Jittery About Jenky’s Jeremiad

Being a Notre Dame graduate is a little like being an American traveling in Europe: no matter what the controversy, and no matter how far away you are, you’re going to get grilled about it. I’ve been out of the country for two weeks and hadn’t been back more than an hour when someone texted, asking about the newest controversy at Notre Dame.  

At first, I thought it was about Fr. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame. But no, it said “Jenky.” Dan Jenky? The much-admired former rector of the basilica at Notre Dame who is now bishop of Peoria? Dan Jenky, who was responsible for restoring the Notre Dame chapel to its former glory and gaining for it “basilica” status? 

His impact on the liturgical and spiritual life of the campus has been incalculable. He is always received with honor on campus. His picture still hangs in honor in the basilica next to the pictures of Pope Benedict and the superior of Holy Cross. What could Dan Jenky have done, I wondered, to make anyone angry?  He’s the nicest man you’ll ever meet.

I found out online that he had (it was said), “compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin.” Well, not exactly, as it turns out. You can read his entire homily here, but this is the purportedly “offensive” paragraph in context:

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.

Although the homily was actually on the resurrection of Christ, who is mentioned twenty-five times, the only thing the press mentioned was part of one sentence. It’s “gotcha” journalism at its worst and ends up cheapening political discourse by deliberately taking someone’s words out of context and construing them in the worst possible light.

Bishop Daniel Jenky

One member of the Notre Dame faculty penned an angry letter and sent it around for signatures. And of course the letter got signatures because Americans will sign almost any petition about anything. Petitions are not really about voting your conscience, they’re about getting annoying people to leave you alone. In any case, here is the relevant part of the letter: 

As you will be aware, the Bishop Daniel Jenky, a member of Notre Dame’s Board of Fellows, has been widely quoted for a homily in which he described President Obama as “seem[ing] intent on following a similar path” to Hitler and Stalin. Jenky’s comments demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment . . .
We request that you issue a statement on behalf of the University that will definitively distance Notre Dame from Jenky’s incendiary statement.  Further, we feel that it would be in the best interest of Notre Dame if Jenky resigned from the University’s Board of Fellows if he is unwilling to renounce loudly and publicly this destructive analogy.
In context, it’s clear Jenky is not comparing President Obama to Hitler and Stalin with regard to genocide. He is making a comparison between the potential closure of scores of Catholic hospitals and schools due to the HHS mandate and similar efforts to close Catholic institutions under the administrations of Bismarck, Clemenceau, and yes, Hitler and Stalin. (As far as that goes, I’m surprised that the Notre Dame faculty isn’t more offended that Bishop Jenky compared Obama to Bismarck! Why does he get a pass?  And Clemenceau?  Now that’s a low blow.)  But is Jenky wrong?  Didn’t all those politicians in fact seek to close Catholic institutions in pursuit of secularizing agendas?

One faculty member wrote defending himself against the charge that the faculty members had taken Bishop Jenky out of context, saying:
The problem with the “out of context” defense is that it wants to invoke Hitler without being accountable for it. Hitler, in our culture, is both a historical figure and a concept, one representing the embodiment of evil. You cannot compare someone to Hitler and then note afterwards that you weren’t referring to those parts of Hitler’s legacy. Analogies to Hitler do not permit such nice distinctions…. To invoke Hitler is to invoke all of it — the death camps and all the rest. 

Fair enough. But how about all the times liberals have called conservatives “fascists” and compared them to Hitler?  Just last year, the citizens of Wisconsin were treated to scores of signs comparing Scott Walker to Hitler, along with several that said “Hitler outlawed unions too”. Were they invoking the death camps?  How many of the people now excoriating Bishop Jenky for his “unhelpful” tone has ever actually stopped a faculty colleague from describing conservatives as “fascists” or “Nazis”?

We have an important issue to discuss:  namely the scope and limits of federal power and unbounded presidential authority, no matter which party controls the presidency. What’s at stake is the very nature of our constitutional system.  Let’s have a real conversation about real issues.  What’s going to happen when these HHS mandates kick in?

Are Catholics going to be forced to go to jail rather than violate their consciences?  If so, then we’ll be needing the “heroic Catholics” that Bishop Jenky calls for in his homily.  And which side will those complaining about Bishop Jenky be on then?



Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.