Bishop Jenky’s Assessment of Religious Liberty Battle Raises Question About Historical Analogy

Notre Dame professor critical of colleagues’ letter calling for bishop’s resignation.

(photo: CNA)

Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., in mid-April warned that the Obama administration’s actions limiting the religious liberty of churches and church agencies could lead to the “shutting down” of “all our public ministries,” including Catholic schools, hospitals and Newman Centers. ” But a comparison of America in 2012 to aspects of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia upset some observers.

“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,” the bishop said at an annual Catholic men’s event in Peoria. “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.”

Lonnie Nasatir, the regional director of Chicago’s Anti-Defamation League, found the bishop’s remarks to be “outrageous, offensive and completely over the top.” Nasatir demanded an apology from the bishop, and said, “Clearly, Bishop Jenky needs a history lesson. There are few, if any, parallels in history to the religious intolerance and anti-Semitism fostered in society by Stalin, and especially Hitler, who under his regime perpetuated the open persecution and ultimate genocide of Jews, Catholics and many other minorities.”

This week, 143 Notre Dame professors wrote to the university’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, saying the bishop’s comments “demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment.” The signatories, including several history professors, called on the university to distance itself from Bishop Jenky’s “incendiary statement.” “Further,” they said, “we feel that it would be in the best interest of Notre Dame if Jenky resigned from the University’s Board of Fellows if he is unwilling to renounce loudly and publicly this destructive analogy.”

Another Notre Dame professor, however, came out in support of the bishop. “It was not ‘incendiary’ but simple truth for Bishop Jenky to say that the trajectory of the Obama regime is along a ‘similar path’ in regard to ‘education, social services, and health care,” wrote Charles Rice, retired professor of law at Notre Dame.

Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble also supports Bishop Jenky. A history professor at the University of Notre Dame, Father Miscamble serves as president of the Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life.

Register news editor John Burger spoke to him April 26 about the controversy that has emerged over Bishop Jenky’s remarks.


Do you know Bishop Jenky?

I do, indeed. He’s, of course, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and I’ve known him since I came to the order as a seminarian 30 years ago. He’s a terrific priest and a great bishop.


Have you worked with him closely?

He was the rector of Sacred Heart Basilica in my younger days as a priest here on campus and was the superior of the Holy Cross community here during my early days on campus. That was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was part of the community of which he was local superior.

But then he was taken away from us and made auxiliary bishop here in Fort Wayne-South Bend, and then was made bishop of Peoria about 10 years ago. So, for the last 15 years or so, I’ve seen him periodically. He comes back to visit, and so on.


What do you think of this brouhaha over his remarks?

I have found the reaction of my faculty colleagues quite embarrassing — embarrassing because these academics disgracefully misused Bishop Jenky’s words by taking them out of context. It has been a little disappointing, to say least. Bishop Jenky was making remarks about the religious-liberty issue, and some of my colleagues implied that Bishop Jenky was suggesting that President Obama was on his way to adopting the entire Hitler-Stalin agenda. It’s a mischaracterization that is unworthy of supposedly serious scholars.


You’re a historian, albeit your specialty is American history.

I am a historian, and I challenge the signatories to this letter criticizing Bishop Jenky to point to one part of his homily that is historically inaccurate.


Is he historically accurate?

Absolutely. By the way, Bishop Jenky was a history major when he was an undergraduate here at Notre Dame. He’s read quite a bit of history in his day. And he is a good student of it.


Why do you think they would take his remarks out of context?

Well, this is to engage in speculation, and I probably shouldn’t go down this path myself; one should be cautious. But I think this very poorly crafted letter says more about the rather predictable and ideological bias of the signatories than it does about Bishop Jenky’s courageous homily.


But do you feel that he might have overstepped any kind of line?

No. His homily was a courageous homily which pointed to a pattern of behavior of a number of regimes to limit religious freedom and to attack religious institutions.


Is there any way you might characterize the professors who signed the letter? Do they have something in common?

Most are concentrated in the College of Arts and Letters. I would say that there’s a kind of a piling-on mentality at work here.


What do you know of Bishop Jenky’s contributions as a member of the board of fellows at Notre Dame, particularly regarding the university’s Catholic character?

The board of fellows is the key decision-making group that selects the trustees at Notre Dame. It’s comprised of six members of the Congregation of Holy Cross and six laypersons, and I think Bishop Jenky has always been an engaged and active member of the board of fellows and also the board of trustees. (When you’re a fellow, you’re also a trustee.) He deeply loves Notre Dame and has sought to build up Notre Dame’s Catholic mission and identity, has defended Notre Dame for the good things that go on here, and deeply wishes the best for Notre Dame. So he’s been a valued contributor to the work of the board of fellows and board of trustees.