ROME — In its dialogue with culture, the Catholic university must listen seriously to opposing arguments and use the light of faith to respond reasonably and persuasively, said Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame.
Father Jenkins, the Holy Cross priest who took over last year at the helm of the Indiana university, told a Rome conference Feb. 1 that the church’s universities should take their cue from St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings examined a “disputed question” from all sides.
Aquinas would present opposing views in a way acceptable to those who held them, and in fact as persuasively as possible, before delivering his own response, Father Jenkins said.
This is extremely important today, he said, as the church seeks to influence critical cultural debates on social justice, technological change, biomedical advances and human dignity.
“We will not engage the great issues of the day unless we are able to listen to and understand the contrary voices,” he said.
As an intermediary between the church and culture, the Catholic university has a responsibility first of all to identify the great questions of the day, he said.
After examining the views of others, including non-Christians, Catholic scholars should attempt to resolve the issue in the light of faith, then try to respond to contrary views in a way that will help persuade others, he said.
In this way, he said, the church evangelizes culture. The church is also enriched and shows that, like Aquinas, it is ready and willing to learn about the truth from any source, he said.
Father Jenkins made his remarks at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, where the Notre Dame Board of Trustees conferred honorary degrees on Francis Rooney, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and to Bishop Rino Fisichella, the rector of Lateran University.
In an interview Feb. 2 with Catholic News Service, Father Jenkins spoke about efforts to understand and promote the Catholic identity of church-run universities, which was emphasized under Pope John Paul II and is expected to continue under Pope Benedict XVI.
Father Jenkins said that while Catholic identity is not an easy thing to measure at a university there are some indications of success, including worship and liturgical life, a demonstration of generosity and Christian charity, and a vibrant intellectual life, particularly in theology.
If there is no real liturgical life, no generosity of service, and if the intellectual life does not reflect church teachings in some way, then it is silly to call it a Catholic university, he said.
Father Jenkins said he sees no tension between a university’s Catholic identity and academic freedom. At Notre Dame, he said, scholars and students — including non-Catholics — have the right to think what they like, publish their research and speak about their field of expertise.
“It is the same academic freedom that is enjoyed anywhere else,” he said.
At the same time, Father Jenkins said that at an institutional level the Catholic university needs to reflect its Catholic character. For that reason, a university may want to look critically at what events are being sponsored and seemingly endorsed by its academic departments.
That issue came to public attention in late January, when Father Jenkins placed some restrictions on two highly controversial events at Notre Dame: performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” a play about female sexuality, and an annual festival that features movies with gay themes. He also opened a university-wide dialogue to help him decide whether the events should be held in the future.
These are not unimportant issues for Notre Dame, because they involve “what sort of institution we are and how we are fulfilling our mission about being a pre-eminent Catholic university,” Father Jenkins told CNS.
He said the issue was not academic freedom. Notre Dame can accept a diversity of views, events and artistic performances, including some that are not in accordance with Catholic teaching, he said.
“We want a diversity of views. That’s part of being a university,” he said.
But he said “The Vagina Monologues” had run for five years at Notre Dame, involving fundraising and a great deal of publicity, all of which raise the question: Is what we are sponsoring consistent with the sort of institution we are?
Father Jenkins said the question of Catholic identity means universities should make room for explicit reflection on their mission. The basic objectives of that mission should be respected by everyone working at the university, including non-Catholics, he said.
The 52-year-old priest, who has taught philosophy at Notre Dame since 1990, said he is generally impressed with the interest in the faith shown by young students today.
At the same time, he said, many of them come to Notre Dame confused about some of the fundamental truths of Catholicism. He said he is convinced that young Catholics today need basic catechesis more than sophisticated theology.
“They need to know what the central truths are, why they are taught and what they mean for human life. I think that’s the big challenge for the church,” he said.
Father Jenkins said he thought the election of Pope Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a world-renowned scholar and theologian, would help focus attention on the role of Catholic scholarship and universities.
Father Jenkins also pointed out an interesting historical note: In the 1960s, Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, offered then-Father Ratzinger a teaching position at the university. Had he accepted, his career as a distinguished theologian might have developed in a very different context.