Announcement sparks varied reactions

The University of Notre Dame announced the establishment of the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Center for Virtue Ethics, a project of the recent Strategic Framework’s Ethics Initiative. The center, named after the outgoing university president, is funded by members of the university’s Board of Trustees and other benefactors.

The center’s creation has sparked mixed reactions among faculty. 

Meghan Sullivan, Director of the Ethics Initiative and Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy, told the Rover via email, “As part of the 2033 Strategic Framework, Notre Dame has articulated a major goal: to be one of the best universities in the world for research and teaching in ethics. … Notre Dame is the only major university with this level of commitment to developing virtue ethics and applying it to the most difficult emerging ethical problems.”

According to its website, the center plans to “support preeminent scholars whose research advances human flourishing in both moral and spiritual contexts, facilitate the development of undergraduate courses exploring topics such as justice and the common good, and deepen the ethical formation of Notre Dame students and faculty.”

John Brennan, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, commented, “The Jenkins Center for Virtue Ethics will advance [Jenkins’] work by creating a dedicated arena in which the enduring relevance of virtue ethics thrives, where faith and reason flourish, and where major moral ideas unite people, rather than divide them.”

Reflecting on the center’s intellectual tradition, Sullivan noted, “Virtue ethics is a tradition of ethical inquiry spanning three millenia, which developed in the East through Confucius and his students, and in the West with the Greeks. It became a core component of Christian ethical thought through St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others.”

Several professors, however, were skeptical of the new center’s necessity, especially given the existence of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (dCEC). The dCEC, founded in 1999, is “committed to sharing the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition through teaching, research, and public engagement, at the highest level and across a range of disciplines.”

David O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy, commented on the apparent similarity of the two centers: “The de Nicola Center, ever since it was founded by David Solomon, has always had a distinctively confident Catholic identity. … I think of the Jenkins Center as subsuming the institutional space that has been occupied by the de Nicola Center.”

Professor of History Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C. agreed with O’Connor’s sentiment: “The Jenkins Center for Virtue Ethics seems to be a rather ill-considered venture hurriedly assembled to take advantage of Fr. John Jenkins’ retirement as President of Notre Dame. There is no need for a new center of this sort because the dCEC has long addressed the whole area of virtue ethics.”

Fr. Miscamble continued, “The press release announcing the new Jenkins Center referenced the work of Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre without noting that Professor MacIntyre is presently a fellow at the de Nicola Center. Furthermore, it neglects to mention that David Solomon, the founding director of the dCEC, has done sterling work to promote the thought of Anscombe and her colleagues. In short, the new center seems superfluous and poorly conceived. It should be reconsidered, and promptly.”

Addressing this concern, Sullivan said, “Centers like the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture will continue to perform their unique missions on campus, including creating spaces for students and faculty to deepen their engagement with Catholic culture. The Jenkins Center will be a university-wide center that focuses primarily on supporting best-in-class research and teaching in ethics, and working directly with deans, key departments, and faculty leaders across the university.”

Sullivan continued, “Down the road, we expect there will be opportunities to work together as well. A whole ecosystem of centers, departments and programs—collaborating and thinking like an institution—will be what makes Notre Dame an unparalleled destination for the study of ethics.”

The Ethics Initiative is a development outlined in the university’s Notre Dame 2033: A Strategic Framework, which identifies the field of ethics as an “intellectual area where the university already possesses excellence and can imagine preeminence.” 

O’Connor expressed concern for this focus on academic prestige: “For Notre Dame to be a prominent public voice in ethics, it has to be countercultural. [The dCEC] was a very specifically Catholic initiative; [the Jenkins Center] is a very specifically academic initiative. While it’s true that many Catholics who are interested in academic philosophy have been interested in virtue ethics, as a paradigm virtue ethics itself doesn’t get its primary meaning from any Catholic orientation.”

He continued, saying that virtue ethics “shifts the center of gravity from a specifically Catholic initiative in the dCEC to a specifically neutral paradigm within the academic study of philosophy and, indeed, within the philosophy department.” 

The published Strategic Framework addressed this role of Notre Dame as a Catholic university on an academic stage: “Notre Dame’s opportunity, even obligation, is to offer a complementary approach to excellence that bridges faith and reason in an academic world accustomed to separating them.” 

Lucy Spence is a freshman from Northern Virginia majoring in piano performance and the Program of Liberal Studies. A firm believer that the fourth time’s the charm, she plans to start Bleak House yet again this summer. Plowing through legal jargon is not her forté, so she might reread Pride and Prejudice for the eleventh time instead. Reach her at

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame

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