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Issue Date:  April 14, 2006

Monologues inspire dialogue

Notre Dame president pledges to engage the culture with Catholic teaching


Saying that “a Catholic university is where the church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world,” the University of Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, called to a close a 10-week exploration of academic freedom and the university’s Catholic character with a plan that “integrates the two and elevates both.” The plan was announced in a statement released April 5.

In the statement he said the university’s “goal is not to limit discussion or inquiry, but to enrich it; it is not to insulate that faith tradition from criticism, but to foster constructive engagement with critics.”

One component of the plan is a document titled “Common Proposal” on sponsorship of controversial events drafted by Jenkins and academic department chairs.

The document’s first point is that “a university has an obligation” to explore controversial issues and “a Catholic university has an added obligation” to consider controversial issues “in the light of Catholic teachings.”

The Common Proposal, which must be presented to the university’s Academic Council, says:

  • Academic departments are best situated to decide what events should or should not be sponsored.
  • Academic departments have a role in communicating the academic rationale for controversial events.
  • Academic departments have to make clear that sponsorship does not imply endorsement of the views expressed by a speaker or of an event as a whole.

Another component of Jenkins’ plan is the formation of an ad hoc committee comprising faculty members, administrators and students that he “charged with fostering a wide-ranging discussion of gender relations, roles, and ways to prevent violence against women.”

Jenkins also said, “I will do all I can to support” a group of Notre Dame student leaders involved with “The Vagina Monologues” who are writing a play of their own in their voices and describing their experiences, titled “Loyal Daughters.”

Jenkins launched the extended “campus conversation” on academic freedom and Catholic character in January while contemplating a dispute about whether “The Vagina Monologues” could be staged on campus.

The play by Eve Ensler is based on discussions with 200 girls and women about their feelings for their bodies and sexuality. Many in and outside the university have objected to the play as antithetical to Catholic teaching on sexuality. Jenkins said this himself in an address to faculty Jan. 23 (NCR, Feb. 10).

In his April 5 statement, Jenkins said: “This university was founded on the conviction that these goals are not just compatible, but essential, beneficial and mutually reinforcing.”

In February, Jenkins attended a student performance of “The Vagina Monologues” and a student-faculty panel discussion that followed. “These panels taught me and perhaps taught others that the creative contextualization of a play like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ can bring certain perspectives on important issues into a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the Catholic tradition,” Jenkins wrote April 5.

“This is a good model for the future,” he said. “Accordingly, I see no reason to prohibit performances of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ on campus, and do not intend to do so.”

The permission for future performances drew immediate criticism from Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend who said he was “deeply saddened by the decision.” He had previously asked that performances be ended.

In his April 5 statement, the bishop said he was concerned because he is responsible for “the care of the souls” of the students and “the Catholic identity of Notre Dame,” as the university is located in his diocese.

Jenkins wrote about the “hundreds of men and women -- faculty, students and administrators; alumni and friends” he engaged in discussion since January.

“I have been impressed by the passion, intelligence and civility of this debate,” he said.

“Some of the individuals I’ve talked with are adamantly opposed to the performance or expression on campus of a work, play, book, or speech that contradicts Catholic teaching.

“To them, we must say, with all respect: ‘This is a Catholic university.’ We are committed to a wide-open, unconstrained search for truth, and we are convinced that Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture.

“Others I talked to were appalled that we would raise any question about the content, message or implications of a work of art, drama or literature here on campus.

“To them, we have to say, with the same respect: ‘This is a Catholic university.’ It is founded upon our belief that love of God and neighbor are eternal teachings that give context and meaning to our search for truth.

“Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture, but we all have something to fear if the wider culture never engages Catholic teaching,” Jenkins said.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

Related Web site
To read the full text of the statements and document cited or to view video of Fr. John Jenkin’s addresses to the Notre Dame faculty and staff, visit:

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2006

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