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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

A diversity of views, but clarity about values


When Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins became the 17th president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana last July 2, he inherited two swirling controversies: the fate of “The Vagina Monologues,” a play celebrating women’s sexuality, and the Queer Film Festival, devoted to gay and lesbian cinema.

Critics argue that the university’s sponsorship of the two events compromises its Catholic identity, while supporters insist that any restrictions would amount to a violation of academic freedom. Jenkins recently announced that for this year, the name of the film festival will be changed, and there will be no fundraising connected to the staging of “The Vagina Monologues” (see accompanying text of speech). He has solicited advice for what to do in the future, but has made no commitments yet.

On Jan. 30, Jenkins sat down with NCR at a hotel near the Vatican to discuss the broader issues raised by the recent controversies.

NCR: Am I right in framing the discussion surrounding “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival as about striking the proper balance between Catholic identity and academic freedom?
: Yes. A university should be a place with a diversity of views, where a variety of perspectives is presented. But at the institutional level, it should be clear what we are committed to and what kind of place we are. There must be freedom for faculty and for events, but at the institutional level there should also be clarity about the values we represent.

You make a distinction between “sponsorship” of a particular perspective and the freedom for that perspective to be heard.
The issue is what does the university and its academic units sponsor? An individual faculty member is free to express an opinion or publish something contrary to church teaching. We want a diversity of views. But the concern with the particular cases at issue seemed to be a different situation. “The Vagina Monologues,” for example, is sponsored by an academic department and not by an individual faculty member. This will be the fifth year in a row that it’s been held at Notre Dame. There was fundraising around it, and it’s mentioned on a national Web site. This did seem to associate Notre Dame with the production. It has the laudable goal of reducing violence against women, but there are also other goals that raise questions. I don’t know of any other theatrical event that’s been held at Notre Dame for five straight years, and it does associate the university’s name with its message.

To what extent is this concern with Catholic identity a result of discussions over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as opposed to the normal sort of reflection on core purposes that any university would engage in?
This decision is not a reaction to anything out of the Ex Corde discussion. If you look at the major research universities in the United States, Notre Dame is distinctive. We’re one of the few Catholic universities in that category, in fact one of the few with any religious identity. We’re a different place, and we have to talk about what that means, how it is to be reflected in academic life and university life. Certainly some parts of Ex Corde offer a very powerful expression of the vision of a Catholic university, and that calls us to reflection. But this is not a response to the bishops or to any external pressure.

Has the Holy See ever contacted you about these issues?
No, I’ve had no communication from them about it.

To press the idea of “sponsorship” a bit, what about commencement speakers? Is that a form of “sponsoring” someone’s ideas?
One does honor them for certain achievements and distinction in their work, but one doesn’t need to fully endorse everything they say. If someone wanted to invite Saddam Hussein, maybe there would be a problem. But in general, if we’re talking about someone who has done some great things, even though we may not agree with everything that person represents, I don’t see a problem. Perhaps if such a person were invited five years in a row — if we had a conservative Republican for five straight years, or a liberal Democrat — then that takes on a different character. In general, however, we have to be in conversation with the great questions of the day.

In 1984, Mario Cuomo delivered a famous speech at Notre Dame arguing that in a pluralistic society, Catholic politicians cannot always be expected to uphold church teaching in their public roles. Could he still give that speech at Notre Dame today?
Absolutely. If only people who agree with that view were invited, or only people who disagree with it, then I would worry. What we need is a mixture of views. Of course, the fact that speech was delivered at Notre Dame gave it a certain resonance. But as long as Notre Dame includes a variety of views, there’s no problem.

Many Catholic colleges and universities are wrestling with decisions like commencement speakers and theatrical productions. Do you think there should be some national discussion of this, or are institutions so different that each has to resolve this for itself?
I think the autonomy of each institution is important, based on the principle of subsidiarity. Universities have different contexts and different kinds of missions. I would not want a kind of lockstep uniformity. On the other hand, some sort of national discussion so there’s a broad understanding of the principles at work could be helpful.

What would be the forum for that conversation?
I’ll certainly talk to other university presidents about some of these questions. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities might be an appropriate forum, but I wouldn’t want to dictate that.

