Undiscovering Columbus: Notre Dame President Puts Explorer Under Wraps

News: Commentary
by Bruce Walker  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 24, 2019   

Fr. Jenkins bends to identity politics, covers murals celebrating Catholic Columbus

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The University of Notre Dame has capitulated to several left-of-center causes and ideologies that threaten its reputation as the premier Roman Catholic college in the nation. The most recent submission to contemporary ideologies is the decision to cover the murals depicting Christopher Columbus that previously decorated the central administrative building on Notre Dame's campus.

Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins announced Jan. 20 that the paintings of the Italian-born Spanish explorer would be preserved but not displayed regularly. Notre Dame commissioned artist Luigi Gregori in the 1880s to create the 12 murals specifically for the school's Main Building. According to National Review's Alexandra DeSanctis, the works depict "the life and explorations of Columbus."

The incident is the latest example of what members of the Roman Catholic community perceive as poor spiritual stewardship at Notre Dame.

She continues:

The images had deep resonance at the time for American Catholics, most of whom were immigrants, who faced intense anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice. Columbus represented for them the essential contributions of immigrants and of Catholics to U.S. history, while Notre Dame represented the possibility of eventually gaining the nation's respect.

Despite Jenkins' acknowledgment of the original intent of the murals:

The murals present us with several narratives not easily reconciled, and the tensions among them are especially perplexing for us because of Notre Dame's distinctive history and Catholic mission. At the time they were painted, the murals were not intended to slight indigenous peoples, but to encourage another marginalized group. In the second half of the 19th century, Notre Dame's Catholic population, largely immigrants or from families of recent immigrants, encountered significant anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant attitudes in American public life. At the same time, Columbus was hailed by Americans generally as an intrepid explorer, the "first American" and the "discoverer of the New World." Gregori's murals focused on the popular image of Columbus as an American hero, who was also an immigrant and a devout Catholic. The message to the Notre Dame community was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American.

Jenkins countered:

In recent years, however, many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus's voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this "new" world and at worst demeaning toward them.

In recent years I have heard from students, alumni, faculty, staff, representatives of the Native American community, and others on this complex topic. I have decided, after consultation with the University's Board of Fellows, on a course that will preserve the murals, but will not display them regularly in their current location.

Because Gregori painted the murals directly onto the plaster of the Main Buildings' walls, Jenkins wrote, they cannot be moved without inflicting permanent damage. Reproductions of the original art will be displayed elsewhere on campus, he noted.

"I will establish a committee to decide on the place to display the images of the murals and the appropriate communication around the display," he wrote, adding, "We will begin soon the making of covers for the [original] murals."


The incident is the latest example of what members of the Roman Catholic community perceive as poor spiritual stewardship at Notre Dame. Jenkins was responsible also for inviting then-President Barack Obama to deliver Notre Dame's 2009 commencement address despite the Democrat's outspoken advocacy for abortion, explaining that inviting sitting presidents to speak at the university was a time-honored tradition.

However, a similar honor was not extended to President Donald Trump — who has explicitly expressed his opposition to abortion as well as championing waivers for birth control coverage as mandated by Obamacare. Vice President Mike Pence, an Indiana native, delivered the address in Trump's absence.

Additionally, Jenkins has drawn fire from traditionally observant Roman Catholic organizations for his refusal to rescind an honorary degree granted to Theodore McCarrick, who was demoted from cardinal after revelations of sexual predation were made public. In an interview, Jenkins defended his decision to allow McCarrick to keep his honorary degree. He implied the degree still was deserved despite McCarrick's well-publicized sexual transgressions:

[The tendency is] just to imagine that they are thoroughly corrupt people, but the problem is that it's not true. It's a part of their lives that is deeply problematic, but another part that is not. And that's why it's so hard to identify the problem, and sometimes, that person doesn't seem to see the problem. ...

It's tragic, and by this I don't mean to imply not culpable, but there's a deep tragedy here. ... As with many people who are responsible for such acts — I haven't spoken with him, so I'm speaking generally — there's a certain rationalization that goes on that allows them to compartmentalize their lives and that's part of the challenge, a failure to confront reality.

Jenkins also prompted complaints from Catholic groups and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese for providing birth control coverage for Notre Dame employees in 2018. It had already been revealed in late 2017 that the school's tax-free employee Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) could be used for abortions, sterilizations and birth control. FSA allowances have been since revised to disallow abortion procedures.


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