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Remaining open minded

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, March 14, 2005

Thirty years ago as a student at Notre Dame, I was a deeply closeted young man, but the University’s respect for academic freedom and liberal exploration of all ideas, even those that did not conform to Catholic teaching, made the college a refuge where I was able to search for the strength to deal with my own personal struggle without any fear that the university would censor the single thing in my life I respected – my mind and its thirst for learning. It’s not an exaggeration to say that those early years at Notre Dame allowed me to survive the next two painful decades of living a lie about my sexuality. At the very least, I had learned to think freely, even if I didn’t have the courage to act openly until about six years ago.As a novelist and newspaper editor, I am appalled to read the attacks on Notre Dame’s tradition of liberal thought by conservative religious leaders and academics. It is a dedication to openness in the classroom that has earned Notre Dame the respect in academia that only the top universities in the nation share. But these days the heart of that openness is threatened by people such as Father Richard Warner, who wrote in a recent letter to The Observer that the Notre Dame Queer Film Festival and the performance of The Vagina Monologues are moving the University “more in the direction of promoting an ethic in conflict with Catholic teaching and the lack of serious indications that their presence on our campus is truly a search for truth in an academic setting.” The guests who participated in the film festival are all men and women of courage and conviction. They may not follow all of the teachings of the Catholic Church, but they are involved in trying to interpret our lives on this earth in moral and compassionate terms. They do not deserve the implication that they are somehow dangerous influences, heretics or men and women who have no respect for the truth.Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Terrence McNally, for instance, has worked his whole life to portray gay men in a way that liberates them and shows others that they share the same dreams for love, compassion and sacrifice that the Church I knew as a young man had asked Catholics to strive for. Eve Ensler’s Obie Award-winning play The Vagina Monologues may be witty and irreverent, but it is also compassionate and wise and gives voice to women’s feelings about sexuality that the Church, and certainly an academic institution like Notre Dame, should never condemn.Film director and screenplay writer Don Roos, Class of ’78, who has appeared at both Queer Film Festivals, is a driving force in independent film. Any university anywhere would be proud to count him among its most creative graduates. I certainly can’t imagine one that would try to censor his work or presence on campus.If Warner and others truly believe that everything Notre Dame sponsors and teaches must “bring the image of Jesus to perfection within us,” then they are advocating the University turn itself into a strictly religious school. Notre Dame would be the kind of place that offers no refuge to young and curious minds. Instead, it would lock students into doctrine. Soon Notre Dame would become little different from Christian fundamentalist schools or even, God forbid, the blinding madrassas in the Arab world that try to turn the great religion of Islam into a dangerous and narrow-minded doctrine of censure and hate.I urge Warner and other leaders on campus and in the church community to think deeply about their attempts at censorship and about why it matters to allow a free and spirited debate of ideas and artistic expressions at Notre Dame, especially ones as inspiring to a beleaguered population as the Queer Film Festival. Gary ZebrunalumnusClass of 1976Mar.ch 14