Issue Date: February 10, 2006
A diversity of views, but clarity about values
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
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 womens sexuality, and the Queer Film Festival, devoted to gay
and lesbian cinema.
Critics argue that the universitys 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
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?
Jenkins: 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
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 its been held at Notre Dame. There was fundraising around it, and
its 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 dont know
of any other theatrical event thats been held at Notre Dame for five
straight years, and it does associate the universitys name with its
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. Were one of the few Catholic
universities in that category, in fact one of the few with any religious
identity. Were 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, Ive 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 someones
One does honor them for certain achievements and distinction in their
work, but one doesnt need to fully endorse everything they say. If
someone wanted to invite Saddam Hussein, maybe there would be a problem. But in
general, if were talking about someone who has done some great things,
even though we may not agree with everything that person represents, I
dont 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,
theres 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 theres a broad understanding of
the principles at work could be helpful.
What would be the forum for that conversation?
Ill 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 wouldnt 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 havent 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 DArcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend
about your decision on The Vagina Monologues and the Queer Film
Yes, weve had several conversations. I dont think he
entirely agrees with me. [Editors note: DArcy 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. Its 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 persons authority.
To broaden the focus a bit, how would you define the Catholic
identity of a university?
Theres no one-dimensional answer. It has to be multidimensional.
One aspect is the sense of liturgical life and worship. I dont think you
can understand a Catholic community without that. Second, theres 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 theres no sense of service, of commitment to peace and
justice, of working for the poor, you cant claim to be a Catholic
university in the deepest sense. Then theres 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 doesnt 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 its happening?
Im 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.
Im wary, however, of trying to quantify this. Not everything that
can be assessed is quantifiable. In some ways, its similar to assessing
learning. One must be careful about falling into the trap that this sort of
thing is easily accessible, especially when were 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.
Theres 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?
Its 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. Ill tell you right now,
whatever I do, I will get letters from both sides, so its sort of a case
of pick your poison. Honestly, Im not really moved by
Its 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 thats both
open and guided by tradition. Thats 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) were not a sectarian religion. Like it or not, were 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 doesnt 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
Im so busy that I dont 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 wasnt 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 hes very interested in Catholic universities.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address
National Catholic Reporter, February 10,