The Rev. John Jenkins got some simple advice before taking over as president of the University of Notre Dame: “Don’t listen to the criticism, don’t listen to the praise, just make the best decision you can.”
Four years later, Jenkins is getting plenty of criticism from Catholic leaders, students and alumni because of the university’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to deliver its commencement address and receive an honorary degree Sunday.
Opponents of the invitation, including at least 70 bishops, say Obama’s support for abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research contradicts church teachings and that Jenkins has created a breach with the church.
A leading Catholic scholar also declined the school’s most prestigious award, making this year’s commencement the first time that the Laetare Medal hasn’t been awarded since 1883.
“It is clear that Notre Dame didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said shortly after the university announced Obama’s appearance.
In the center of the storm is Jenkins, a 55-year-old philosophy scholar who has spent much of his adult life at Notre Dame and is described as cerebral and prayerful.
Jenkins, who declined interview requests, has said Notre Dame does not support Obama’s positions on issues regarding the protection of human life but that his appearance provides “a basis for further positive engagement.” Obama will be the sixth sitting U.S. president to deliver the university’s commencement address.
Friends and colleagues say Jenkins has listened to the criticism but is confident in his decision.
“He respects people who differ, but he’s resolute in his decision because he did it based on conscience and what he really believes in,” said Richard Notebaert, chairman of Notre Dame’s board of trustees.
Notebaert said Jenkins, who is in the fourth year of a five-year term, has the “full support” of the trustees.
That hasn’t soothed critics, who question whether Notre Dame has lost touch with its Catholic roots. Calls for his ouster have grown louder amid protests by abortion opponents, who have flown pictures of aborted fetuses over campus and paraded dolls smeared in fake blood outside a recent board of trustees’ meeting. Dozens of anti-abortion activists have been arrested, and more arrests are likely as protesters converge on the campus for commencement weekend.
The intensity of the criticism has surprised students at Notre Dame, including junior Eddie Valazquez, who called “this intrusion of outside forces … a little disconcerting.”
“Really outlandish protests just aren’t our style,” Valazquez said.
But for others, like alumnus David DiFranco, it hasn’t been enough. DiFranco helped organize Replacejenkins.com, which urges donors to withhold money until Notre Dame removes Jenkins. He said the school’s administration had been veering away from the church’s teachings.
“Obama’s just the big straw that finally broke the camel’s back,” he said.
Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn has said he believes the Obama invitation would cost Jenkins his job, telling anti-abortion activists at a convention in April that “Notre Dame will need a scapegoat for this debacle.”
University bylaws require that the school’s president be a priest from the Congregation of Holy Cross, Indiana Province, a group now made up of about 360 men.
But Notebaert, the board of trustees’ chairman, pointed to Notre Dame’s tradition of presidents who were willing to make unpopular decisions. The Rev. Edward Malloy, who served for 18 years before Jenkins, drew the ire of Bishop John D’Arcy by allowing “The Vagina Monologues” and a Queer Film Festival to appear on campus.
The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the former president who offered words of wisdom to Jenkins, supported social causes ranging from civil rights to immigration reform and served as an adviser to presidents and popes. He was replaced as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1972 over criticism of then-President Richard Nixon’s administration.
“You see this golden thread that runs through the character of the presidents of Notre Dame, and I think it continues through Father John Jenkins,” Notebaert said.
Robert Burns, a retired Notre Dame history professor who wrote two books about the school, said he could recall only one instance in which a president of the school came under similar criticism: The Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, who fired an outspoken interventionist professor during World War II.
The criticism doesn’t appears to bother Jenkins, who friends say never aspired to the job and who has said that he doesn’t worry about his legacy.
“My approach is to think one year at a time, one week at a time, even one day at a time,” he said upon taking office.
His ultimate goal is for the university to make a difference in the world, said John Affleck-Graves, a Notre Dame executive vice president who has known Jenkins for about 15 years.
“He wants to bring a more reflective, faith-based position to some of the big debates and decisions in the world,” he said.