Father Jenkins issues closing statement on Notre Dame’s academic freedom, Catholic character

Author: Don Wycliff


A new committee on gender relations and violence against women, a new student-produced play, and a new set of guidelines on sponsorship of campus speakers and events were unveiled Wednesday (April 5) by University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., as thesubstantive resultsof a debate he started two months ago on academic freedom and Notre Dames Catholic character.

Delivering what he called hisclosing statementon the debate, Father Jenkins wrote in a 2,000-word document that he seesno reason to prohibit performances of ‘The Vagina Monologueson campusand that he does notintend to do so.

[I] am very determined that we not suppress speech on this campus,Father Jenkins said.I am also determined that we never suppress or neglect the Gospel that helped inspire this university. As long as the Gospel message and the Catholic intellectual tradition are present, we can welcome any serious debate on any thoughtful position here at Notre Dame.

Despite Father Jenkinsforceful assertion of respect and support for academic freedom, it had been feared by some within the Notre Dame community and some without that he planned to ban performances of the feminist stage play on campus. Similar fears had been voiced on behalf of a film festival focusing on gay and lesbian themes.

Both events were held on the Notre Dame campus during the 10 weeks of debate and discussion that followed the presidents speeches in late January to faculty, studentsand alumni in which he raised the question whether they wereinstances of events which appear to imply endorsement of views that are in conflict with fundamental values of Notre Dame as a Catholic university.

The Queer Film Festival was renamed"Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorships."The Vagina Monologues,which in prior years was an occasion for fundraising on behalf of womens aid organizations, was performed in a large classroom and was followed by panel discussions on the play and its significance to women and its relationship to Catholic thinking and teaching on sexuality.

It was the post-performance panels that made the difference for Father Jenkins.

I still believeas I said in my address to the facultythat [the plays] portrayals of sexuality ‘stand apart from, and indeed in opposition tothe Catholic tradition on human sexuality,he wrote. But the panel discussions brought the play intoconstructive dialoguewith that tradition, he said, so thatour students were engaged and informed.

This is a good model for the future,said Father Jenkins, who is in his first year as Notre Dames 17th president.

While the campus debate focused onThe Vagina Monologues,Father Jenkins emphasized that his concern was with the larger issues of academic freedom and Notre Dames character as a Catholic university.

The challenge is not to do just one of theseor even to do both of them in parallelbut to promote academic freedom and affirm our Catholic character in a way that integrates the two and elevates both. This University was founded on the premise that these goals are compatible and can be mutually reinforcing.

Some of the people he heard from over the last 10 weeks wereadamantly opposedto any campus performance or expression that contradicts Catholic teaching, Father Jenkins said.To them, we must say, with all respect: ‘This is a Catholic university.

On the other side were those who wereappalled 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. **

Father Jenkins said that a Catholic universityprovides a place for the Catholic tradition to share the wisdom it possesses with all academic disciplines, while providing that tradition an opportunity to be enriched through the encounter with new perspectives and discoveries.

As to thesubstantive resultsof the campus debate, Father Jenkins said the student leaders who supportedThe Vagina Monologueshave proposed to produce a playwritten in student voices and describing their own experiences.TitledLoyal Daughters,the play is to be an entirely student-produced effortin consultation with the faculty advisorsthey choose.

I will do all I can to support this effort,he said.

Additionally, Father Jenkins said he has created an ad hoc committee of students, faculty and administrators to fostera wide-ranging discussion of gender relations, sexuality, and ways to prevent violence against women.The president said he will chair this committee, which he said wouldhelp enrich our discussion of issues critical to the lives of women here at Notre Dame and beyond.

Father Jenkins said he had reached a written understanding with departmental chairpersons on standards for sponsorship of speakers and events. The agreement is to be presented to the universitys Academic Council for consideration and possible adoption.

The full text of Father Jenkinsclosing statement is available on the Web at http://president.nd.edu/closingstatement/

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