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In response to Fr. Jenkins

| Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Like many of my peers, I was thrilled to receive the announcement that the fall semester would resume in person. I love being on campus, I miss my friends and I recognize that in-person education is beneficial for building a rigorous intellectual community. I had a high degree of trust that the decision for the Notre Dame community to return in the fall was made with robust moral deliberation and up-to-date scientific evidence.

The recent op-ed published by Fr. John Jenkins in the New York Times was deeply disappointing.

Jenkins states,

“We are in our society regularly willing to take on ourselves or impose on others risks — even lethal risks — for the good of society. We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car.”

These risks are not equivalent. The risks of war should not be the same as the risk of attending college; a medical professional who attended years of schooling and took a vow to protect others undertakes a solemn risk of their own choosing; and the risk of driving a car is mitigated by scientifically-guided regulations such as speed limits and seatbelts.

To request the same degree of bravery from immunocompromised students, aging faculty and at-risk staff as one would ask of a soldier during wartime or a doctor during a pandemic is at best not pastorally comforting, and at worst a justification by a powerful institution to subject vulnerable individuals under its jurisdiction to unwilling harm.

As a member of the Notre Dame community, I had hoped and expected that Jenkins would appeal to the values I have come to associate with our institution. He might have said, for example, “However, going to school should not entail the same risks as going to war; our students, when applying to Notre Dame, did not elect to be in the same position as frontline healthcare workers; and we will implement regulations to keep your children, parents, and peers safe in the same way that federal and local governments implement traffic regulations.” This would have assured the community that while some risk is inevitable, the University will not and would never expect any member of the Notre Dame family, especially the most vulnerable, to shoulder unreasonable risk. But he didn’t say that.

Furthermore, the presence of risk in sectors of society does not change our ethical deliberation. We already know that the baseline situation of human life carries inherent risk. However, too often in this season of the pandemic, the acknowledgement of the presence of risk in human life is used to justify the acceptance of avoidable risk, often at the expense of the vulnerable. Jenkins rightly points out that this discussion is not about “whether we should take risks, but what risks are acceptable and why.” I agree with him. But if what he’s said is that there are competing principles, a necessary degree of risk and a need to deliberate a mean, he hasn’t said much. It’s not a moral argument, much less grounds for a procedural decision; it is merely a starting point. Jenkins’s piece stops there, revealing a gaping absence of answers to the concerns that the Notre Dame community has about the fall.

We don’t need to be told that deliberation is complicated, and requires a balance. We already knew that.

We don’t need to be told that our values are in competition and one has won out. We need to be told that they are in robust collaboration.

We don’t need to be told that science cannot decide ethical questions. We have always been taught that it must be an important player in the conversation.

We don’t need to be told that it is right to return to campus even if it isn’t safe. What we want is the assurance that we will do everything possible to make sure the decision to return is both right and safe.

We need to be told that this risk, in particular, is worth it, and why.

As a student attending a Catholic university, I need to know that the University’s decision to send us back to school in the fall does not focus on young, healthy students. My peers and I, who are at least risk, might be able to shoulder a certain degree of bravery, but it is offensive to suggest that virtuous, Aristotelian bravery would lead me to willingly put others, including my beloved Notre Dame community, at “lethal risk.” The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable demands that our moral deliberations reflect a material commitment to protect the vulnerable not only as logistical asides but as the very center of the conversation. This conversation — the ethical deliberation as a whole — should center around how we will protect our elderly professors who taught us ethics, our younger professors with pre-existing conditions, the at-risk workers in the dining hall alongside whom we’ve worked and the immunocompromised in the broader community of South Bend.

If the education of young people — who are mostly not at risk —  is “worth risking a good deal,” are these vulnerable people the good deal we mean to risk?

At the very least, some material provisions should include increased health care coverage, hazard pay, paid sick leave and alternatives to in-person teaching which are not exceedingly burdensome to access. Our hands are not forced to risk their lives because an allegedly interminable moral dilemma demands that we choose between them and the students’ education. We can mitigate their risk and provide for them if we turn our attention in their direction. Public evidence of a thoughtful attempt to do so would be the construction of a moral argument that circles around them as our center of gravity.

Had Jenkins structured his argument beginning from the preferential option of the poor and an ethics of care, his piece would have presented a different picture of the values Notre Dame considers to be important. He could have stated briefly that human life has risks and the pandemic provides increased risk, without attempting to use this as grounds to implicitly negotiate away the infinite value of each human life. He could have primarily discussed our communal responsibility towards the vulnerable and the provisions and regulations the University will put in place to protect them, rather than focusing on demanding wartime bravery from young, able-bodied students.

If we are actually making the right moral choice about returning to campus, perhaps we do not need to argue quite so loudly that there are always risks, and students should be willing to shoulder them. The assertion that ethical deliberation requires competition between our values — and must necessarily result in compromising one of them — betrays a certain degree of insecurity about our choice to reopen and our capacity to maintain our community’s safety. If we have adequate safety measures in place, we should return in August without expecting our at-risk peers, professors and staff to die like doctors or soldiers. If we are still uncertain, we should not spend time trying to convince them to be willing to do so. Instead, we should be setting about doing the quieter work of mitigating the risks and making sure that the vulnerable are protected.

After all, whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Christ.

Madeline Foley


May 28

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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