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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

At stake: Catholic identity

Church history often moves in cycles. Periods of expansion are followed by consolidation, openness by retrenchment, bold new thinking by an emphasis on perennial markers of identity. The great figures in each such age are those that embody its leitmotif, but without suppressing the other movements in the symphony.

Today’s church finds itself in one such cycle, in which the optimistic embrace of “the world” associated with the Second Vatican Council is giving way to a strong impulse toward recovery of a distinctive Catholic identity. One may lament this, but doing so is a bit like lamenting the change of the seasons; like or not, it’s coming.

The critical question today, therefore, is how to articulate a robust sense of Catholic identity, embracing the distinctive vocabulary and thought world of the Catholic tradition, without ending in a kind of “Taliban Catholicism” that has been in the ascendancy in some quarters and that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.

In that light, the fashion in which Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, the 17th president of the University of Notre Dame, has approached the controversies over the production of a Queer Film Festival and “The Vagina Monologues” on the South Bend, Ind., campus has relevance that easily transcends the contours of the events themselves. (See story)

Jenkins, who took office in 2005, clearly recognizes the issues of Catholic identity at stake, and has called the Notre Dame community to address them. Yet at the same time he has made clear that Notre Dame’s commitment to a diversity of views and free intellectual exploration must endure. His effort to hold together two values often in tension is commendable.

Further, Jenkins has announced a provisional solution for this year, and invited all Notre Dame’s various constituencies -- students, faculty, alumni and others -- to share their thoughts with him about the future. Though ultimately this is his decision to make, the 52-year-old Jenkins has signaled an encouraging willingness to exercise his authority only after broad consultation. In the interview, Jenkins also made clear his thinking on the proper relationship between a Catholic university and the local bishop. (See story) He describes it as a “dialogue with an honest expression of views and a sense of common mission.” At the same time, it is a relationship in which the university president, acting on authority proper to his role, may arrive at decisions with which a bishop disagrees.

During a Feb. 1 address to a conference at Rome’s Lateran University, Jenkins spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing Catholic higher education in the United States. An Oxford-educated expert on St. Thomas Aquinas, Jenkins invoked the “Angelic Doctor” as a model of how a Catholic university today might enter into dialogue with the culture. It must “engage the most pressing questions of our age at the highest level,” Jenkins said, “listening to and taking seriously contrary voices.” The church’s response must be enlightened by faith, he said, but in order to be persuasive to people who do not share our convictions, it must be expressed in terms of universal human reason. Finally, he said, the dialogue must always be charitable and respectful of other views.

Noting that Aquinas’s greatest intellectual influences, aside from scripture and the Fathers, were Aristotle, Avicenna and Maimonides -- a pagan, a Muslim and a Jew -- Jenkins said that part of Aquinas’ strength was a willingness “to learn from any source he could.”

“Through dialogue, the culture is enriched with the truths of the Gospel, but we must remember that we ourselves also learn,” Jenkins said.

Such a Thomistic model offers a fruitful point of departure for thinking about how church leaders might navigate the waters of this era, one in which identity concerns are destined to be paramount, but in which those concerns must not preclude a humble capacity for self-criticism and new insight.

For reasons that go far beyond the merits of a single film festival or play, therefore, Jenkins’ experiment at Notre Dame bears careful watching and might well serve as a focus for a much wider discussion of Catholic identity.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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