A Message from Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. – Notre Dame, Our Catholic Mission and Anti-Racism

June 20, 2022

Dear Members of the Notre Dame Community,

As we celebrate Juneteenth, we mark the 157th anniversary of the freeing of the last enslaved peoples in the United States by advancing federal troops in Galveston, Texas. Although the day calls for celebration, it is also a sober reminder that in the years since, descendants of African Americans who were enslaved have had to endure the enforced segregation of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and discriminatory attitudes and practices. The struggle for equity and justice for African Americans did not end on the first Juneteenth. It continues today, and we at Notre Dame must remain committed to it.

Roughly one year ago, the University’s Board of Trustees formally approved the Trustee Task Force Report on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The report provided a strategic framework for the University’s efforts, and it continues to guide us. I gave updates on these efforts in August and January

While the Task Force report addressed racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity broadly, the Juneteenth anniversary, as well as the mass murder of innocent people in Buffalo last month by a gunman driven by racial hatred, compels us to give attention particularly to anti-Black racism. It is a good time to remind ourselves that the unequivocal rejection of racism in any form, and particularly anti-Black racism, flows from the central principles of our Catholic mission.  

As we have said before, the core principles of Catholic social teaching commit us, first of all, to respect for the dignity of every human person, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any other differences among us. Secondly, we must strive to build a just society in which all can flourish. And, thirdly, we are called to show a special concern for the most vulnerable. These principles are radical, counter-cultural, and demanding. We often fall short individually and collectively. Yet they provide the moral framework that must orient the life and work of a Catholic university. 

With regard to race and racism, these principles demand a multifaceted commitment. Our primary duty, of course, is to rid our hearts of racial bias. We must not ourselves speak words or act in ways, however subtle, that discriminate against or demean Black people, individually or collectively, and robs them of their God-given dignity. 

In addition, we must challenge others when we observe them speaking or acting in ways that do not respect the dignity of others, especially when their physical safety is threatened. Sometimes this may be best done in a private conversation; at other times, a more public statement may be most appropriate. While the ensuing conversation may be uncomfortable, it is our duty to engage in those conversations when we see discrimination or demeaning of others. No community, including our own, is immune from racist sentiments and actions, and challenging them will help us all grow.

There is also a third important aspect to our commitment to oppose racism. We recognize that institutional structures and social practices often foster racism in various forms. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of social situations or institutions that are “structures of sin” (para. 1869) and foster sinful acts in individuals. They are called a “social sin.” To the extent that there are institutionalized structures of sin that foster racist attitudes and practices, we are called, individually and collectively, to challenge and change them. These structures are most pernicious when we are unaware and fail to acknowledge them. Our duty is to expose and challenge them.

Notre Dame’s commitment as a Catholic university demands, then, that we reject racist attitudes and actions, challenge them when we observe them in others, and oppose structures that foster the subjugation of people because of race. In this sense, Notre Dame is and must be anti-racist.

The Trustee Task Force report urges us not simply to attend to our University community, but to be a force for good in the world. The most important contribution Notre Dame can make in challenging unjust structures is through research and teaching in colleges and departments, institutes and centers, across the University. That work helps us to better understand such injustices and address them more effectively. 

We know that living up to these high ideals is not the work of a week, a month, or even a year, but is a never-ending task. We recognize, however, in the current moment an urgent call and a special opportunity to make progress. The Board of Trustees, University leaders, and I are committed to this effort, and we call on every member of this community to join in making Notre Dame the best version of itself. 

Thank you for your efforts. Let us continue them and ask always for God’s help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in opposing the sin of racism wherever and whenever we encounter it. 

In Notre Dame,
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.