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Letter calls for bishop’s response

Sam Stryker | Thursday, April 26, 2012

At least 143 Notre Dame professors and faculty have signed a letter requesting Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., to renounce controversial statements he made in an April 14 homily, or to resign from the University’s Board of Fellows, of which he is a member.

The group submitted the original letter over the weekend to University President Fr. John Jenkins and Richard Notebaert, University Fellow and chair of the Board of Trustees. The letter appeared in The Observer’s Viewpoint section on April 23 with 95 signatures.

Members of the faculty and staff continue to add their signatures to the letter via email to its original signees.

The letter also requests the University issue a statement distancing Notre Dame from Jenky’s “incendiary statement.”

In  his homily, the bishop criticized President Barack Obama’s healthcare policy and its impact on the Catholic Church. Jenky compared the current impact of such policy to other historical challenges the Church has faced, citing the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin as examples.

“Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care,” Jenky said. “In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama – with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.”

Under the revised contraception mandate, the responsibility for funding contraception was shifted from religiously-affiliated institutions to insurance companies, but will apply to self-insured employers.

In his homily, Jenky said Catholic institutions cannot cooperate with pro-choice legislation “under any circumstance.”

“No Catholic ministry – and yes, Mr. President, for Catholics our schools and hospitals are ministries – can remain faithful to the Lordship of the Risen Christ and to his glorious Gospel of Life if they are forced to pay for abortions,” he said.

In the letter to the editor, the signees said it was “profoundly offensive” that a member of the Board of Fellows should compare Obama’s actions to “those whose genocidal policies murdered tens of millions of people, including the specific targeting of Catholics, Jews and other minorities for their faith.”

“Jenky’s comments demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment,” the letter stated.

Patricia Gibson, diocesan chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria, released a statement April 19 that claimed Jenky’s statements were taken out of context.

“Bishop Jenky gave several examples of times in history in which religious groups were persecuted because of what they believed. We certainly have not reached the same level of persecution,” the statement read. “However, history teaches us to be cautious once we start down the path of limiting religious liberty.”

Calls to the bishop’s office Wednesday were not returned.

Associate Dean for the Arts Peter Holland wrote the initial version of the letter, which was edited and signed by professors and faculty before it was submitted to Jenkins and Notebaert.

“I was incredibly angered and distressed by Bishop Jenky’s comparison of anything President Obama has done to Hitler or Stalin,” Holland said.

Theatre professor Kevin Dreyer, who also signed the letter, said professors and faculty were upset media coverage of Jenky’s homily strongly associated the bishop’s statements with the University.

“The homily and the reporting seemed to us to be tying the words to Notre Dame,” he said “And that’s where the reaction came from. It was one of those situations where there was a very strong sentiment.”

Dreyer said his issue with Jenky’s statements is they are “adversarial,” and “cut off any discourse” that might take place in a university environment.

“This is not the image of Notre Dame,” he said. “Notre Dame is a place of civility, of discourse, of engagement, and it is the thing that I have come to value about this institution above virtually everything else.”

English professor John Duffy, a co-signer of the letter, said it is important to note the professors and faculty who submitted the letter are only looking to address Jenky’s statements, not to make a political statement.

“The letter does not take a position on healthcare reform,” he said. “It does not take a position on life issues. It does not take a position on the relationship of the U.S. government to the Catholic Church. The purpose of the letter is not to address any of those subjects. The purpose of the letter is to address the analogy Bishop Jenky made in his sermon.”

On Tuesday morning, professors and faculty received an email statement signed by Jenkins and Notebaert in response to the letter submitted. The email thanked the professors for the letter, but declined to comment on Jenky’s homily.

“As you might imagine, members of the Board of Trustees have taken positions on a wide array of issues through the years,” the email stated. “When the person does not appear to be speaking on behalf of Notre Dame, as is the case here, it has been and remains our policy to refrain from comment.”

Jenky, a 1970 graduate of Notre Dame, has served as a trustee and member of the Board of Fellows, the highest level of the Board of Trustees, since 2003. He previously served as director of Campus Ministry and rector of Dillon Hall.

University Spokesman Dennis Brown declined to comment on Jenky’s statements.

“Notre Dame does not comment on the personal views of Board members other than to say that they do not necessarily reflect those of the University,” he said.