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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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