Issue Date: March 31, 2006
Readers react to Fr. John Jenkins
Editors Note: In the Feb. 10 issue, NCR printed a talk given to the University of Notre Dame faculty Jan. 23 by Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, the universitys new president (see story). Fr. Jenkins addressed controversy about whether the university should allow the Queer Film Festival and The Vagina Monologues to be presented on campus and what that controversy had to say about academic freedom and Catholic identity. (Click here for John L. Allen Jr.'s interview with Fr. Jenkins)
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I would like to think that a major Catholic university would better sustain academic freedom by allowing events like these to take place. If they turn out to be boring or inconsequential, they will die of their own weight. But if they elicit serious conversations among the capable teachers and young scholars of Notre Dame, they are worthwhile. True Catholic values should be truly catholic, wide-ranging in their willingness to dialogue with the currents of the times. Trust your students and faculty, Fr. Jenkins. They dont need paternal protection.
EUGENE C. BIANCHI
Eugene C. Bianchi is emeritus professor of religion at Emory University.
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I write as a Double Domer -- one of the universitys first woman undergrad graduates, as well as an MBA recipient.
Performances of The Vagina Monologues and the Queer Film Festival on campus dont concern censorship. But they relate to the expectations of and definition of what comprises a Notre Dame education.
Its a unique, private educational experience, the core of which is the tenets, philosophy and culture of American Catholicism. Thats what the majority of students believe theyre getting when they come to campus, as do parents, alumni, faculty and trustees. Thats what differentiates Notre Dame.
Instead of using The Vagina Monologues to examine the status of women in our society -- women make up almost 50 percent of Notre Dames current undergrads --wouldnt it be more useful for the university community to have a discussion on how the core values of American Catholicism, as interpreted and practiced on campus, impact this status and our hopes for the future?
Similarly, instead of the Queer Film Festival, wouldnt it be more beneficial to have a campus-wide discussion on what role American Catholicism plays in the expectations for how people are treated, whether they be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual?
These are conversations students cant get anywhere else. They address the formation of character using the beliefs of the majority of students, beliefs at the core of the university.
ANN THERESE PALMER
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Jenkins attempts to regulate these programs will mostly harm Notre Dames academic reputation. Indeed, during my four years as a student there, two Catholic professors left the university, openly citing its destructive treatment of gay and lesbian issues. One of these scholars had won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, considered a pinnacle of intellectual achievement. And if Notre Dame continues down the path of abridging academic freedom in the name of its Catholic identity, outstanding doctoral candidates and teachers, particularly in the humanities and social science disciplines, will seek academic jobs elsewhere, damaging Notre Dames reputation as a world-class university.
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Fr. John Jenkins centered his observations on two of the three controversies that have swirled about the university in recent years, signaling a willingness to exercise his authority only after broad consultation.
This willingness is encouraging because it stands in stark contrast to the handling of the unmentioned third controversy that attracted considerably more media attention. It involved the termination of Tyrone Willingham, which broke the universitys long-standing tradition of honoring its contract commitment to its football coach and prompting then-president Fr. Edward Malloy to say he was embarrassed to be president of Notre Dame.
The termination was accomplished by a small group of trustees and university officials, including then-incoming president Fr. Jenkins. To many, this signaled the end of an era at Notre Dame as it adopted the win-at-any-cost business model of its competitors. No longer can it be said that Notre Dame stands above the mess in the world of the big-time (Division 1A) college-sports entertainment business that maintains a virtual stranglehold on Americas institutions of higher education.
The film festival and the Monologues represent low-hanging fruit. Suppose these programs produced net annual revenues -- including alumni contributions -- exceeding those of the football program. Now that would really stimulate debate and help clarify values, illuminating the propensity of money to trump principle.
FRANK G. SPLITT
Frank G. Splitt is the former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University.
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Discussions of academic freedom and Catholic identity sometimes make us sound like a one-note church. We are too often identified with controversial sexual issues: a gay film festival, abortion, gay marriage and birth control. Other life issues, from the death penalty to war and peace, seldom bring the same controversy.
FRANCIS W. RODGERS
National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006
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