Monologues inspire dialogue

Author: Dennis Coday

Notre Dame president pledges to engage the culture with Catholic teaching

Saying thata 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 Dames president, Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, called to a close a 10-week exploration of academic freedom and the universitys Catholic character with a plan thatintegrates the two and elevates both.The plan was announced in a statement released April 5.

In the statement he said the universitysgoal 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 titledCommon Proposalon sponsorship of controversial events drafted by Jenkins and academic department chairs.

The documents first point is thata university has an obligationto explore controversial issues anda Catholic university has an added obligationto consider controversial issuesin the light of Catholic teachings.

The Common Proposal, which must be presented to the universitys 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 Jenkinsplan is the formation of an ad hoc committee comprising faculty members, administrators and students that hecharged 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 supporta group of Notre Dame student leaders involved withThe Vagina Monologueswho are writing a play of their own in their voices and describing their experiences, titledLoyal Daughters.

Jenkins launched the extendedcampus conversationon academic freedom and Catholic character in January while contemplating a dispute about whetherThe Vagina Monologuescould 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 ofThe Vagina Monologuesand 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 Monologuescan 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 Monologueson campus, and do not intend to do so.

The permission for future performances drew immediate criticism from Bishop John M. DArcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend who said he wasdeeply 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 forthe care of the soulsof the students andthe Catholic identity of Notre Dame,as the university is located in his diocese.

Jenkins wrote about thehundreds of men and women — faculty, students and administrators; alumni and friendshe engaged in discussion since January.

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

Some of the individuals Ive 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


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