Notre Dame’s New Ethics Center Causes Controversy, Indicates Potential Catholic-Identity Clashes Ahead

Critics contend that the new Jenkins Center bypasses the already-established de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture — and may be a sign of how the Catholic university will implement its ambitious strategic plan.

The Golden Dome is seen atop the Main Building at the University of Notre Dame.
The Golden Dome is seen atop the Main Building at the University of Notre Dame. (photo: RebeccaDLev / Shutterstock)

At a normal Catholic university, the announcement of a new center devoted to virtue ethics would likely be an uncontroversial cause for celebration.

But the University of Notre Dame, where competing visions of Catholic identity play out at one of the nation’s most prestigious institutes of higher learning, isn’t an ordinary Catholic university. 

And the newly announced Father John Jenkins, C.S.C, Center for Virtue Ethics, named for the university’s outgoing president, is anything but uncontroversial.

In fact, its establishment may be a key indicator of how administrators intend to implement Notre Dame’s ambitious plan to become “the leading global Catholic research university” by 2033 — and what vision of Catholic identity will be guiding that pursuit.

Announced on April 9, and still in its seminal stages, the Jenkins Center has upset some on the South Bend, Indiana, campus for allegedly undercutting an already-existing Notre Dame institute dedicated to ethical studies, the 25-year-old de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. 

“I think of the Jenkins Center as subsuming the institutional space that has been occupied by the de Nicola Center,” Notre Dame philosopher David O’Connor told The Irish Rover, a student-run Catholic newspaper.


Ethical Encroachment?

Founded in 1999 by philosopher David Solomon and led for the last 12 years by bioethicist O. Carter Snead, the de Nicola Center says it promotes the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition both on campus and in the public square “through teaching, research, and public engagement, at the highest level and across a range of disciplines.” The center’s initiatives include everything from the Sorin Fellows program, an integrated student formation program in the Catholic tradition that currently includes 675 undergrads and graduate students, to sponsoring visiting fellows like Georgetown ethicist John Keown and publishing award-winning academic works.

Based on the university’s announcement, the Jenkins Center will cover similar ground and “will 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,” while also promoting public discussion informed by virtue ethics.

The university has also framed the Jenkins Center as carrying on the legacy of Notre Dame philosopher emeritus Alasdair MacIntyre, who is widely regarded as the man responsible for revitalizing contemporary interest in virtue ethics, which focuses on character formation and not just consequences as a key criterion of ethical evaluation. 

But MacIntyre already serves as one of the de Nicola Center’s “Distinguished Senior Fellows.” In fact, the 95-year-old philosopher’s only public appearances typically come in the form of paper presentations at the de Nicola Center’s annual Fall Conference, which draws 1,500 participants and is Notre Dame’s largest annual academic event.

Holy Cross Father William Miscamble, a professor of history, said that the new center, which is receiving financial backing directly from members of the board of trustees, as well as additional benefactors, “seems superfluous and poorly conceived” and “should be reconsidered, and promptly.”

Some have also criticized the Jenkins Center focus on virtue ethics for not being satisfactorily grounded in a distinctively Catholic approach to ethics. O’Connor, for instance, told the Rover that by founding the new institution, the university was shifting its broader engagement in ethics away from a “specifically Catholic initiative in the [de Nicola Center] to a specifically neutral paradigm within the academic study of philosophy and, indeed, within the philosophy department.”

In response to criticisms that the Jenkins Center is supplanting the de Nicola Center, the new center’s inaugural director, Meghan Sullivan — a philosopher and influential administrator who now heads the Notre Dame strategic plan’s “Ethics Initiative”— told the Rover that the de Nicola Center will “continue to perform their unique mission on campus, including creating spaces for students and faculty to deepen their engagement with Catholic culture.” But Sullivan emphasized that the Jenkins Center would lead the university’s pursuit of ethics in academic areas such as research and teaching.


Excellent and Catholic

Shortly thereafter, Snead and Jennifer Newsome Martin, a theologian and the de Nicola Center’s incoming director, took to the pages of The Irish Rover to reiterate the center’s contribution to Notre Dame’s mission. In particular, the two emphasized the de Nicola Center’s distinctively academic character, also highlighting the center’s track record of facilitating fruitful collaborations among people of “diverse traditions and perspectives,” while remaining firmly grounded in its decidedly Catholic identity.

In what seemed to be a critique of the way the de Nicola Center had been characterized in contrast to the Jenkins Center, Snead and Martin also wrote that a Catholic institution can embrace a “generous vision of truth” not because “it attempts to operate in a neutral space or so-called ‘view from nowhere,’ but precisely because it is Catholic.”

“In short, there is not and ought not and could not be any opposition, either natural or imputed, between the faithful embrace of Catholic identity and mission and serious intellectual and academic work,” they wrote. “Nor is there a conflict between Catholic identity and the institutional goal of being recognized as academically elite.”

In additional comments to the Register, Carter and Martin said “the de Nicola Center has a rich history of collaboration with partners on campus and off,” pointing to the center’s work with Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Laboratory for Economic Opportunity and with Stanford University’s “The Boundaries of Humanity” initiative as examples. “We always welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with others on projects that explore the deepest and most pressing questions concerning human flourishing, dignity, and the common good.”

Sullivan did not respond to a request for additional comment before publication, nor did a university spokesperson.

Amid the controversy, the de Nicola Center, which is named for benefactors Anthony and Christie de Nicola, received an important endorsement from the university’s incoming president, Holy Cross Father Robert Dowd. 

“The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture is a really important part of the fabric of Notre Dame,” Father Dowd said at the de Nicola Center’s April 27 Evangelium Vitae dinner, an annual event that honors a pro-life leader, recognizing neonatologist Elvira Parravicini this year. “And so the future is bright. We couldn’t be more excited.”


Which ‘Catholic Identity’?

The saga around Notre Dame’s overlapping ethics centers is notable not just as an intra-academic dispute, but as an indication of how university administrators are implementing their ambitious “Notre Dame 2033” strategic plan.

The Jenkins Center is a specific application of the plan’s “Ethics Initiative,” which aims to establish Notre Dame as “a premier global destination for the study of ethics.” Critics like Father Miscamble have contended that the initiative’s ethical vision is not sufficiently rooted in a Christian anthropology and is pursuing questions that are no different than the kinds posed by secular schools.

The administrators’ decision to pursue their ethics goals by creating the Jenkins Center — rather than amplifying the already-existing de Nicola Center — is likely to raise concerns that “Notre Dame 2033 may be led by a different vision of Catholic identity than the one that has guided campus initiatives like the de Nicola Center.

In its bid to become an elite research university, the plan explicitly calls for Notre Dame to be “anchored in Roman Catholicism” in all its pursuits and “to offer a complementary approach to excellence that bridges faith and reason in an academic world accustomed to separating them.” 

But the plan has been criticized by the likes of Father Miscamble, who wrote that it “has something of the tone of a Catholic NGO” for explicitly tying its criteria for success to the rankings and estimation of secular institutions while remaining vague in its Catholic commitments. For instance, the document speaks of Catholicism primarily in institutional and sociological terms, as “the religious tradition that gave birth to universities in the medieval era and that has become the world’s most global, multicultural, and multilingual institution,” while terms like “God” and “Jesus” are absent from the text.

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