instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, April 07, 2006

A university's co-op program

Much has already been written on St. Blog's about the statement of the president of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., on academic freedom and Catholic character. I wasn't surprised that the majority of comments condemn the statement, nor by whom I've seen approve it. (My favorite comment, by far, was written by an open book reader: "Weren't the Jesuits 'Catholic' once?" I think that says so much about so much of what's been said.)

I suppose, though, I am a little surprised there haven't been more opinions that admitted more uncertainty. Maybe I just haven't come across them; maybe opinions that admit more uncertainty are less likely to be posted.

Or maybe there isn't much uncertainty involved. If we grant that a certain activity that occurs at a Catholic university supports a position clearly and egregiously contrary to certain central values of Catholicism, and that the president of the university could in principle stop that activity, why wouldn't the president be morally obligated to prevent it?

Let's look at that question: Is the president, in such circumstances, categorically morally obligated to prevent it? This question seems to me to be convertible to, Is the president's failure to prevent it formal or proximate material cooperation with evil? (Here I'll take for granted that the activity itself is evil.)

Generally speaking, it could be formal cooperation; that is, the president could himself personally support the evil. But he may well not, in which case it's not formal cooperation.

It's an understandable impulse to want to answer, "Of course it's proximate material cooperation! The activity occurs if and only if he lets it. He could stop it with the stroke of a pen." This impulse, however, should probably be tempered by a couple of other considerations.

First, it somewhat misrepresents the position of president of a university. There are very few university activities that require his explicit approval. Unless the particular evil activity is one of the few activities that truly can't happen without his explicit approval, his material cooperation is not obviously proximate.

More generally, the power to prevent something does not necessarily imply proximate material cooperation when it is not prevented. Recall St. Thomas's principle that "human law rightly allows some vices, by not repressing them."

It would seem, then, that a university president is not categorically obligated to prevent an evil activity from occurring at his university. We would need to look at the circumstances of each such activity to determine whether the lack of prevention constitutes formal cooperation, proximate material cooperation, or remote material cooperation. The first two cases are not as easily made as some may think.