Well, Fr. Jenkins has finally decided to respond to his critics .

It is a very lawyerly response, involving a careful parsing of the words of the statement of the U.S. Bishops conference entitled “Catholics in Political Life.” Jenkins asserts that he and the others who made decision to invite President Obama “tried to follow both the letter and the spirit of its recommendations.” As to the letter of the document, Jenkins succeeds to some extent in making his case, but not completely. As to the spirit of the document, he utterly fails, and indeed does not even try.

The relevant sentences of the bishops’ document are: “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” The first sentence seems clear enough, but Jenkins argues that by “those who act in defiance” is meant those Catholics who act in defiance. He points out that the bishops’ document is entitled “Catholics in Political Life,” and that non-Catholics can hardly be said to act in defiance of Church teaching, since as outsiders they are not bound by the Church’s teaching authority. It should be noted, however, that the bishops did not talk about defiance of Church teaching, but “defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” and according to the Catholic understanding the moral principles in question—not killing innocent children, or facilitating such killing—is actually binding on everyone. As I said, lawyerly. I want this man defending me if I get in trouble.

As to the second sentence, Jenkins argues that the bishops denounced giving awards, honors, or platforms only in cases where doing so “would suggest support” for the pro-abortion actions of those politicians, and that this does not apply in the present situation since Jenkins has made clear that he does not support the pro-abortion actions of President Obama. Whether this is a good argument depends on how one diagrams the bishops’ sentence. Jenkins thinks that the qualification “which would suggest support for their actions” applies to all three things that shouldn’t be given, i.e. awards, honors, and platforms. But that is, frankly, an implausible and artificial construction to put on the words. It is obvious that there are different kinds of “platforms”. A platform could be a debate, a speech, or an appearance as a visitor in a classroom. No one would advocate depriving pro-abortion politicians of any and all platforms. That is clearly why the bishops added the qualification “which would suggest support,” and why it is most naturally read as modifying the word platforms. The words awards and honors in the bishops’ statement, on the other hand, didn’t require such a qualification, since awards and honors by their very nature imply some degree of support or approval. The intended meaning would seem to have been that Catholic institutions should not give any awards, any honors, or those platforms that would suggest support. But admittedly, there is some ambiguity here, and therefore, wiggle room.

So much for parsing the letter of the bishops’ document; let’s look at the spirit. President Obama is being honored as a “doctor of laws.” This a man who is going to profoundly affect the law by turning it even more against the unborn. How is that in the spirit of the bishops’ recommendations? “Tried to follow the . . . spirit” of the bishops’ recommendations? How hard could Jenkins have tried, given that he did not even bother to consult the bishop of his own diocese when deciding to make the invitation—indeed, did not even inform him about it until after it was a done deal?

The verbal subtleties of Jenkins’s letter are remarkable. Surely a lawyer wrote it. Note how the bishops’ admonitions are termed “recommendations.” Admittedly, they are something less than commands. But surely they are more than mere recommendations. Note also how Jenkins’s critics are said by him to “impose” an interpretation upon the bishops’ document: “Our interpretation of this document is different from the one that has been imposed by those criticizing us.” But who is imposing meanings here? A good fraction of the archbishops in the country (so far, almost half) have now come out and said that they disapprove of Jenkins’s decision. Are the leading bishops in this country imposing an interpretation upon their own document? Even if Jenkins and his canon lawyers have read the “letter” of the bishops’ document more carefully than the bishops themselves did, surely no one knows the “spirit” that animated the bishops when they approved the document better than the bishops themselves.

There is not a word in Jenkins’s letter that shows any sorrow for the fact that he has brought so much anguish to so many of his fellow Catholics and has clouded the commencement ceremony with so much moral ambiguity and conflict of conscience. He hopes that the occasion will be a joyful one for the graduates and their families. How can he say that? His spokesman claimed that the Notre Dame administration completely expected the outraged response that their decision would produce. It follows that Jenkins deliberately went ahead with something he knew would shock the consciences of many graduating seniors and their families, and he now says that he hopes we are joyful? Fr. Jenkins, it will be a joyful graduation for our family despite the use that you have chosen to make of the occasion. You have certainly not increased the joy of anyone, however, by your cold, legalistic response.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr


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