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Why was he there?

| Wednesday, October 7, 2020

This letter is not about University President Fr. John Jenkins’ behavior at the White House last weekend when he attended President Donald Trump’s announcement of the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Instead, it is about a question that has been lost in all the noise about that event. Namely, just what was Jenkins doing there in the first place? 

Whatever the merits of Barrett’s nomination, trying to fill this seat less than a month before a consequential national election is improper, contrary to recent precedent, and opposed by a majority of the American people. Yet there was a smiling Jenkins in the Rose Garden, giving the imprimatur of the University to the nomination of a judge who, by her own admission, would do away with the Affordable Care Act, reasonable restrictions on the sale of military-style weapons designed solely to kill human beings and protections for immigrants and those who seek asylum. 

Other than rightfully protecting the rights of the unborn, it is hard to see how Barrett would promote the teachings of Church leaders or advance the cause of Catholic Social Doctrine — which, among other things, declares health care to be a fundamental human right, condemns any use of torture, deems draconian restrictions at our border to be immoral, calls for a total ban on assault weapons, considers unions to be an indispensable element of social life, and demands an end to the death penalty. Do those things, and the way Barrett would likely rule in cases concerning them, not matter to Jenkins? Or was the allure of hob-nobbing with the politically powerful simply irresistible? 

If Notre Dame wanted to honor a law school professor being nominated to the high court, issue a statement from South Bend that says we are proud of her and wish her well. But why fly to Washington and attend what was effectively a GOP campaign event, giving the unmistakable impression that the University wholeheartedly endorses this judge’s nomination and views? And now that Jenkins has returned to campus with the virus, his presence and irresponsible behavior is national news, bringing further embarrassment to Notre Dame.  

Here, one might expect me to shout the equivalent of “Cancel my subscription!” and sever my ties to the University. But I am not going to do that. First, I am a Notre Dame guy. I went to Notre Dame; my wife went to Notre Dame; we got married at Notre Dame; both of my kids recently graduated from Notre Dame. Almost 40 years ago, I met young men and women who, like me, were tentatively exploring what it meant to be their own persons in this often indifferent world and with whom, now decades later, I remain close friends. I was challenged intellectually, emotionally and spiritually at Notre Dame, and the lessons I learned there have shaped who I am today. 

Second, this University is as much mine as it is those who would co-opt it on behalf of the Republican Party, something we veered dangerously close to last weekend. Contrary to what Fox News says, American Catholics are not a one-issue voting bloc in which being against abortion is all that matters and absolves one of thinking about what other policy positions an allegedly pro-life politician holds. The richness of Catholic thought and the lived-in experience of lay Catholics make that impossible, as Pope Francis has repeatedly reminded us. Fr. Ted Hesburgh didn’t fight for 35 years on behalf of the GOP. Instead, he fought to make this University the place where the Church came to think — clearly,  honestly, humbly and without seeking political favor. So I and others like me will do our best to wait for an administration worthy of Hesburgh’s legacy. Sadly, that it didn’t come last weekend doesn’t surprise me — nor will it deter me. 

I hope Jenkins makes a full and speedy recovery. I also hope he declines further invitations to make himself, and the University he leads, props in political charades, whatever their stripe. 

Sincerely, 

Tom Szromba

class of 1987

Oct. 4

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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