take something “seriously” and also think it is false? I don’t think Bigfoot exists. I’ve met people that fervently believe he exists. They, of course, have no evidence, but I guess I have to remind myself, it may be true…? Is this taking it seriously?

#23 Comment By GregR On November 10, 2017 @ 3:02 pm


I guess it depends on what you mean by taking it seriously. I think religion as a study of the human condition is a critically important piece of the puzzle. I do not think that it should be takes seriously in a hard science class where facts are the important issue.

But don’t discount Alchemy as a root of modern chemistry. Sure they were wrong, but the work that was done played the groundwork for later research.

Interestingly we have now achieved one of the principle goals of Alchemy of turning lead into gold. It just takes a leaving a slug of lead in a nuclear reactor for a while and allowing neutron capture to do its thing. Of course it costs billion to make a few dollars in gold, but we can do it.


Thanks for the correction. I had a cut and past error and I appreciate the catch.

#24 Comment By James C On November 10, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

“Students often joke that BC means “Barely Catholic.” But it’s Catholic enough to feel like home and pagan enough to feel like a mission field.” Peter Kreeft

#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 11, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

first black liberal atheist… I’m tempted to say, you must not know many black people… Have you ever been to a Missionary Baptist Church? How about Church of God in Christ?

Theology is NOT sociology, never has been. The WELS Lutherans I know (most of whom are also black) don’t believe the earth was created in six days because anthropological evidence leads them to believe so… they believe it because they believe God said so, and they prioritize that over what appears to be “human reasoning.”

I would agree that outfits like AIG are indulging in rationalizations far outside of theology or Biblical inerrancy. I have been known to say “Oh ye of little faith” over that stuff, also “Intelligent Design.” These are sophistries that seem to stem from the notion, people in the world today believe in science and not in Scripture, ergo, we must find a scientific basis for our teleological premises.

I would concede though that IF this is what God did, THEN there should be evidence for it. There is not, and that is why I presume that since its obvious biological evolution happened, God must have known about it all along.

Flat Earthers are not talking about events in the past that even scientists don’t fully understand, although we have a good outline. Flat Earthers maintain that now, today, the earth is a flat disc. Flat earth is no more predicated on Biblical evidence than female genital mutilation is, (and there are Christians in east Africa who insist that the female circumcision rituals that predate both Christianity and Islam in their history are actually a Christian practice).

I’ll let Rod answer about Big Foot. Nobody believe in Big Foot like Rod does.