A Message from Fr. Jenkins published in New York Times - Why Science Alone Could Not Tell Us Whether to Reopen Notre Dame

A Message from Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. -- Originally Published as an Opinion Piece in the New York Times on 5/26/2020 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is a distinguished immunologist and an advocate for public health. I have the privilege of sharing with him an education in Catholic schools laden with the study of classical texts, philosophy and theology.

Dr. Fauci credits such an education with giving him his impressive ability to explain complex medical facts to general audiences and present cogent arguments.

He consistently says that he speaks as a scientist, offering us the best scientific information available to guide our response to the coronavirus pandemic. His advice is invaluable. There are, however, questions that a scientist, speaking strictly as a scientist, cannot answer for us.

For questions about moral value — how we ought to decide and act — science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.

At the University of Notre Dame, we recently announced our plans to return students to campus for the fall semester. In order to reduce the chances that students from around the country and the world with multiple departures and returns will carry pathogens with them, we will bring students back two weeks early, forgo a fall break and finish the semester before Thanksgiving.

As soon as students arrive in August, we will conduct orientations to welcome them back in the Covid-19 era. We will also institute extensive protocols for testing; contact tracing and quarantining; and preventive measures, such as hand-washing, physical distancing and, in certain settings, the wearing of masks. This is how we can restore in-person classes safely.

Athletic competition presents another set of challenges. We believe we can, with aggressive testing, hygiene and careful monitoring, keep student-athletes safe. Indeed, keeping healthy relatively small cadres of student-athletes, coaches and support staff members is a less daunting challenge than keeping safe the several thousand other people in the campus community.

Fans in the stadium, however, are a different matter. Fighting Irish fans regularly fill Notre Dame Stadium’s 80,000 seats. I see no way currently to allow spectators unless we restrict admissions so that physical distancing is possible.

Our focus to this point has been on restarting our educational and research efforts, and we will soon turn to answer the question of how many games we will play, when we will play them and how many fans will be in the stadium.

With these and other steps — informed by the best medical advice we can find — we believe we can keep our campus environment healthy.

Our decision to return to on-campus classes for the fall semester was guided by three principles that arise from our core university goals. First, we strive to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff and their loved ones. Second, we endeavor to offer an education of the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and we believe that residential life and personal interactions with faculty members and among students are critical to such an education. Finally, we seek to advance human understanding through research, scholarship and creative expression.

If we gave the first principle absolute priority, our decision about reopening would be easy. We would keep everyone away until an effective vaccine was universally available.

However, were we to take that course, we would risk failing to provide the next generation of leaders the education they need and to do the research and scholarship so valuable to our society. How ought these competing risks be weighed? No science, simply as science, can answer that question. It is a moral question in which principles to which we are committed are in tension.

We all hope for an effective vaccine that will put Covid-19 behind us. Yet we cannot and should not assume that a vaccine will be available soon, nor, indeed, that another pandemic will not follow close behind. We live in a global society, and it is possible that animal-to-person contact in an open market somewhere may again cause a pandemic disrupting our society.

We may need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are facing not simply a passing crisis, but a new normal. For that and similar challenges, we need moral insight.

Dr. Anthony Fauci makes remarks as President Trump looks on during the daily White House Coronavirus briefing at the White House in April.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

The pivotal question for us individually and as a society is not whether we should take risks, but what risks are acceptable and why. Disagreements among us on that question are deep and vigorous, but I’d hope for wide agreement that the education of young people — the future leaders of our society — is worth risking a good deal.

Indeed, the mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young. Also worthy of risk is the research that can enable us to deal with the challenges we do and will face.

We have availed ourselves of the best medical advice and scientific information available and are assiduously planning a reopening that will make the campus community as safe as possible. We believe the good of educating students and continuing vital research is very much worth the remaining risk.

In our classical, humanistic educations, both Dr. Fauci and I came across the texts of Aristotle, who defined courage not as simple fearlessness, but as the mean between a rashness that is heedless of danger and a timidity that is paralyzed by it. To possess the virtue of courage is to be able to choose the proper mean between these extremes — to know what risks are worth taking, and why.

Perhaps what we most need now, alongside science, is that kind of courage and the practical wisdom it requires. Notre Dame’s recent announcement about reopening is the attempt to find the courageous mean as we face the threat of the virus and seek to continue our mission of education and inquiry.