Faculty members at the University of Notre Dame say that attacks on Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., over remarks about Hitler and Stalin in a recent homily have taken his words out of context.
“Bishop Jenky properly drew attention to the impending dangers to religious and personal freedom,” said Notre Dame law professor emeritus Charles Rice.
He argued in an April 24 statement that the bishop’s critics “misread” his comments, which presented a “simple truth” about history.
On April 14, Bishop Jenky delivered a homily at an annual men’s Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria. He urged courageous action in the face of modern-day threats to religious freedom in America.
“Remember that in past history other governments have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches like the first disciples locked up in the Upper Room,” said Bishop Jenky.
He pointed to attempts by Otto von Bismarck and Georges Clemenceau to close down every Catholic school, hospital, convent and monastery in imperial Germany and France, respectively.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
By April 20, a letter protesting the bishop’s remarks had been signed by 49 members of the Notre Dame faculty, including sociology professor Ann Marie Power, who wrote a February opinion article in the student newspaper, The Observer, calling for the Church to reconsider its view on “the responsible use of contraception.”
Also among the signatories was art history professor Robert Coleman, who, according to The Observer, is an openly homosexual professor. He has previously voiced his objections to the university’s handling of "homosexual and transgender" student groups seeking official school approval.
The faculty letter asserted that the comparisons used by the bishop “demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment.”
The signatories said that they found it “profoundly offensive” that the bishop would “compare the president’s actions with those whose genocidal policies murdered tens of millions of people.”
They called on Bishop Jenky to resign from the university’s board of fellows “if he is unwilling to renounce loudly and publicly this destructive analogy.”
However, several other faculty members have spoken out in defense of the bishop, pointing to the actual text of the homily and observing that it refers specifically to instances of religious intolerance.
Theology professor David Fagerberg told EWTN News on April 27 that he did not interpret the bishop’s comments in the same way that the signers of the letter had.
“I understood Bishop Jenky to compare our current administration’s restriction of religion to several other instances in the past when one government or another (he mentions four) restricted religion to private worship,” Fagerberg said.
Rice echoed this sentiment, explaining that the context of the statement clearly shows that the bishop was referring to the way in which Obama, like the other figures, will not allow religious organizations to compete “with the state in education, social services and health care.”
The “limited and appropriate reference to Hitler and Stalin” was used to present an undisputable historical fact, he said.
Religious tolerance has been an issue of critical concern for the U.S. bishops since the Obama administration issued its contraception mandate.
In an April 19 statement responding to the outcry, Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria, called it “unfortunate” that Bishop Jenky’s comments had been “taken out of context.”
She explained that the bishop is concerned about threats to religious freedom that could prevent Catholic institutions from continuing in their ministry.
In his homily, she said, Bishop Jenky gave historical examples of religious groups being persecuted for their beliefs.
“We certainly have not reached the same level of persecution,” Gibson said. “However, history teaches us to be cautious once we start down the path of limiting religious liberty.”