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Fr. Jenkins: Resist injustice

| Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dear Fr. Jenkins,

On Feb. 7 in a letter to the faculty senate, you said that Notre Dame would not be declared a sanctuary campus. And while you say you are in full agreement with the sentiments that made students and faculty rally around the idea, you said, “We do not now, and would not, voluntarily provide information about any student without a clear legal requirement to do so, but we would comply with the law and so cannot promise a campus entirely ‘free from civil intrusion.’ I do not want to appear to make our students a promise on which we cannot deliver.” I know you to be a good man, a holy man, a loving man whose concern for the students of this University is without parallel. Yet I take issue with your hesitation.

Firstly, the designation as a “sanctuary campus” is primarily a symbolic one — a fact that you recognize and appreciate. But your hesitation to put in language and symbol what you clearly believe is troubling in my estimation. Language and symbol are the very stuff of human existence and community building. We are bound by invisible bonds, held together by a common mission. We believe in making the world a better, more moral place. Declaring the campus a sanctuary, then, is a restatement of what is already believed: that the University stands with undocumented students. Symbolism, for you a Catholic priest, is the air you breathe, the language you speak. The designation itself is unimportant. What is important is how we follow through on the words of solidarity you and this institution have already expressed. The term itself is new, the incentives to declare ourselves a sanctuary campus not immediately evident. If you feel that declaring us a sanctuary campus will place us at greater risk, I trust and defer to your judgment.

Secondly, as Catholics we are called to resist unjust laws. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” states in paragraph 1903 that “authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, ‘authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.’” Thomas Aquinas, whose thought is the subject of a book you wrote, writes in his “Summa Theologiae”: “Human law is law only by virtue of its accordance with right reason; and thus it is manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is no law at all, but rather a species of violence.” Exclusion, despising the other and forcing them from communities is manifestly unrelated to the eternal law. The actions of the sitting president of the United States are an affront to decency, common good and even reason. As such, we are called to resist these laws. You have led the University in resistance against laws you have found unjust in the past. You sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the Obama administration with other like-minded organizations and institutions, taking issue with HHS mandate. While the University lost that lawsuit, and while some would disagree with the lawsuit in principle, you showed great aplomb. You have taken issue with the NCAA’s finding fault in North Carolina’s gendered bathroom laws. You are a voice for decency and civil conversation. Symbolism, then, is critical. Fighting for what our faith tells us to be right is all we have to hold to at this University. We should be fighting for justice and love. Resist quietly if you must. But resist.

Thirdly, resistance to potential anti-DACA legislation affirms a fundamental truth about our God. In John 9, the disciples ask Jesus why a man born blind was blind. They ask if it was the sins of his parents. Jesus responds, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:3). As you know, every student on this campus is a means by which the works of God are made visible. Variously talented, gifted, innumerably blessed, students here form a patchwork of stunning diversity. Undocumented students form a critical part of that tapestry. I was so proud when I was a freshman and the University began accepting undocumented students. It seems like a strange dream, then, that we would kowtow to a regime that the University, if its core mission is to be held as important, finds distasteful at best and nefarious at worst. When they come knocking, Father, do not answer them. Resistance to injustice is a duty, not an option. If they subpoena the University, if we are the subject of 140-character jabs, we should resist because of our call to love without limit. Do not assent easily because the law is here. And I know you love this University. I do not presume to give you a theological lesson, either. This letter is simply the result of the theological imagination this place has instilled in me.

Our caring for our brothers and sisters is what makes Notre Dame a special place. Other schools have good academics. We have each other. While we sometimes fail, I believe that our love for one another is generally a shining beacon in a world mired in thick darkness and hatred. It matters not at all that we are not a sanctuary campus in name only because actions matter, resistance to injustice matters. Doing whatever you can do matters. And so, while nothing has yet happened and no government agency has knocked on our door seeking information, this whole Notre Dame family and I will be watching. If resistance to injustice does not occur, we all will be betrayed.

James Corcoran


Feb. 20

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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