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Truth, Not Tone: Asking More from Notre Dame

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, responded to the NCAA’s decision to pull national championship sporting events from North Carolina in protest of the state’s legislation on transgenderism and “bathroom laws.”

Father Jenkins notes the NCAA has exceeded “its own constitutional principles,” claiming that such action risks usurping the “critical role” universities “play in fostering reflection, discussion and informed debate.” Athletic associations, he argues, exist to “foster athletic competition that is fair and serves the well-being of student athletes,” and there “is plenty of work for them to do in that sphere without assuming the role of spokesperson for their members on contentious political and social issues.”

On the surface, Father Jenkins’ intervention into this debate appears remarkably courageous. In these troubled days, dissenting from sexual orthodoxies, particularly about transgenderism, takes fortitude. Yet Father Jenkins limits, rather than advances, the place of the Catholic university in public reason. By skirting arguments on substantive truth, he weakens future attempts to rein in institutions like the NCAA or businesses like PayPal when they threaten punitive actions against states like North Carolina or Indiana on sexual morality or religious freedom.

To be clear, I have no objection to Father Jenkins noting his respect for the rights of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens.” All citizens have rights, and using the term “citizens” rather than “people” is commendable inasmuch as it avoids asserting either that people are LGBT (rather than self-identify as such) or that particular rights accompany such self-identification.

At the same time, Father Jenkins contributes to a moral imbalance in the debate when he frames the rights of LGBT citizens again the feelings of those who object to the “new normal.” He writes: “While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”

This gives away the farm. If the debate is only between “sensibilities” and “feelings,” then it lacks any rational basis, for how can we adjudicate between subjective responses? In all likelihood, though, transgender “sensibilities” would win in public opinion given the way our social norms tend to side with the “victim” or the “alienated.” The “feelings” of the traditionally minded simply will have to give way before the “sensibilities” of the historically disenfranchised.

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That’s bad enough, but the debate won’t even occur when it’s framed as “rights” vs. “feelings.” A person’s genuine rights trump another’s feelings, and ought to do so. The feelings of racists in no way justify denying due process or free speech to the persons they despise. One person’s squeamishness about firearms doesn’t negate the 2nd Amendment rights of a lawful gun owner.

In the same way, the authentic rights of citizens, whatever their gender or sexual identification, do not depend on the approving or disapproving emotions of others. The debate should be about whether a person in fact has the right to invade the intimate privacy of another in a bathroom.

But once that right is granted, as Fr. Jenkin’s rhetoric allows, then all the feelings and awkwardness in the world is simply irrelevant. Justice outweighs sentiment, and ought to. Which is why the debate must be about what justice demands. Posing the problem as he has, Father Jenkins makes the outcome all but inevitable.

A similar lack of substance is evident in his defense of the role of the university in public debates. He never claims that the university serves the truth, or that a Catholic university has an obligation to present the truth as understood by the Catholic tradition, but opts for weaker claims about procedure and tone. He’s right that the NCAA is unsuited to fostering real public conversation, but he reduces the university to the mere arbiter of style.

Noting that “tweets, slogans and soundbites seem to define the substance of our political discourse,” he asserts, “the nation needs universities to raise the intellectual tone of Americans’ discussions more than ever.” That may be true, but the university should do more than “raise the intellectual tone.” The university ought to seek and proclaim the truth.

As much as we long for true civility, and as much as we bemoan our current public crudity, an elevated tone is not the rigorous and hardheaded demand for truth. The search for truth requires sobriety, fairness, honesty, and good will. Persons in debate ought to be respected as images of God, and the search for truth requires careful listening and engagement with others. Civility is a background condition for public reason, but civility is not equal to, nor sufficient for, the right use of reason. A civil tone without a commitment to truth doesn’t lead to much.

Father Jenkins appeals to The Idea of a University, where John Henry Newman writes of “giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age.” Yes, the university ought to do this, but Newman also hopes to “supply the true principles to popular enthusiasm.” (Emphasis added.) Newman thought that a university that forgets theology would cause the other disciplines to mutilate themselves as they attempted to serve functions for which they were poorly suited. Similarly, any public debate ignoring or refusing the theological truth that “male and female he created them” will be a stunted and mutilated debate, however elevated and civil the tone.

Too often, we settle for minimal norms of public debate. I’m sympathetic, because I’m as weary as anyone of the shrillness and inconclusiveness of many current cultural struggles. As fervently as we should work to keep a kind tone, that isn’t enough. Our cultured despisers are denying the truth of things, and more than good tone is needed to respond. We need the unrelenting search to recover truth, and we need the university – Catholic or otherwise – to remember what purpose they serve. Nothing other than the truth will do.

R.J. Snell

R.J. Snell

R. J. Snell is visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a Director of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. His most recent book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.