Professor: Notre Dame Manufacturing in China Violates Catholic Social Teaching
November 30, 20157 | By Alexandra DeSanctis | Cardinal Newman Society
The University of Notre Dame announced last month that it would begin a pilot program to manufacture University-licensed products in two Chinese factories, a move criticized as a violation of Catholic social teaching by a Notre Dame theology professor.
“The new policy violates Catholic social teaching,” wrote Associate Professor of Theology Todd Whitmore, who opposed the new program in a letter to the editor published in the November 5 issue of The Observer, Notre Dame’s official campus newspaper.
Whitmore, who has taught Catholic social teaching at Notre Dame every semester for the last 25 years, argued the policy specifically breaches “’the principle of cooperation with evil.’ In this case, the evil of denying workers their rights.”
University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, revealed the pilot program in an October 28 message to students, faculty and staff. Included in the email was a detailed philosophical justification of the move, as he argued that it was, in fact, in line with Catholic social teaching.
The new program, which was recommended to Fr. Jenkins by a University body called the Worker Participation Committee (WPC), was put in place “to see if [the factories] can meet and sustain worker treatment standards in keeping with Catholic social teaching.”
In his email, Fr. Jenkins prefaced the WPC recommendations by explaining the Catholic social teaching origins of the University’s Licensing Code of Conduct, which stems from a view of work as “a fundamental right and good for mankind.”
As a result of this view,Catholic social teaching maintains that workers are entitled to a just wage, reasonable work hours and rest, safe and healthy working conditions, and pensions, as well as the right to form labor and trade unions to promote social justice.
When Notre Dame instituted its code of conduct, factories in 11 countries — including China — were precluded from producing University-licensed goods. Fr. Jenkins called the implementation of this code “bold, principled, and widely applauded,” but conceded that since 2001, “no other universities have adopted similar policies,and Notre Dame’s action has had no discernable influence on the practices of nations that deny freedom of association.”
“[T]he hope was that the policy would be emulated by other universities and bring about change in China,” University spokesman Dennis Brown told the Irish Rover, Notre Dame’s independent student publication. “The reality is that no others followed our lead and our actions had no impact at all on Chinese practices.”
As a result of this, Brown said, the WPC was formed “to assess factories that our licensees believe have the potential to operate in a manner consistent with Notre Dame’s values — despite Chinese law. The pilot project will help us determine if this is a workable approach.”
Fr. Jenkins concluded his email with several paragraphs explaining his philosophical reasoning that prompted the decision to accept the WPC recommendations.
In his letter, Whitmore provided several refutations of Fr.Jenkins’ application of the principle of cooperation with evil. One such critique was that the president’s email implied Notre Dame has no option but to change its policy toward China.
“The fact of the matter is that the policy against production in China had been in place for fifteen years, and Notre Dame has successfully been making products elsewhere,” Whitmore said.
“There are any number of university practices that do not fit with Catholic teaching,” Whitmore later noted. “More troubling is the use of Catholic teaching to justify practices that contravene that teaching.
“I understand the symbolic cost involved, but it would have been more direct simply to state that the University has decided not to abide by Catholic teaching on the issue,” he concluded.
Daniel Graff, professor of history, who also serves as director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program at Notre Dame, said he is opposed to the pilot program on two levels: principle and timing.
“[I]t does represent a violation of [Notre Dame’s] pioneering code of conduct that has affirmed the centrality, even necessity, of workers’ freedom of association to form independent unions of their own choosing,” Graff said to the Rover.
Along the lines of Whitmore’s argument, Graff agreed that the University’s code of conduct is rooted deeply in Catholic social tradition, and therefore its principles should not be altered.
“I believe the university should stand by its policy and work to strengthen protections for workers’ rights in the places where licensed goods are currently being produced, rather than compromising to extend production to a country where workers are forbidden from forming their own independent organizations,” Graff said.
“If it is legitimate to apply the principle [of cooperation with evil] in the way that Jenkins does to freedom of association, then it is also legitimate to apply it to situations where there is compulsory overtime, unsafe working conditions, or forced labor, because, the reasoning would go, Notre Dame does not create those conditions, we only make products in them,” Whitmore added, pointing out the possibility of a slippery slope within the president’s reasoning.
Graff added that, as a result of his conversations with labor experts on China and the global supply chain, he believes this is particularly poor timing for such a program.
“After a half-decade or more of Chinese workers successfully pushing for greater pay, safer conditions, and general improvements at the workplace, it now appears the current Chinese government is pushing back hard in order to rollback the gains and make sure Chinese workers do not enjoy greater participation at the workplace,” he said.
“In general, I don’t think that outside auditors can really gauge workplace freedoms and workers’ interests (as opposed to workplace conditions),” Graff concluded. “It takes workers on the ground to enforce their own interests, and this is not allowed under Chinese law. Thus, there are limits to what companies like Verité can measure in terms of ‘worker participation.’”
Notre Dame’s potential partnership with Zhejiang University in China, proposed nearly a year ago, remains under consideration, according to Brown. “But there is no connection between that and the licensing pilot project,” Brown added.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. She serves as executive editor of the Irish Rover independent student newspaper.