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Belmont Abbey College: Preparing to Fight

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 15, 2009

Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina has been striving for the past few years to become a more thoroughly Catholic institution of higher education. The College has a long tradition which extends back to its founding in 1876 as St. Mary’s College by the Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey. The school changed its name to Belmont Abbey College in 1913. In the wake of John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which was issued in 1990, Belmont Abbey has been prominent among American Catholic colleges and universities in attempting to represent ever more faithfully the mind of the Church in education.

Many readers will be familiar with the engaging “Got Monks?” advertisements used by the College to attract students in recent years. Like most Catholic colleges and universities, Belmont Abbey College found itself adversely affected by the collapse of Catholic culture which dominated the second half of the twentieth century. The school's faculty became less consistently committed to Catholic principles and the student body followed suit. But new leadership brought change: improved hiring practices, deliberate recruitment of students from stronger Catholic families, and more consistent academic policies. The College is now on the Cardinal Newman Society’s list of twenty-one Catholic colleges and universities in America which get a clean bill of Catholic health.

Having been involved in the establishment of Christendom College (another school on the list), which was a completely new establishment, I speak with some authority when I say that the problems facing reformers at an existing school are somewhat different—and in some ways more formidable—than the problems involved in starting something wholly new. A good example of this is the effort Belmont Abbey College has made since 2007 to purge its insurance plan of potential funding for procedures and drugs which violate the teachings of the Catholic Church, such as abortion, voluntary sterilization and contraception.

When the school changed these insurance provisions, eight faculty (about seven percent of the total number) filed a complaint with the United States Equal Opportunity Commission, arguing that the changes constituted gender discrimination. Although a local EEOC panel dismissed the claim, the national EEOC found the College guilty of gender discrimination and ordered it to change its insurance plan accordingly. Fortunately, the President of Belmont Abbey College, Dr. William Thierfelder, was bloodied but unbowed: “As a Roman Catholic institution,” he said, “Belmont Abbey College is not able to and will not offer nor subsidize medical services that contradict the clear teaching of the Catholic Church.”

In order to fight the ruling, the College has retained the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal services organization which describes its mission as “protecting the free expression of all religious traditions”, to assist in a lawsuit against the EEOC. This is extraordinarily good news, indicating that there are real teeth in Belmont Abbey College’s determination not to lie down and play dead. Helping the College to win this lawsuit is an eminently worthy cause. Donations may be directed to the Chancellor’s Fund.

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