Father John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, announced on Sunday that he has decided to cover a series of murals of Christopher Columbus displayed in Main Building, the central administrative building on campus.
“In recent years I have heard from students, alumni, faculty, staff, representatives of the Native American community, and others on this complex topic,” Fr. Jenkins said in an email to the Notre Dame community, a copy of which was obtained by National Review. “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.”
As he usually does when faced with a situation in which he hopes to appease everyone, Fr. Jenkins has settled on a course of action that will please exactly no one.
The twelve murals were painted by Luigi Gregori in the 1880s specifically for display in Notre Dame’s Main Building, depicting the life and explorations of Columbus. 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.
But in light of shifting modern attitudes toward Columbus and colonization, the Notre Dame administration has faced criticism for allowing the murals to remain on display. In the fall of 2017, a group of progressive students and faculty demanded that the murals be taken down, and some asked the university to rename its celebration of Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.”
With this decision, voices eager to erase history instead of remembering and learning from it have won out.
The rest of Father Jenkins’s email provides little useful insight, instead offering a series of bland equivocations. He notes, for instance, that the murals’ location “is not well suited for a thoughtful consideration” and says that high-resolution images instead will be displayed elsewhere. But that location remains unknown, pending the university’s establishment of a committee “to decide on the place to display the images of the murals and the appropriate communication around the display.” A truly egalitarian solution.
The murals themselves, meanwhile, will “be covered by woven material consistent with the décor of the space, though it will be possible to display the murals on occasion.” Those potential occasions remain, of course, unenumerated; perhaps another committee will be formed to help identify them. Here’s more from Fr. Jenkins’s intensely confusing rationale:
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.
. . .
Our goal in making this change is to respect both Gregori’s murals, understood in their historical context, and the reality and experience of Native Americans in the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival. We wish to preserve artistic works originally intended to celebrate immigrant Catholics who were marginalized at the time in society, but do so in a way that avoids unintentionally marginalizing others. The course described above, we believe, honors the University’s heritage, of which we are justly proud, and better respects the heritage of native peoples, who have known great adversity since the arrival of Europeans.
While Fr. Jenkins’s decision very well might stem from his inclination toward charity rather than his eagerness to capitulate, it is disappointing to see Notre Dame go the way of so many other institutions of higher education, effacing its history and holding past figures to modern standards, regardless of context, for the sake of pacifying insatiable social-justice activists.