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Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

Readers react to Fr. John Jenkins

Editor’s 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 university’s 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 don’t need paternal protection.


Eugene C. Bianchi is emeritus professor of religion at Emory University.

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I write as a Double Domer -- one of the university’s first woman undergrad graduates, as well as an MBA recipient.

Performances of “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival on campus don’t concern censorship. But they relate to the expectations of and definition of what comprises a Notre Dame education.

It’s a unique, private educational experience, the core of which is the tenets, philosophy and culture of American Catholicism. That’s what the majority of students believe they’re getting when they come to campus, as do parents, alumni, faculty and trustees. That’s 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 Dame’s current undergrads --wouldn’t 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, wouldn’t 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 can’t get anywhere else. They address the formation of character using the beliefs of the majority of students, beliefs at the core of the university.

Lake Forest, Ill.

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Jenkins’ attempts to regulate these programs will mostly harm Notre Dame’s 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 Dame’s reputation as a world-class university.

Berkeley, Calif.

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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 university’s 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 America’s 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.

Mount Prospect, Ill.

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.

Hilton Head Island, S.C.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

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