Published November 1, 2021
It is a sad reality that, among students at the University of Notre Dame, it is becoming unacceptable to share Catholic Church teaching on matters of human identity and sexuality. A few weeks back, Notre Dame senior Mary Frances Myler — who serves as editor in chief of the Irish Rover, an independent student newspaper — published a column critiquing the ways in which the university has failed to apply the fullness of the Catholic tradition to its handling of gender-identity issues on campus.
The backlash among students was swift and predictable. Immediately, Notre Dame’s campus paper The Observer published a letter to the editor from one of Myler’s classmates expressing outrage at her column, and the paper issued its own editorial implicitly castigating Myler. Just this week, The Observer published a second letter from a student, chastising Myler in terms even more personally insulting than the first.
This most recent letter, from Notre Dame senior Sara Ferraro, is in many ways the standard fare we have come to expect from the woke campus denizen. It is not an argument so much as a bill of indictment, larded with emotion and hyperbole. It dismisses Myler’s editorial as hate speech. It excoriates her for using “she” and “her” when referring to the Church — a choice that follows biblical and historical tradition, Paul being unaware of Obergefell v. Hodges when he wrote his letter to the Ephesians — while describing the LGBTQ movement as “it.” (Left unexplained is whether that movement ought to be referred to as a “she” or a “he,” a binary that seems rather exclusionary according to Ferraro’s own logic.)
The letter likewise relies on elisions that distort Myler’s argument and form the basis for non sequiturs buried within emoting. For example, Ferraro presents Myler’s objection to Notre Dame’s outright celebration of LGBTQ identities as if it were an objection to supporting LGBTQ students, as well as denial of their personhood and humanity.
In this, Ferraro not only mischaracterizes Myler most uncharitably but also displays her ignorance of mainstream Catholic thought, and indeed broader Christian teaching. Myler’s understanding of what constitutes human personhood is firmly rooted in the rich tradition of the Catholic Church, which demands a distinction between the sin and the sinner — a concept perhaps distasteful to a generation that has rejected the notion of sin and become enamored with the doctrine of queer theory.
In a properly Christian understanding, sexuality does not constitute the whole of one’s humanity or personhood. Every individual has intrinsic dignity and commands our respect simply by virtue of his or her nature as a human being. This does not, however, mean that all self-asserted identities are to be considered equally valid.
Indeed, it is the LGBTQ movement, not the Christian or the Church, that has jettisoned a proper conception of human dignity rooted in identity. Rather than valuing each individual simply because he or she is a human being, created in the image and likeness of God, gender theory grounds our identity instead in our location on the spectrum of bespoke sexual identities, placing this conception of the self above the human nature that unites us.
Perhaps the most unfair aspect of Ferraro’s response is its use of self-congratulatory piety to attack Myler. What are we to make of how she dismisses Myler’s calm but trenchant adherence to Church teaching as “hate speech,” as divisive, as inflicting damage, as promoting discrimination — all before claiming to respect Myler’s presence on campus and insisting that she wishes to be friends?
It appears to be character assassination cloaked in a veneer of faux kindness. As to “growing and learning together,” one wonders exactly what Ferraro hopes to learn from Myler, whom she has previously dismissed as bigoted, despicable, and dangerous. We suspect this might be a learning process that is rather one-sided.
With her column, Myler has taken a courageous stand, offering Notre Dame’s faculty and administration an opportunity to demonstrate that they operate an institution committed not to four-year courses in personal therapy but rather to a robust education within which students are asked to confront ideas with which they disagree — and to do so in a Christian environment that cultivates both courtesy and courage in classroom and campus engagement.
It is disappointing that, at a Catholic university, it would fall to a student to rearticulate the beauty and truth of Catholic teaching on sexuality, which is grounded in God’s creation of human beings as male and female, made in His image and likeness. No doubt the university administration has little to say in Myler’s defense because her piece demonstrated how Notre Dame has responded to the shifting tides on sexuality, marriage, and gender identity by embracing secularism. That descent has been swift.
When I (Alexandra) was a student at Notre Dame only five years ago, the primary debates among students were over whether the university should officially recognize the LGBT student group, while progressive students vocally resisted the formation of a student group dedicated to articulating the case for marriage as being between one man and one woman. Today, Myler finds herself under vicious attack from fellow students merely for publishing, in an independent newspaper, an affirmation of Catholic teaching.
All we can hope for from this ugly incident is that it might reveal once again whether Notre Dame’s professors, administrators, and president have the temerity to stand in defense of Church teaching beside some of their students, who at the moment appear to possess the lion’s share of courage at Our Lady’s University.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.