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Jenky should issue formal apology

Editorial Board | Friday, April 27, 2012

On April 14, Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., delivered a homily that touched on the healthcare reform of President Barack Obama’s administration. In his remarks, Jenky compared the challenges the Catholic Church is facing today to others it has faced in the past – including the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

In addition to serving as bishop, Jenky is a member of the University’s Board of Fellows, the upper tier of the Board of Trustees at Notre Dame. In this role he is responsible for, amongst other things, “[ensuring] that the University maintains its essential character as a Catholic institution of higher learning.” His public statements are not just his own – they reflect on Notre Dame as well, and flout his responsibility as a University Fellow.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Jenky’s argument – the Church has a duty to stand up for its rights, and the bishop’s statement is protected by the First Amendment. However, by comparing a current political figure to the extreme examples of Hitler and Stalin, Jenky compromised any possibility for reasonable discourse. It doesn’t matter that Obama or his politics were the subjects of his homily. Jenky could have been speaking about any American politician, Republican or Democrat. Drawing comparisons to such figures as Hitler and Stalin sends a clear and irrevocable message. They are not mere historical figures; they are men who were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent women, children and minorities – the very people the Catholic Church takes upon itself to protect. These men epitomize evil to the entirety of the international community.
Although Bishop Jenky focused on healthcare policy, what is at risk has nothing to do with politics, but the civil rhetoric we hold so dear as an institution of higher learning. The spirit of Notre Dame fosters an environment of respecting the differences of others and using discourse and cooperation to solve problems. Jenky, one of the highest-ranking members of our community, did not embody this spirit.

Around campus on lampposts and in the dining halls hang signs that read “Heal. Unify. Enlighten.” All members of the University’s community are responsible for living up to these words. As students, we are held to this standard every day, whether traveling or studying abroad, working in an internship or participating in community service. Our words and actions reflect the principles of our University. As a University Trustee and Fellow, Jenky should adhere to these same standards, and we as members of the Notre Dame community must demand this from him.

Pursuant to this belief, more than 140 professors and faculty signed a letter calling for Jenky to either renounce his statements or resign from his post on the Board of Fellows. Jenky’s statement was polarizing and offensive, and should in no way be associated with the work done every day by students, professors, administrators and faculty of Our Lady’s University. The Diocese of Peoria issued a statement claiming Jenky’s statements were taken out of context – but invoking the names of Hitler and Stalin leaves no gray area. Jenky’s homily was offensive and demonstrates a gross disrespect for his responsibilities as a University Fellow and Trustee.

We believe Jenky’s remarks reflect poorly upon Notre Dame and the members of its community. As a high-ranking member of the University, the bishop ought to issue a clear, full-fledged and public apology. Jenky must take responsibility for his mistake. If he is unwilling to publicly recognize the vulgarity of his statement, then the bishop should resign from his role as a trustee and fellow. A minority of the Editorial Board believes Jenky should resign regardless of whether he publicly apologizes, as he has compromised his standing as a high-profile and highly influential member of Notre Dame’s community.

Notre Dame’s mission states “intellectual interchange” is “essential” to a University environment. Unfortunately, Bishop Jenky’s aggressive remarks curtail any discourse that might take place concerning the issues he addressed in his homily. His statements reflect poorly on the University, and he, like any member of the Notre Dame community, must be held accountable for his actions.

Only through an uncompromising apology can we maintain the integrity of our University and uphold our mission to maintain intellectual discourse.