Last week, over 100 faculty members at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, signed a letter calling on Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., of Peoria, Illinois, to resign his position on the University’s Board of Fellows. They did so in response to a homily the bishop gave on April 14, in which he denounced President Obama’s HHS mandate that Catholics and Catholic institutions be forced to pay for services they consider intrinsically evil. The bishop accurately compared the mandate to similar measures taken by different regimes throughout history, including the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
The faculty members’ public response to Bishop Jenky’s remarks is both dishonest and unacademic. It is dishonest in that it deliberately takes the bishop’s words out of context to impute to him a claim he never made. The faculty members selectively quote him, saying only that he “described President Obama as ‘seem[ing] intent on following a similar path’ to Hitler and Stalin.” They immediately conclude this demonstrated “ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment.”
The bishop’s comments were much more specific than the faculty members reveal. Consider his words in context:
Remember that in past history other governments have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches like the first disciples locked up in the Upper Room. In the late 19th century, Bismarck waged his “Kulturkampf,” a Culture War, against the Roman Catholic Church, closing down every Catholic school and hospital, convent and monastery in Imperial Germany. Clemenceau, nicknamed “the priest eater,” tried the same thing in France in the first decade of the 20th Century. 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. 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.
Genocide was not Hitler and Stalin’s only crime. It is plain fact that both tyrants made it near impossible for the Catholic Church to function under their rule, especially in the realm of social services, and sought to displace it with state authority, state interests, and state values. Bishop Jenky did not, in any way, compare President Obama’s HHS mandate to Hitler and Stalin’s much more serious crime of genocide. Nor did he intend merely to evoke horror through rhetoric. Rather, he indicated that Hitler, Stalin, and others implemented policies unsettlingly similar to the HHS mandate. That is the clear point of his homily, and it is entirely true. Those faculty members suggesting otherwise are either being deliberately deceitful or are ignorant of history themselves.
In addition to its dishonesty, the letter is an indictment of legitimate academic inquiry. Bishop Jenky, though not acting as an academic, did what academics should do: he engaged a serious issue of our time and compared it to similar situations in history, with the hope of learning from history. And what was the response from the ivory tower? A demand that he be silenced — a demand that he be immediately disassociated from the University. So much for academic freedom.