The South Bend Tribune reports that 131 faculty of the University of Notre Dame have signed a letter calling on Fr. John Jenkins, the president of the university, to “issue a statement” that will “definitively distance Notre Dame” from remarks made in a homily by Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross who sits on the Notre Dame Board of Fellows. And these faculty want Jenky either to “renounce” the remarks in his homily or resign from the board.
What is the grievous offense of Bishop Jenky? According to the faculty signatories, “he described President Obama as ‘seem(ing) intent on following a similar path’ to Hitler and Stalin.” It would indeed be an outrage if, as the faculty intimate, the bishop were suggesting that President Obama is “intent on” genocide, murdering millions, etc.
But what did Jenky actually say in his April 14 homily? Its full text is here. Let’s quote enough to get the full flavor of this strong meat:
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.
So it turns out that the “similar path” Obama “seems intent on following,” according to Bishop Jenky, is one that Bismarck, Clemenceau–and Hitler and Stalin “at their better moments”–charted already. That is, the bending of churches and religious institutions to the political authority, and the occupation of an increasing proportion of civic space by the state, shouldering aside the churches.
The reductio ad Hitlerum is a real problem in modern political rhetoric. But in its classic form it is the unwarranted conclusion that a small tyranny portends real totalitarianism, genocide–the whole package of the Third Reich. Jenky is not guilty of that here, not remotely. He has an argument about parallels between Obama and past assailants of the Church. Those assailants include Hitler and Stalin even “at their better moments,” when their tyrannies were just beginning.
If the upset faculty of Notre Dame want to counter his argument with a better one, let them try. Instead they engage in ritual denunciation, bullying, and a petulant tantrum meant to mau-mau Father Jenkins and the bishop. They should go back to school. Better teachers than these would not accept their letter as representing a responsible contribution to public or academic debate.