Misrepresentation As “Civil Discourse” At Notre Dame


Notre Dame President publicly misrepresents Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, a critic of his Laetare Medal award to Vice President Biden.

In a just published Commonweal interview, Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, levels a wholly baseless charge against Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, one of the Church’s most respected and gifted leaders. Without any visible means of support, Father Jenkins claims that, in a recent talk at Notre Dame, Archbishop Chaput “presumed to know the consciences of Vice President Biden and Senator Kaine sufficiently to question the genuineness of their faith and condemn them personally.”

One would not expect a priest, president of Notre Dame or not, to arraign an archbishop publicly in this way even with good reason. It is a great deal worse when, as here, the priest has no reason whatever.

The pertinent facts are simple and unambiguous, though the sloppiness of the interviewer, John Gehring, requires more unraveling of two recent addresses by Archbishop Chaput than should be necessary. Let us get that out of the way first for the benefit of those who will read the addresses — and we hope all will, for they are outstanding.

In September, Archbishop Chaput gave the Tocqueville Lecture  at Notre Dame, which we featured in an earlier bulletin, and in October he addressed a bishops’ symposium on the campus. Mr. Gehring referred to only one of these, which he identified by quoting a passage unrelated to the matter at hand. That passage appears in the October speech.

Mr. Gehring said that, in this talk, Archbishop Chaput criticized Vice President Biden and Senator Kaine for their stance on abortion. He did not. He referred to them in a single sentence in relation to same-sex marriage.

It was in the September address that the Archbishop discussed Biden’s position on abortion. He did that in connection with the award to Biden of the Laetare Medal. He did not mention Senator Kaine.

Let us set aside this disarray and consider the matter as both Gehring and Father Jenkins rearranged the facts.

Mr. Gehring asked Father Jenkins what he thought of the Archbishop’s “suggestion” in a “recent speech” at Notre Dame that Vice President Biden and Senator Kaine “are Catholic in name only because of their position on abortion.”

Converting the “Catholic in name only” question into something considerably more damning, Father Jenkins, as we noted above, declared he was “baffled” at “how [the archbishop] can presume to know the consciences of Vice President Biden and Senator Kaine sufficiently to question the genuineness of their faith and condemn them personally.”

What is truly baffling is to figure out what Father Jenkins is talking about.

Here is all Archbishop Chaput said in pairing Biden and Kaine in the October address that Mr. Gehring cited:

We might reflect on what assimilation has actually gained for us when Vice President Biden conducts a gay marriage and Senator Kaine lectures us all on how the Church needs to change and what kind of new creature she needs to become.

Plainly, there is nothing there about “presuming to know their consciences” and “condemning them personally” for their positions on abortion or anything else.

Father Jenkins evidently had in mind what Archbishop Chaput said about Biden – though not Kaine – in his earlier address. Having said at the outset in connection with the presidential candidates, “Only God knows the human heart,” the archbishop moved toward the end to a discussion of the pre-eminent importance of the abortion issue. Here is what he said about the award of the Laetare Medal to Vice President Biden:

This is why so many Catholics – beginning, to his credit, with Bishop Rhoades – were so deeply troubled when Vice President Biden received the university’s Laetare Medal earlier this year. For the nation’s leading Catholic university to honor a Catholic public official who supports abortion rights and then goes on to conduct a same-sex civil marriage just weeks later is – to put it kindly – a contradiction of Notre Dame’s identity, It’s a baffling error of judgment. What matters isn’t the vice president’s personal decency or the university’s admirable intentions. The problem, and it’s a serious one, is one of public witness and the damage it causes both to the faithful and to the uninformed. I mention this no less to criticize than to encourage. (First set of italics supplied.)

Father Jenkins’s charge that this amounted to the archbishop’s “presuming to know” Biden’s conscience and “condemning [him] personally” is a transparent misrepresentation that is hard to chalk up to a simple mistake. This was not a verbal misstep in the course of an oral interview. The questions and answers were written.

Why did Father Jenkins decide to level this charge? It is hard to believe it is unrelated to the Archbishop’s joining Notre Dame’s bishop, the Most Rev. Kevin Rhoades, in criticizing Father Jenkins’s Laetare Medal decision.

This is not an isolated instance even in this interview. In response to Mr. Gehring’s question to Father Jenkins about the honoring of President Obama in 2009 – “What did you learn?” – all Father Jenkins talked about was the “anger” and “vehemence” of some who were upset about his decision.

He was, after all, criticized by 83 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops. When has that ever happened at a Catholic university? It would be scarcely surprising, if regrettable, for some faithful Catholics to lose their tempers. What is both surprising and regrettable is that Father Jenkins had nothing to say in retrospect about the tsunami of episcopal criticism that his action triggered.

This brings to mind Father Jenkins’s support of the trespass prosecution of the “ND88,” the pro-life demonstrators at the 2009 commencement during which Obama was given an honorary degree. Images of a cassocked 88-year-old priest being dragged to a police wagon linger. It took two years of legal proceedings, during which we produced evidence that the Jenkins administration had a “catch and release” policy respecting pro-gay and anti-war trespassers, before Notre Dame finally had the cases dismissed.

It seems that Father Jenkins considers his criticism of the Archbishop to be the sort of “respectful engagement” he attributes to Pope Francis and that he promotes in his repeated calls for civil discourse. If so, it is a low bar as to tone and no bar at all as to substance.

We take no pleasure in this report. We would much rather praise than criticize, for Father Jenkins cannot avoid representing the entire Notre Dame family in his public pronouncements. But as we are, in a sense, Father Jenkins’s constituents, we believe we should not let an episode like this pass without comment. It is very hard to imagine Father Hesburgh’s publicly censuring an archbishop this way. We would be delighted to be able to report that Father Jenkins has reconsidered and retracted.

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