In a commencement address on May 7 at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, urged graduates to hold fast to their convictions but express them in “more skillful, more respectful ways.”
Father Jenkins spoke to Wesley’s 130th graduating class in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral.
“We in this country are in the midst of a social crisis, a harsh and deepening split between groups that are all too ready to see evil in each other,” Father Jenkins said. “Each side has never been more eager yet more unable to dominate the other. Both sides call for change, but each believes it’s the other side that must change.”
In direct reference to the 2012 elections, Father Jenkins said: “So of all the questions posed in this campaign season, the most important one is rarely asked. Now, when the country is increasingly diverse, when the number of disputed moral questions is rising, when citizens have deep and opposing passions that neither side will give up for the sake of civility: Can citizens of the United States learn to express their convictions in more skillful, more respectful ways?
“We need an answer. A country whose citizens treat one another with scorn does not have a bright future.”
To create more civil discourse in our society, Father Jenkins urged the use of persuasion rather than coercion to convince others of our most passionate convictions.
“We have to call on our conscience to explore our convictions and how we express them. Even in the case of my most noble belief, I must ask myself: Am I trying to advance this belief through persuasion or coercion, with respect or contempt, by accepting sacrifice or imposing sacrifice? When I refuse to compromise, is it because I love a principle, or because I hate the people on the other side?
“If we are determined to keep our convictions free of malice, then I propose that we strive to meet one simple test for public discourse: Our attempts to express our convictions should take the form of an effort to persuade. … If I don’t try to persuade others, but only condemn them, then I am not showing the respect that love demands. To stand apart, proclaim my position, and refuse to talk except to judge does not reduce hatred or promote love. And if it does neither, how can it be inspired by God?”
Inaugurated as Notre Dame’s 17th president in 2005, Father Jenkins is in his second five-year term. He is a professor of philosophy and author of “Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas.”