Op-ed clarifies university role, meets criticism

University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, recently entered the conversation regarding North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (HB2). The bill, which requires individuals to use public school or publicly maintained common bathrooms and changing rooms according to their biological sex, has met widespread criticism.

One of the most prominent reactions to HB2 came from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which on September 12 publicly announced that the organization would “relocate all seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina during the 2016-17 academic year.”

Father Jenkins’ opinion editorial in the Wall Street Journal on September 25 criticizes the NCAA’s decision by stating that “it is not the role of the NCAA to employ the economic power it derives from member universities to attempt to influence the outcome of the legal process or change legislation.”

While maintaining that “heightened respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is a signal moral achievement of our time,” Fr. Jenkins argues that the NCAA has overstepped its boundaries. Citing Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, he asserts that universities serve to fuel intellectual growth and dialogue. Given this distinct role, Fr. Jenkins writes, “No matter how popular or profitable certain college sports become, athletic associations should not usurp that role.”

Father Jenkins also mentions that the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), of which Notre Dame is a member, followed the NCAA’s lead by declaring in a September 14 statement, “We will relocate all neutral site [not university campuses] championships for the 2016-17 academic year.” Father Jenkins did not comment on the ACC decision.

Chair of the ACC Council of Presidents and President of Clemson University James P. Clements stated, “The decision to move the neutral site championships out of North Carolina while HB 2 remains the law was not an easy one but it is consistent with the shared values of inclusion and non-discrimination at all of our institutions.” A Chicago Tribune article adds that Clements also noted, “I’m really happy with how everybody came together.”

In response to the Rover’s inquiry about Notre Dame’s position on the ACC decision, University Spokesman and Assistant Vice President Dennis K. Brown sent a statement from Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Paul Browne, who wrote, “Father Jenkins opposed the ACC’s measure.”

The Catholic Thing published an article by R.J. Snell, Director of the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, that comments on Fr. Jenkins’ column and criticizing it for “skirting arguments on substantive truth.” Snell acknowledges, “On the surface, Father Jenkins’ intervention into this debate appears remarkably courageous. In these troubled days, dissenting from sexual orthodoxies, particularly about transgenderism, takes fortitude. Yet,” he continues, “Father Jenkins limits, rather than advances, the place of the Catholic university in public reason.”

Snell concurs with Fr. Jenkins’ “respect for the rights of ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens.’ All citizens have rights,” but he goes on to question the article’s emphasis on emotion as a reliable factor amidst the bathroom debate.

Father Jenkins writes, “While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.” Snell responds, “If the debate is only between ‘sensibilities’ and ‘feelings,’ then it lacks any rational basis, for how can we adjudicate between subjective responses?”

Snell characterizes Fr. Jenkins’ description of the university’s role as limited. “He never claims that the university serves the truth, or that a Catholic university has an obligation to present the truth as understood by the Catholic tradition, but opts for weaker claims about procedure and tone,” Snell writes. “He’s right that the NCAA is unsuited to fostering real public conversation, but he reduces the university to the mere arbiter of style.”

In a National Catholic Register article, Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond notes, “Beyond the suggestion that privacy and safety concerns should be taken into account, Father Jenkins did not address the merits of the North Carolina law, nor did he reference Catholic teaching on gender identity.”

William Dempsey, President of Sycamore Trust, an alumni group that advocates for a stronger adherence to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, also commented on Fr. Jenkins’ column. “While it is encouraging to see Father Jenkins objecting to the NCAA’s action,” he told the Rover, “it is discouraging to see him do so simply because the North Carolina law is none of the NCAA’s business.” He later added, “The question for Father Jenkins is whether, because there are ‘those who might be uncomfortable’ about this, there should be a  ‘retrenchment’ in ‘the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens’—a ‘signal moral achievement of our times.’”

Dempsey also noted the difference between Fr. Jenkins’ address of the issue and that of Catholic bishops. He continued in his comments to the Rover, “The bishops oppose the Obama administration’s promotion of these transgender demands because they ‘contradict a basic understanding of human formation,’ citing Pope Francis, who has called transgender theory ‘ideological colonization.’”

One bishop that Dempsey cited was Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput, who recently delivered a lecture on campus. The archbishop, according to Dempsey, more directly exposed the issue of the transgender debate. Dempsey told the Rover, “Archbishop Chaput … [condemned] ‘gender theory’ as ‘a kind of metaphysics that subverts the very nature of sexuality … and, by extension, the foundation of human social organization.’”

Father Jenkins concluded his column with an appeal to universities to “raise the intellectual tone of Americans’ discussions,” but responding authors claim that this viewpoint is not enough. Snell concludes in his article, “We need the universityCatholic or otherwiseto remember what purpose they serve. Nothing other than the truth will do.”

Sophia Buono is a junior PLS major and ESS minor. Her latest and proudest addition to her photo collage at her desk is an antique Notre Dame postcard. Contact Sophia at sbuono@nd.edu.