Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fr. Jenkins' letter on Notre Dame Task Force

A letter from Fr. John Jenkins to the "Notre Dame family" has been circulated and discussed widely; the full text is available many places, including here, at the America blog.  Here is a taste: 

As our nation continues to struggle with the morality and legality of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and related issues, we must seek steps to witness to the sanctity of life. I write to you today about some initiatives that we are undertaking.

Each year on January 22, the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the March for Life is held in Washington D.C. to call on the nation to defend the right to life. I plan to participate in that march. I invite other members of the Notre Dame Family to join me and I hope we can gather for a Mass for Life at that event. We will announce details as that date approaches.

On campus, I have recently formed the Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life.  It will be co-chaired by Professor Margaret Brinig, the Fritz Duda Family Chair in Law and Associate Dean for the Law School, and by Professor John Cavadini, the Chair of the Department of Theology and the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life.  My charge to the Task Force is to consider and recommend to me ways in which the University, informed by Catholic teaching, can support the sanctity of life. Possibilities the Task Force has begun to discuss include fostering serious and specific discussion about a reasonable conscience clause; the most effective ways to support pregnant women, especially the most vulnerable; and the best policies for facilitating adoptions.  Such initiatives are in addition to the dedication, hard work and leadership shown by so many in the Notre Dame Family, both on the campus and beyond, and the Task Force may also be able to recommend ways we can support some of this work.

As I have stated before, I do not believe that, on balance and all things considered, it was appropriate for Notre Dame to honor President Obama with a ceremonial degree or with the role of commencement speaker.  (It is, obviously, appropriate for Notre Dame to engage in "dialogue" and "debate" with the President, and with anyone else.)  And, I do not agree with Michael Sean Winters that it was "throw[ing a] canard" to worry that Notre Dame's decision to honor the President in this way "undercut the school’s commitment to the pro-life cause."  No one who knows Fr. Jenkins doubts his own commitment to that cause, and to human dignity, but it is not unreasonable to think that Notre Dame's public, institutional activity and commitment on this front have sometimes been uneven, and lagged behind where they should be.

In any event, I believe that those of us who opposed the invitation last year, and who very much want Notre Dame to be what she should be, and what the world needs her to be, should welcome Fr. Jenkins' announcement.  Are the initiatives he described "enough"?  No, but I assume that Fr. Jenkins does not regard them as "enough."  Should their announcement end the discussion about whether Notre Dame's leaders are correct in (what seems to be) their understanding of academic freedom, the nature of a university, or the appropriate relationship between a Catholic University and the "institutional" Church?  I don't think so.

Yes, Notre Dame needs to do more.  The Administration and University leaders need to embrace and celebrate -- publicly and enthusiastically -- the work and witness of pro-life students and faculty, of programs like the Center for Ethics & Culture, of pro-life policies and proposals.  It should never be possible for a reasonable observer to think that Notre Dame cares passionately about energy conservation but reservedly or half-heartedly about the need -- the moral imperative -- to use the law (and other policy tools) to protect unborn children.

All that said . . . this is a good thing.  I'd like to see Notre Dame's pro-life critics -- that is, those of her critics who recognize her importance and who want her to be what she is called to be -- give Fr. Jenkins and this task force (full disclosure:  Prof. Brinig, one of the co-chairs, is my friend) the benefit of assuming good faith, welcome and engage their work, and -- as needed -- charitably call on them to do more.

There is a picture, often celebrated at Notre Dame, hanging in the student center, of Fr. Hesburgh standing at Dr. King's side, hand-in-hand, calling for civil rights.  I am indulging the hope that, before too long, there will be a similarly prominent picture displayed of Fr. Jenkins alongside Notre Dame's inspiring pro-life student group at the March for Life.  Just a symbol?  Merely a picture?  Perhaps.  But I think it would be one of those pictures that's worth a lot.


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