In that conversation, what should be the role of the bishops?
I think Ex Corde is very good on this. There should be conversation between the university and the bishop. It should be cordial, based on our common mission to serve the church. I haven’t heard the bishops say that they should be dictating terms. There should be attentiveness, dialogue and a sense of common purpose.

Have you spoken to Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend about your decision on “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival?
Yes, we’ve had several conversations. I don’t think he entirely agrees with me. [Editor’s note: D’Arcy has called the play “antithetical to Catholic teaching on human sexuality” and called upon Notre Dame to cancel it. Jenkins has allowed it to proceed this year, but without fundraising.] Our conversations, however, have been respectful.

Has he tried to force your hand?
No. It’s been a dialogue with an honest expression of views and a sense of common mission, and each individual makes the decisions that are appropriate to that person’s authority.

To broaden the focus a bit, how would you define the Catholic identity of a university?
There’s no one-dimensional answer. It has to be multidimensional. One aspect is the sense of liturgical life and worship. I don’t think you can understand a Catholic community without that. Second, there’s student life. There should be an awareness of church teaching, but at a deeper level there should be opportunities for cultivating a Christian life. We have to be attentive to the context within which they are able to do that. Third, there has to be emphasis upon service to the world and to the church. Every Catholic university should be a generous place, serving the church and the broader human community. If there’s no sense of service, of commitment to peace and justice, of working for the poor, you can’t claim to be a Catholic university in the deepest sense. Then there’s the intellectual life of the place. A Catholic university should be a place of a diversity of views, not just a narrow Catholic view. All the different questions of the day should be discussed, and the Catholic tradition in all its richness should enter into that discussion. That doesn’t mean a narrowly Catholic approach, but a conversation with the Catholic tradition with many different voices entering into that. The distinctive Catholic voice has to be part of the discussion.

How do you assess that? How do you know it’s happening?
I’m not sure the most important things can ever be “assessed.” Of course, we should ask if the students have a basic literacy in Catholic teaching. We can look at attendance at Mass, we can do surveys of what they say about the faith. We can measure the numbers involved in service opportunities. We can also try to identify how the university is a center of vibrant discussion on the important issues of the day, in dialogue with Catholic tradition.

I’m wary, however, of trying to quantify this. Not everything that can be assessed is quantifiable. In some ways, it’s similar to assessing learning. One must be careful about falling into the trap that this sort of thing is easily accessible, especially when we’re talking about the spiritual life of people. We have to be cautious about the limits to assessment and the crude use of measures.

Some might worry that too much emphasis on the difficulty of assessment can become a rationalization for not wanting to be assessed.
I agree with that, and certainly we always have to be asking these questions. But it must be done in a discerning and thoughtful way.

There’s been a lot of activism around controversies such as “The Vagina Monologues,” from groups such as the Cardinal Newman Society and others. To what extent was that a factor?
It’s true that this is a very public situation. The Queer Film Festival is probably the first academic conference in the history of Notre Dame that made the front page of the Chicago Tribune. But this is not a response to pressure from any particular group. I’ll tell you right now, whatever I do, I will get letters from both sides, so it’s sort of a case of “pick your poison.” Honestly, I’m not really moved by that.

It’s especially difficult because each side is defending an important value — Catholic identity and academic freedom.
The trouble is that each side can see nothing legitimate in the position of the other. I hope that the university can help move us out of this ideological ghettoization, by fostering an actual conversation that’s both open and guided by tradition. That’s what a Catholic university should be contributing. My hope that we can do it is based on two points: 1) As Catholics, we have a very rich intellectual tradition, which is wide, not narrow; 2) we’re not a sectarian religion. Like it or not, we’re in this thing together, and we have to find a way to talk to each other. What we need is an intellectually rich and vibrant debate, one that doesn’t fall into a kind of amorphous lack of clarity about who we are, but which is open to the issues of the age.

Let me ask you about the new pope. In Benedict XVI, we have a leader who is himself a very accomplished intellectual. What might that mean for Catholic universities?
I’m so busy that I don’t have time for a great deal of Vatican-watching. Clearly, however, this is a pope who is a very serious academic. You may know that Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, when he was president of Notre Dame, once offered then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger a job in the theology department, which he said he wasn’t able to accept. If he had not become a bishop, he certainly would have been a very distinguished academic, and that in itself is hopeful for those interested in the Catholic intellectual tradition. I met with him when he was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and I know that he’s very interested in Catholic universities.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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