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China policy violates Catholic Social Teaching

| Thursday, November 5, 2015

This letter is in response to the announcement made by University President Fr. John Jenkins that Notre Dame is reversing its policy of not making products in China, a country which — in violation of Catholic social teaching — does not allow freedom of association for workers. Given that Jenkins cites Catholic Social Teaching several times in his rationale and that teaching Catholic Social Teaching is my vocation (I have taught it every semester at Notre Dame for 25 years), it seemed that I would be remiss if I did not respond.

Jenkins does not argue that China’s policy against freedom of association fits with Catholic social teaching. Rather, he argues that Notre Dame, in making products in China, would not violate “the principle of cooperation with evil.” In this case, the evil of denying workers their rights. This reasoning is deeply flawed on a number of points, and they are worth enumerating.

First, the principle of cooperation with evil deals with third parties whose actions happen to overlap with the evil actions of a primary acting party. The principle raises the question of the culpability of the third parties in those bad acts. However, in the case of production in China, Notre Dame is not a third party; it is Notre Dame (and not someone else) who is contracting to have the work done in China. In other words, Notre Dame, along with the government of China, is a primary party to the act (and there can be more than one primary party).

Sometimes it is helpful to use a dramatic example to illustrate. Mr. Smith wants to go to a shooting range to practice his riflery. However, the owner of the range says they only use human targets. Mr. Smith decides to shoot anyway. Is he a third party simply because he didn’t make the rule that there be only human targets? This is an extreme example, yes, but the exculpatory logic is the same as that given in Jenkins’ letter. Both the University of Notre Dame and the government of China are primary parties in the production of Notre Dame apparel in China. The argument that Notre Dame is some kind of bystander does not hold.

Second, Jenkins writes with gravity regarding the situations that prompt an appeal to the principle of cooperation with evil: “In a world that is in many ways morally compromised, we often are faced with vexing questions about the morally acceptable degree and manner of cooperation with imperfect, objectionable practices.” Phrasing the issue this way makes it appear as if Notre Dame does not have other options. The fact of the matter is that the policy against production in China had been in place for fifteen years, and Notre Dame has successfully been making products elsewhere. There was and is no shortage of Notre Dame products. Therefore, the University is under no compulsion to produce in China. The principle of cooperation with evil applies when there are not other viable options. Jenkins’ use of the principle, therefore, is a misappropriation of it.

Jenkins suggests that the motive is to improve the conditions of workers in China, but this reasoning is problematic. Notre Dame produces a finite amount of product. To produce in China (where there is no recognition of freedom of association) therefore takes away from production in those countries where there is recognition of freedom of association. In other words, if our concern is the overall well-being of workers, then the new China policy actually makes things worse.

Third, in appealing to the principle of cooperation with evil to navigate around Catholic teaching on freedom of association, Jenkins has effectively gutted the whole of the University’s code of conduct. If it is legitimate to apply the principle in the way that Jenkins does to freedom of association, then it is also legitimate to apply it to situations where there is compulsory overtime, unsafe working conditions, or forced labor, because, the reasoning would go, Notre Dame does not create those conditions, we only make products in them.

The new policy violates Catholic social teaching. This in itself is not new to university conduct. There are any number of university practices that do not fit with Catholic teaching. More troubling is the use of Catholic teaching to justify practices that contravene that teaching. I do not in any way doubt Jenkins’ sincerity or intellectual acuity, and there can be legitimate differences in the application of a principle, but that principle is not infinitely pliable. I understand the symbolic cost involved, but it would have been more direct simply to state that the University has decided not to abide by Catholic teaching on the issue. Earlier articulations by the committee that made the recommendation to Jenkins to change the policy reasoned in just this way; Jenkins’ letter itself refers to the committee basing its case on “other criteria” than those of Catholic social teaching. It would have been best just to leave it at that.


Todd Whitmore

associate professor


The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Thank-You Professor Whitmore for pointing out the inconsistency, hypocrisy, and avarice of this decision.

  • CatholicMillennial

    Why would Professor Whitmore not give recognition to Fr. Jenkins’ status as a priest? Referring to him as “Jenkins” comes off as careless (at best), if not disrespectful. Regardless of the validity of Professor Whitmore’s critiques, Fr. Jenkins should be given more respect, especially by a Notre Dame Professor.

    • Todd Whitmore

      In my original letter to the Observer, I referred to him as “President Jenkins” throughout the letter (and this because it is his office as President that allows him to make University policy and anyone who knows Notre Dame bylaws knows that the President is a priest). I am sure that the editors took the term “President” out after its first iteration for reasons of space, not as a sign of disrespect.

      • CatholicMillennial

        That makes sense. I can see why they would make that edit, but it gives it a unnecessarily casual feel.

        Thanks for the clarification

        • jackisback3164

          Even so, you’re original critique is misplaced. First, his status as a priest is his vocation or his office within the CSC order. The question is “what’s the man?” The office that this man holds provides no legitimacy to the position he has taken to reverse the prior policy. In fact, specically referencing that office in discussing the action that this man has taken here ought to be the very thing that makes you cringe, rather than the lack of the reference being thought of as “disresprectful.”

          There is disresprectfulness in this sordid turn of events though – and that is the disrespect shown by “Father” Jenkins in using Catholic Social Teaching as cover for directly justifying the violation of Catholic Social Teaching – as pointed out by professor Whitmore – which, not a little, implies that he (oh sorry, “Father” Jenkins) thinks you’re stupid and that all the rest of us are stupid.

  • elcalebo

    Excellent! Thank you, Prof. Whitmore! Very illuminating and well-written.

  • João Pedro Santos

    So… you defend a boycott against China. Would you also defend a boycott against Saudi Arabia, which is a way worse dictatorship than China? Or, for example, against American corporations which don’t have non-discrimination policies?

    • SocrateaseRedux

      Nice deflection.

    • jackisback3164

      Counterfactuals are unpersuasive. Or are you in favor of participation in China as described by professor Whitmore?

    • elcalebo

      In the letter he says “The new policy violates Catholic social teaching. This in itself is not new to university conduct. There are any number of university practices that do not fit with Catholic teaching.” I think the implication is that he opposes all violations of Catholic social teaching, whether done by Saudi Arabians, U.S. Americans or others. This is the one under discussion right now.

  • Madi

    The factories Notre Dame is choosing to engage with must meet a set of standards established by the University. If a factory does not meet even one of these standards–which focus on workers’ rights–then the University will pull all funding and support. Having been to China, it is important to remember the people are not evil. As Catholics, our response should always be love. If we turn away from our brothers and sisters in China and let the government alone control business, are we truly acting out of love?

    • Todd Whitmore

      There are any number of ways to show our love for the people in China. I suggest that providing vigorous support to the underground church there is a better way than producing consumer goods for use in the United States.

    • elcalebo

      Research into labor conditions in Chinese factories suggests evaluations of individual factories are, in practice, easily faked, and that advocating for change with particular corporations and factories can have, at best, only a very limited effect without strong labor laws and union rights enshrined into law.