The Notre Dame Faculty Senate voted to defeat a resolution to endorse University President Fr. John I. Jenkins’ Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life. Twenty-two members of the Senate voted to defeat the proposal, while 8 voted in favor and one abstained, at a March 1 meeting.
President Jenkins’ Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life was formed in Fall 2009. The stated purpose of the resolution was to support pro-life initiatives by students, to acknowledge and emphasize the pro-life witness of Fr. Jenkins’ Task Force and the University Life Initiatives, to assert that the university can be at once fully Catholic and fully engaged in pursuing truth through conversation with other universities, and to assert Catholic social teaching as the foundation for the moral and intellectual life of the university.
The proposed resolution states, “The Faculty Senate affirms again Fr. Jenkins’ witness to the University of Notre Dame’s commitments both to intellectual inquiry and debate and to the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life; and by this resolution wishes to commend the ongoing public witness of Fr. Jenkins, his Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life, the Coordinator of University Life Issues, and most especially Notre Dame students, to a culture of life.”
The resolution also asserts that it respects the “freedom of conscience of individual University faculty (and Faculty Senate) members who may disagree in whole or in part” with the Task Force. In addition to encouraging the university to implement the suggestions of the Task Force, the resolution “urges both the Coordinator for University Life Issues and the University administration itself to strive in all their programs and policies to be faithful to the full spectrum of Catholic Social Teaching.”
Philip Bess, professor of architecture, proposed the defeated resolution. Although he was not available to comment on the resolution or the Faculty Senate’s vote, Bess described the resolution in his presentation to the Faculty Senate.
“I ask you to note that the resolution before us tonight includes neither the word “abortion” nor the term “pro-life;” and that the recommendations of the President’s Task Force include no legislative agenda, but rather concern Note Dame’s own witness to the world on behalf of the dignity of human life from conception to natural death,” he said.
According to the minutes, Bess said that the proposed resolution sought to affirm the Faculty Senate’s support for four primary areas: “1) Father Jenkins’ and Notre Dame’s fundamental commitment to intellectual inquiry and debate; 2) Father Jenkins’ and Notre Dame’ fundamental commitment to the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life; 3) the Notre Dame students who bear public witness to a culture of life; and 4) the freedom of the conscience of University Faculty members who disagree.”
In the minutes of the Faculty Senate, several issues concerning the adoption of the proposed resolution were discussed. Senators were concerned that the resolution required senators to have pro-life values or that their faculty constituents would think their senator was trying to speak for them on issues concerning life issues. John F. Gaski, a professor in Mendoza College of Business, however, pointed out that the resolution respects the right of others to disagree with the Task Force’s mandate.
One senator expressed concerns that the resolution might alienate some outside the university, especially since many “already view the university as a peculiar place at which to pursue research.”
Another primary issue concern in the debate was the relationship between the proposal and the Faculty Senate’s 2009 decision to endorse Fr. Jenkins’ invitation to President Obama to speak at commencement and to receive an honorary degree. It was argued that it is not the role of the senate to endorse or reject any task of Fr. Jenkins. Other senators argued that the resolution would be seen as a reprisal of the Faculty Senate’s 2009 endorsement of Father Jenkins’ invitation to President Obama.
The Student Affairs Committee, which required three sessions to adjust the language of the proposed resolution, decided to leave in the opening paragraph of the resolution referring to the Faculty Senate’s resolution to endorse Fr. Jenkins’ invitation to President Obama as necessary background information.
John Robinson, chair of the faculty senate and law professor, offered his insight as to why the resolution was voted down.
“From listening to the debate that preceded the vote, my best guess is that some senators understood the resolution to be a delayed response to a senate resolution from the spring of 2009 that supported Father Jenkins’ invitation to President Obama to speak at graduation that year and to receive an honorary degree,” he said.
In Robinson’s view, timing might have affected the vote’s outcome. “Those senators, I suspect, disagreed either with the contents of that response or with its timing, or with both,” he added. “Others, I suspect, saw Father Jenkins’ current situation as quite different from the situation in which he found himself in during the spring of 2009. Then his decision to invite President Obama out here had generated such a storm of criticism that a vote of support for his decision seemed appropriate to the Senate. Now, in contrast, Father Jenkins’ pro-life activities have not elicited a similar reaction; so, to those senators, the Bess resolution may have seemed otiose.”
Connie Mick, assistant director of the Center for Social Concerns, was among the senators who voted against the proposed resolution. The Center for Social Concerns seeks to promote the values of Catholic social teaching through service-based learning. Mick was not available to comment.
Fr. Bill Lies, director of the Center for Social Concerns, said that Mick is not a representative of the center but was elected from 300 special professional faculty members.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, professor of history and president of the University Faculty for Life chapter, expressed disappointment, particularly considering that “the resolution had been re-worked to try to address concerns and to attract a majority vote.”
“The vote is a serious disappointment and hopefully does not reflect the views of the faculty as a whole,” he said. “That the faculty senate failed to support a modest resolution affirming Fr. John Jenkins’ witness to the sanctity of life is very sad indeed and reflects poorly on the faculty senate.”