A Moral Challenge for Notre Dame’s Trustees


Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees gathers on campus this week. Committee meetings will be held on Thursday, followed by the full board meeting on Friday, and then the much-anticipated football game against Stanford on Saturday. Not much is expected to emerge from the meetings themselves. It will be appear to be business as usual. But in fact, something deeply troubling will have happened.

Sadly, at Notre Dame – as indeed at many other Catholic universities – many board members are essentially passive bystanders selected mainly for their “giving potential,” as it is delicately put, rather than for their qualifications to fulfill the serious responsibility mandated for them in Ex Corde Ecclesiae to maintain and strengthen the Catholic identity of the university.

Board members are usually not deeply familiar with Catholic higher education. They are easily “guided” by the administration to desired decisions. Whatever their limitations, however, many are no doubt committed Catholics who genuinely want Notre Dame to be an authentically Catholic institution. And most trustees have not damaged Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university.

This is about to change at the October meeting, when Ms. Katie Washington will take her “junior trustee” position on the board, to which she was elected last May. Ms. Washington was Notre Dame’s 2010 valedictorian and is now enrolled at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

In 2012, she joined several of her medical school colleagues in authoring an op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun criticizing the Catholic Church’s position on the Obamacare contraception/abortifacient mandate. She revealed her belief that all religious employers should be required by law to provide contraception and abortifacient coverage whatever their religiously grounded objections.

Her op-ed singled out “national Catholic leaders” for reproach, and specifically criticized then Cardinal-designate Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore. Her animosity to the Church’s position – the very one which Notre Dame has embraced in its lawsuit against the Obama administration – was clear. She has not subsequently qualified or retracted her statement.

She presumably favors the continued federal coercion of those like the Little Sisters of the Poor whose conscience forbids them to agree to morally objectionable Obamacare provisions. Nonetheless, this supporter of the Obama Administration’s assault on the religious liberty of institutions like Notre Dame has gained appointment to the governing board of the university.

Regrettably, this appointment was made upon the initiative of University President Fr. John Jenkins and by vote of the twelve-member Board of Fellows, made up of six Holy Cross priests and six laypersons. It happened, however, without their being briefed on Ms. Washington’s hostility to religious liberty and Notre Dame’s claim of conscience.

So there was no informed consideration within the group as to whether Ms. Washington would be a reliable promoter of the Catholic mission of Notre Dame. Nor was there any evaluation of the possible impact on Notre Dame’s own litigation following the appointment of a trustee who disagreed so blatantly with the school’s claim of conscience.

Perhaps the Fellows would have voted differently had they known. But this misadventure soon became public, and the appointment still stands.

The university’s leaders, Fr. Jenkins and Chairman of the Board Richard Notebaert, have avoided public comment. This contrasts with Mr. Notebaert’s vigorous defense of the appointment of Chicago businesswoman Roxanne Martino several years ago after it was revealed that she had been a substantial donor to a pro-abortion political action committee.

After that controversy erupted, Ms. Martino had the good grace to resign. This time, Fr. Jenkins and Mr. Notebaert allowed the Notre Dame public relations office to defend Ms. Washington on the grounds that trustees don’t have to agree with everything the university does.

To be sure. But this action says that Notre Dame sees nothing wrong with appointing as a trustee someone who publicly opposes the university’s position on matters in which Notre Dame’s right to be the Catholic university it wants to be is at stake. It says that Notre Dame feels free to ignore the bishops’ injunction, “Each member of the board must be committed to the practical implications of the university’s Catholic identity.” 

Further, this appointment is likely to be seized upon by the government in the contraception/abortifacient litigation as a way to question Notre Dame’s seriousness about its religious objections to the Obamacare mandate – a dangerous argument before judges who have already expressed doubts about Notre Dame’s sincerity.

These concerns have been placed before Fr. Jenkins and the Fellows, but have seemingly had no impact. Instead, Ms. Washington can expect to be feted at the upcoming meeting. Well-meaning, if clueless, trustees will join in, for fear of being seen as ungracious.

And yet, courageous trustees serious about the Catholic mission of Notre Dame have a grave duty: to pursue the unpleasant task of openly raising questions about the suitability of Ms. Washington to serve on the board. This is especially true for the Holy Cross members of the Board of Fellows who have a special responsibility to uphold the Catholic identity of the school that our forebears founded and built.

Too many religious communities are now marginalized, on the periphery of the institutions they built. Decisions like this require a choice of one way or the other for Holy Cross at Notre Dame.

The most crucial task for both administrators and trustees in contemporary Catholic colleges and universities is to preserve and enhance the Catholic mission and identity of their institutions. The appointment of Ms. Washington to the Notre Dame Board of Trustees is an example of a signal failure in leadership and judgment. It does damage to Notre Dame’s special calling as a Catholic university. It is a mistake that must be rectified.

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Fr. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C. chaired the history department at Notre Dame from 1993 to 1998. His most recent book is American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh.