Last week, Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius imploring her to enact more robust conscience protections in the forthcoming HHS regulations for preventive services coverage under the new health care law. It’s important that conscience protections be much broader than even what Fr. Jenkins calls for, but it is good that he spoke up on the issue.
Still, several aspects of Fr. Jenkins’ letter come off as decidedly bizarre.
First, it’s somewhat odd that Fr. Jenkins chose to associate the concerns and interests of Secretary Sebelius with the university’s mission: “Of course, Madam Secretary,” he wrote, “as the daughter of a distinguished Notre Dame alumnus and faculty member, you are no stranger to our mission.” That Sebelius is a longtime darling of the abortion industry is news to no one.
The point being, if Fr. Jenkins expects his notion of a Catholic university to find purchase with Kathleen Sebelius, he’s likely to be disappointed. If he thinks her staunch abortion advocacy jibes with her supposed familiarity with Notre Dame’s mission, there is cause for concern, especially given Notre Dame’s history of abetting politicians who find it convenient to exclude certain human beings from the law’s protection.
Which brings us to the second reason Fr. Jenkins’ letter is strange: he repeatedly cites President Obama’s 2009 endorsement of a “sensible conscience clause,” but now laments that HHS’s proposed conscience protections are “not the kind of ‘sensible’ approach the president had in mind.” Aren’t they though?
Despite the clear and unambiguous objections of his local bishop (and of many others), Fr. Jenkins lavished honors upon President Obama in the name of dialogue and exchange. And what was exchanged? William McGurn (himself a Notre Dame alum) wrote this at the time:
[This] was precisely the message President Obama wanted to send: How bad can he be on abortion if Notre Dame is willing to honor him?
We cannot blame the president for this one. During his campaign for president, Mr. Obama spoke honestly about the aggressive pro-choice agenda he intended to pursue—as he assured Planned Parenthood, he was “about playing offense,” not defense—and his actions have been consistent with that pledge. If only our nation’s premier Catholic university were as forthright in advancing its principles as Mr. Obama has been for his.
In a letter to Notre Dame’s Class of 2009, the university's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, stated that the honors for Mr. Obama do not indicate any “ambiguity” about Notre Dame’s commitment to Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life. The reality is that it was this ambiguity that the White House was counting on; this ambiguity that was furthered by the adoring reaction to Mr. Obama’s visit . . .
President Obama used Notre Dame for political cover, donning the blue-and-gold mantle like so much Catholic arm candy. In return, Notre Dame received the acclaim of the media and the “prestige” it craved.
The credulous Fr. Jenkins refuses to admit the cynical nature of the transaction, but it’s left him in an awkward position. The One who so convincingly professed undying admiration (or in this case, “a sensible conscience clause”)—the One whose advances seemed so sincere and were so eagerly accepted—is now more distant and unresponsive. The One, it turns out, has prior commitments.
Also curious is Fr. Jenkins assessment of the situation that HHS’s proposed regulations would foist upon Notre Dame. Here’s the relevant sentence:
“[These regulations] would compel Notre Dame to either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the church’s moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the church's social teaching. It is an impossible position.”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter finds value in Fr. Jenkins’ insight. He writes:
Father Jenkins makes a point that had not previously occurred to me - or to anyone else whose writings on this topic I have seen. It is just as morally objectionable to stop providing health care coverage as it is to provide coverage for procedures we find morally objectionable.
Politically, of course, Father Jenkins’ letter carries great weight. He took plenty of (metaphorical) bullets for his decision to invite President Obama to give the commencement address at Notre Dame. He is not in any way, shape or form an “opponent” of the administration….To be clear, it is Planned Parenthood and their ilk who are trying to change the rules of the road here, not us.
It’s admirable for Fr. Jenkins to point out that the proposed HHS regulations are grossly deficient, and for Mr. Winters to point out that “Planned Parenthood and their ilk” are to blame. They are right to point out that it would be a moral tragedy if Notre Dame was forced—by unjust, even tyrannical government actions—to stop offering health insurance. Yet Fr. Jenkins’ claim—that paying for contraception and sterilization would be, as Mr. Winters’ puts it, “just as morally objectionable” as dropping employee health insurance—is nonsense.
Apart from failing basic principles of moral reasoning—e.g. there is a difference between committing a positive evil and being forcibly prevented from doing some positive good—Jenkins’ claim also presumes that the only morally acceptable relationship between employer and employee includes employer provided health insurance. While the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church affirms clearly that there is a human right to “basic health care,” there’s no mention whatsoever of “health insurance,” a point one is not sure registers with Winters or Jenkins.
Much more serious is the placing of blame on Notre Dame for an injustice perpetrated by those—“Planned Parenthood and their ilk”—who support the problematic HHS regulations. Tellingly, neither Winters nor Jenkins seems capable of explaining any meaningful difference between “President Obama and Secretary Sebelius,” on the one hand, and Planned Parenthood’s “ilk” on the other, though they seem very much one and the same. Thus Mr. Winters can write, “[Fr. Jenkins] is not in any way, shape or form an ‘opponent’ of the administration,” and mean it as exculpatory while others find that same fact disturbing.
Notre Dame may have erred in honoring President Obama in 2009, but it does not follow that Fr. Jenkins should refrain from criticizing Obama or his administration now. Nor is there intrinsic value in the constant refighting of intramural disputes. But the public moral witness of our nation’s most prominent Catholic institution has been sadly and unnecessarily diminished. Fr. Jenkins’ letter is a reminder of that. That is a lesson neither Notre Dame, nor anyone else in the Church, can afford not to have learned.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.
Letter from Fr. Jenkins to Kathleen Sebelius
William McGurn, Obama Scored Big at Notre Dame
President Obama’s Notre Dame Speech
Michael Sean Winters, Kudos to Father Jenkins
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