[Editor’s Note: Elected in 2005 as the University of Notre Dame’s 17th president, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins was re-elected by the Board of Trustees to a fourth five-year term, effective July 1, 2020. Jenkins has been committed to combining teaching and research excellence with a cultivation of the deeper purposes of Catholic higher education. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the recent violence in Washington, D.C. and his hopes for incoming Biden administration.]
Camosy: Although we had not planned to talk about this when we first broached the topic of an interview, I must ask you about an elephant in the room: The attack on the Capitol Building. It is an event which has been difficult for many of us to process. Have you been able to process it?
Jenkins: I have been thinking a good deal about that appalling event. I made a brief statement initially, but one of the challenges of my job is that you are asked to comment before you can digest and reflect on the facts.
The assault on the seat of our democratic republic was appalling in itself, but what made it obscene was that it was spurred on by the nation’s president, the peoples’ elected leader. One is almost speechless. Any denunciation seems inadequate. Yet what worries me even more than this isolated incident are the trends in our political life it reflects.
Donald Trump, I believe, is an extreme expression — almost a caricature — of these trends. The divisiveness he fomented, the mistrust of institutions he encouraged, the resentment he stoked — these trends can be found, in less extreme forms, in rhetoric from both right and left. I worry less about Donald Trump — who, we hope, will soon fade from the political arena — than these trends that seems pervasive.
Do you think that a fresh start with a new administration can help move us in another direction?
I do. I believe Joe Biden wants to bring our fractured nation together. He is a politician, to be sure; he is and will be partisan, no doubt; but he is a patriot. He sees that we must overcome the divisiveness, the undermining of our institutions and the disregard for the common good—all of which are tearing apart our nation.
Notre Dame awards the Laetare Medal to Catholics who have made signal contributions to our nation. In 2016, the University awarded the Laetare Medal jointly to Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden. Boehner spoke beautifully of the vocation of a politician, and he spoke warmly of Joe Biden who, though they disagreed on many things and were in different parties, the were “at first, both Americans.” Biden was up next. He approached the podium with a stern countenance and said solemnly, “I don’t like John Boehner.” There was a gasp in the audience and a pause before he continued. “I love John Boehner.” Their interactions on and off the stage made it clear that the affection the two men had for one another was genuine.
Last week, Boehner tweeted a photo from that day with the two men in Notre Dame regalia, to congratulate the president-elect and to say to Biden: “I know you’re sincere in your desire to be a president for all Americans, and I know you’ve got the tools and heart to get it done.”
It will take some time for the stain of an assault on our nation’s capitol, encouraged by the angry rhetoric of a sitting president, to fade from our collective memory. I am hopeful, though, that Biden will help us to see how we can disagree and yet respect those with whom we disagree.
President-Elect Biden is the second Catholic to be elected President, which should be an exciting things for U.S. Church—especially because, by all accounts, he takes his faith quite seriously. But I’ve written recently about how this is made more complex by his political views on prenatal justice. How do you make sense of all this? Can you comment on Biden’s Catholicity and his political views?
Let me start with the most controversial topic, abortion. Biden has said that he believes that abortion is “always wrong,” but that he is “not prepared to impose doctrine that I’m prepared to accept on the rest” of the country. He has since stepped back from his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions. I disagree with him, and I urge him, given his personal convictions, to try to lead our nation to a better position on this tortured topic.
I also share the concerns many have about restrictions on religious freedom. We sued the Obama administration because of the precedent one is its mandates would create.
There are, then, tensions, but there are many issues on which Biden’s positions reflect Catholic teaching far more than the previous administration. His commitments to protecting the environment, providing quality health care to all, fostering peaceful relations with other nations, working for racial justice and for just and compassionate immigration reform. On these and other issues his positions arise from the convictions of his faith, and I hope every Catholic — and indeed every American—can work with his administration to support constructive initiatives.
I just have to ask: Will you invite President Biden to Notre Dame?
No decision has been made, though we, of course, have a long tradition of welcoming U.S. presidents to campus.
You and the university you lead have been criticized in the past for welcoming presidents to campus, often by bishops. I remember well that I walked for my own doctoral degree the year President Obama gave the commencement address. That was a difficult time for the U.S. Church. How do you respond to the criticism you get for doing this?
