On April 15, Bishop Daniel Jenky, CSC, of the diocese of Peoria, Illinois – also a member of the Notre Dame Board of Fellows – delivered a homily focused mainly on the Resurrected Christ. In fact, Christ is mentioned 25 times throughout Bishop Jenky’s homily. His focus on Jesus and on the Christian call to discipleship, however, has been overshadowed by negative media attention to a controversial paragraph in his homily.
Continued media coverage has focused on a petition drafted by Notre Dame faculty members. Addressed to the president of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, and the chair of the board of trustees, Richard Notebaert, the petition demands that Notre Dame distance itself from Bishop Jenky’s comments and calls for his resignation from the board unless he renounces his statements. As of April 24, the petition has gained a total of 131 signatures from Notre Dame faculty and staff.
The petition accuses Bishop Jenky of comparing Obama’s policies to the genocide of Hitler and Stalin:
“As you will be aware, the Bishop Daniel Jenky, a member of Notre Dame’s Board of Fellows, has been widely quoted for a homily in which he described President Obama as ‘seem[ing] intent on following a similar path’ to Hitler and Stalin. Jenky’s comments demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment…we find it profoundly offensive that a member of our beloved University’s…Board of Fellows, should compare the president’s actions with those whose genocidal policies murdered tens of millions of people, including the specific targeting of Catholics, Jews and other minorities for their faith.”
It’s important, however, to read Bishop Jenky’s statements in context. In the most provocative part of his homily, Bishop Jenky said: “In the late nineteenth century, Bismark waged his ‘Kultur Kamp,’ 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 twentieth 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.” Bishop Jenky’s homily does not link Obama with genocide. Instead, his recounting of history draws a comparison between the potential closure of Catholic hospitals, schools and ministries as a result of the HHS mandate by pointing to similar instances of secularization under Bismark, Clemenceau, Hitler, and Stalin. Bishop Jenky did not compare Obama’s personal character to that of Hitler or Stalin, but drew a comparison about their policies towards the Catholic Church and its role in the public square.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, Obama chose to mandate the provision that health plans needed to provide access to contraceptives and abortifacients – both of which are strictly condemned by Catholic moral teaching. Under the “religious exemption” granted by the plan, only churches will be exempt from this rule, forcing Catholic schools, charities and social services to comply with the mandate. A clear breach of the First Amendment, the mandate violates the autonomy and religious freedom of the Catholic Church and other conscientious objectors. If the H.H.S. mandate is implemented without religious protection, countless numbers of Catholic institutions will permanently close their doors.
Although it is difficult not to mention infamous enemies of the Church like Hitler and Stalin, it was probably in Bishop Jenky’s best interest to exclude them due to their inseparable connotations with genocide and mass murder. Comparisons invoking Hitler and Stalin are heavily loaded to the point where many would reject such statements out of hand.
Nonetheless, Bishop Jenky’s remarks serve as an important reminder of the persecution that the Catholic Church has faced in the past. While America is not Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, our country does face a severe violation of religious liberty in the H.H.S. mandate.
While Obama’s policy is at odds with both traditional moral teaching and religious liberty, Bishop Jenky reminds us that the Church can persevere and always will persevere in times of hardship. Catholics have a special mission to stand up for the truths of our faith in everyday life. In my favorite statement from Bishop Jenky’s homily, he said:
“As Christians we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, but as Christians we must also stand up for what we believe and always be ready to fight for the Faith. The days in which we live now require heroic Catholicism, not casual Catholicism. We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead be Catholics by conviction.”
I encourage you today to take these words and put them prudently into action. It is important to pray for Obama, the Catholic Church, and your fellow Catholics for courage to live out the Gospel message – this is the main message of Bishop Jenky’s homily that was lost by the media and by some members of our faculty. Catholics in name only can no longer exist, so be courageous in your faith, living your life as a Catholic hero.
Bob Burkett is a junior anthropology and political science major. He hopes to fill the big shoes Claire Gillen left for him, unless they are high heels. He won’t wear those. Contact him him at email@example.com.