At Religious Universities, Disputes Over Faith and Academic Freedom


A gay film festival opened at the University of Notre Dame last week with a sold-out showing of “Brokeback Mountain.” On Valentine’s Day, Notre Dame students staged a production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

Though the events have been held for the past few years, it may have been their last time on campus. In speeches and interviews recently, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s new president, has said that staging the events on campus implies an endorsement of values that conflict with Roman Catholicism.

The film festival had to change its name, and “The Vagina Monologues” was performed in a classroom, not a theater, by a group that was not allowed to sell tickets to raise money for women’s groups as it once had.

“Precisely because academic freedom is such a sacred value, we must be clear about its appropriate limits,” Father Jenkins said last month in a speech before faculty members and students. “I do not believe that freedom of expression has absolute priority in every circumstance.”

The controversies at Notre Dame are the latest and most high profile among disputes at many other religiously affiliated universities about how to promote open inquiry and critical thinking while adhering to the tenets of a given faith. Tensions seem most acute at some Catholic and Baptist universities, in large part because student bodies and faculties have grown more diverse and secular over the years, some theologians and historians said.

For instance, The Catholic University of America in Washington and Providence College in Rhode Island, among others, have sent productions of “The Vagina Monologues” off campus, and four other Catholic colleges have canceled the performances. The Georgia Baptist Convention voted late last year to break with Mercer University in Macon, Ga., in part because the school permitted a gay rights group to operate on campus.

For many, the disputes at Notre Dame arise from different ideas about what it means to be Catholic. Those who oppose the events say they contradict the church’s core teachings on human sexuality. Others contend that prohibiting events runs counter to a Catholic intellectual tradition of open-mindedness.

“The Catholic Church in many respects is a multicultural place,” said Ed Manier, a professor of philosophy, a graduate of Notre Dame and a Catholic. “Practicing Catholics do not hold exactly the same beliefs about how the faith needs to be translated into the public sector, matters of law or even into issues as serious as moral development of children.”

Founded largely by religious orders, Catholic universities were originally meant to educate Catholic immigrants and to train workers for Catholic institutions like hospitals and schools. The struggle to balance academic freedom and adherence to church teachings began in earnest after the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, as many Catholic universities opened further to the secular world and sought to become top-tier schools by hiring more lay faculty members and broadening curriculums.

In 1967, a group of Catholic university presidents, led by the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, issued the Land-of-Lakes Statement, which said a university could not thrive without institutional autonomy and academic freedom, an idea still disputed by some Catholics.

“There was a real effort to beef up the academic respectability of universities,” said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog group. “Our view is that that went too far, and Catholic colleges strayed from Catholic teaching.”

Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., has 12,000 students, about 85 percent of them Catholic. Compared with other prestigious Catholic universities like Georgetown University and Boston College, Notre Dame has the reputation of being largely more conservative on thorny social issues, including sexuality, students and faculty members said.

In the last three to four years, the university has received “scores of complaints” about the play and the film festival, said Dennis K. Brown, a spokesman. This year, the Queer Film Festival changed its name to Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships. Mr. Brown said Father Jenkins did not call for the change. Liam Dacey, a recent graduate who founded the festival three years ago, said the university insisted because the old title was deemed celebratory of homosexuality.

The university prohibited “The Vagina Monologues” from fund-raising after it collected $15,000 last year for groups that fight violence against women. The university said the play was an academic event and, as such, was not allowed to raise money. The play’s proponents said that the fund-raising was halted because anti-abortion activists complained that the groups involved had given money to support abortion.

Father Jenkins was traveling and answered questions by e-mail. Mr. Brown said the president hoped to articulate his plan for balancing the university’s religious and academic missions by the end of the spring semester and that it would include a decision about the sponsorship of the play and the festival.

Father Jenkins has heard from critics on both sides. This month, Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, called for the university to cancel the play. A new group, United for Free Speech, is asking faculty members and students to sign a petition requesting that the university maintain its openness in sponsoring academic endeavors. It has 3,000 signatures, said Kaitlyn Redfield, 21, an organizer.

The central question is whether the school’s sponsorship of the film festival and the play, and similar events, amounts to an endorsement of values at odds with Catholic teaching. Father Jenkins commended “The Vagina Monologues” for trying to reduce violence against women. But he objected to the work’s “graphic descriptions” of various sexual experiences.

In his speech last month he said. “These portrayals stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, the view that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of procreation.”

Faculty members whose classes explore sexuality and gender worry that their work might be limited because of the subjects they broach, Professor Manier said. “Sponsorship isn’t the same as endorsement,” he added. “Sponsorship means an idea can be discussed and performance can be discussed.”

Some students said that the understanding of academic freedom at a Catholic university should be different from that at a secular university. “We have our own measures of what’s good and what’s right,” said Nicholas Matich, 22, the politics editor of The Irish Rover, a conservative student newspaper. " ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is performed everywhere else in the academic world. It doesn’t mean Notre Dame should do it, too."

Catholic universities do not move in lockstep on controversial issues, and much depends on campus culture, said Michael J. James, executive vice president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Of the 612 American colleges that are staging the play from Feb. 1 to March 8, 35 are Catholic universities, one more than last year, according to V-Day, an anti-violence organization affiliated with the play.

“There are people who say that the play has no place on a Catholic campus,” the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University New Orleans, wrote last year in a statement sanctioning the play. “To exclude the play from a Catholic campus is to say either that these women are wrong or that their experience has nothing important to say to us. I would argue that these are voices that a Catholic university must listen to if we are to understand human experience and if we are to be faithful to the one who welcomed all men and women.”

Catholic teachings seem to allow divergence on complicated issues like human sexuality. In the last decade, the number of gay and lesbian groups at colleges, including religious ones, has risen steadily, according to gay rights and academic groups. Notre Dame does not have an officially sanctioned group for gay and lesbian students. Many other Catholic institutions do, including 24 of the 28 members of the Association of Jesuit Universities and Colleges, an increase from a decade ago, said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, the association president.

Watching the controversy unfold at Notre Dame is Father Hesburgh, who, though long retired, retains a campus office. He said Father Jenkins’s effort to define what Notre Dame stood for was important. But in an interview, Father Hesburgh also said a modern university had to face the crucial issues of the times.

“I think the real test of a great university,” he said, “is that you are fair to the opposition and that you get their point of view out there. You engage them. You want to get students’ minds working. You don’t want mindless Catholics. You want intelligent, successful Catholics.”

Gretchen Ruethling contributed reporting from South Bend, Ind., for this article.

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