I believe that we can and should welcome elected leaders to our campus, respect what is honorable in their lives and work while we acknowledge where we disagree. Such an approach, I believe, is entirely consonant with the character of a Catholic university. Whether Biden is invited or not, some will disagree and criticize our decisions, as they are entitled to do. My wish is only that we can avoid the vituperative character of such debates.
I spoke earlier of Trump being an extreme expression of trends in our public life. Another extreme expression is Steve Bannon, at one time the chief political strategist for President Trump. Bannon once said, “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because it is the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.” He captured there the thought that maligning opponents, causing one’s followers to hate them, is a useful political tool.
I say with regret that I sometimes discerned such a tendency among the Catholic community in our nation. There seems, at times, not just an effort to show someone is in error, but to question their faith, their motives and their moral character. Attacks become personal and mean, even those by fellow Catholics.
These sorts of attacks do not simply undermine the civility of our discourse, but the effectiveness of our evangelization. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I fear that we are sometimes distinguished by the acrimony of our discussions and the intensity of personal attacks. In acting in this way, we fail in our central calling of witnessing Christ to the world. That drives people away from the Church. When young people are asked why they, in increasing numbers, are not affiliating with any faith tradition, one prominent reason they give is that faith traditions are a source of conflict and violence.
I wonder if Pope Francis could be a significant bridge here. No one cares about social justice more than he does, but he also speaks out against abortion with stronger language than any of his predecessors used. And he seems to find a way to make this full vision of Catholic teaching “work”, for lack of a better word. Do you find inspiration in Pope Francis?
Very much so. Several themes in his writing are relevant to this discussion. First, he calls each of us to be evangelizers, to invite others with our actions and words to a life of faith. Second, our evangelization should be characterized by joy—our invitation to others is to that same joy. He warns us against an excessive focus on a limited number of moral truths removed from the context of the Gospel—the message of the love of God that saves us, the call to see God in others and to seek the good of others. If we focus too narrowly on certain moral controversies in the cultural war, we will lose the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel”, as the Pope puts it. People will see only a collection of austere, groundless moral norms. The Church’s moral teaching will then become, as the Pope famously said, a fragile house of cards in danger of collapsing under its own weight.
Finally, I just have to ask a question related to the pandemic. You were one of first university leaders to decide to safely bring students to campus. Some say your decision to play football this year saved the NCAA division I season. I know it is a big topic, but could you conclude by offering some thoughts about how you feel about these decisions? And maybe a bit about where you see Catholic higher education going from here?
A central point in my New York Times op-ed published last May is that the most difficult and significant moral decisions we make are generally those in which goods are in tension. It is important, of course, to keep our campus and our society safe in this pandemic, but it is also important to provide young people with an education and continue the University’s important work of research and inquiry.
Science must inform our decisions, but we cannot expect science and scientists, acting strictly within their professional capacity , to make them for us. For our moral decisions, we must turn to moral principles and a wisdom about how to act on these in the concrete, challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves.
An advantage of Catholic educational institutions is that we possess a rich tradition that can shed light on these decisions. Obviously, we must take all reasonable steps to keep our campus community and the surrounding community safe. In addition, though, we understand education not simply as the transmission of knowledge and skills, but as contributing to the development of a person—intellectually, morally, spiritually and physically. The technology behind remote learning provides an extremely valuable educational tool, and we at Notre Dame have used this tool extensively in this academic year. Yet we believe that kind of education we seek to provide requires personal relationships, interactions and the community that we strive to create on our campus. We believe such an education is extremely important for the future of our society and for the good of the young people entrusted to us. While we went to great lengths this year to keep our campus community safe during the pandemic, we judged it worth the effort to bring our students to campus where they could develop these relationships and experience this community.
A second feature of a Catholic educational institution is that so many who work here see their work not just as a job, but as a vocation. Because of that, they are willing to make great sacrifices to continue our educational and research mission in the extremely difficult and demanding setting of the pandemic. From faculty to administrators, from custodians to those who kept our power plant operating, and so many others, the dedication to make this academic year successful was extraordinary. I know our students were grateful for the effort, and I was inspired by it.
About football and our athletic programs, I see these simply as part of our educational efforts. The efforts of student-athletes, coaches and support staff to continue competition under the pandemic conditions was so commendable, and I know our student-athletes were grateful. As a bonus, a 10-0 regular season gave us something to celebrate in the midst of an otherwise difficult year.
I hope the pandemic year, as difficult as it has been, can renew and energize our commitment to this richer view of education we espouse.