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Freedom debates not new at ND

Mary Kate Malone | Monday, January 30, 2006

Debated in dining halls, dorm rooms and faculty offices for decades, the issues of academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame – spotlighted in three widely-publicized presidential addresses last week – have long engaged the University community.

The contentious dichotomy of free inquiry at a Catholic university has surfaced and re-surfaced throughout Notre Dame’s modern history – confronted as early as 1960 following a campus conference dealing with pornography and censorship, and emerging again at the end of the 20th century following Pope John Paul II’s statements in the papal document Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The debate was reignited last week when University President Father John Jenkins spoke to faculty, students and alumni about the presence of “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival at Notre Dame.

In his addresses, Jenkins said academic freedom will not be without restrictions at Notre Dame. He did not issue a formal policy, but instead encouraged the University community to engage in discussion and offer him feedback about the interaction between academic freedom and Catholic character – adding the latest chapter to an extensive history of weighing the two at Notre Dame.

The year was 1967. Father Theodore Hesburgh was president of the University and at stake was the direction of the nation’s Catholic institutions.

Hesburgh met with a group of prominent university presidents and administrators from around the country to draft a statement about an increasingly sensitive subject – the role and responsibility of Catholic universities in the United States.

The fruit of their discussions was known as the “Land O’ Lakes” statement – and its thesis, which promoted the idea of an independent spirit guiding Catholic universities, would eventually contribute to the Vatican’s fear that Universities were drifting too far away from Church teaching.

Throughout the 1990s, Vatican officials began creating and revising a document that would address the role and responsibility of Catholic universities around the world. Throughout that decade, the issue swirled around Notre Dame’s campus, as students and faculty clashed about Notre Dame’s future direction and national identity.

In a two-part series in the Viewpoint section of The Observer in April of 1991, law professor Charles Rice criticized the University for being too concerned with political correctness.

“In the fall of 1989, Notre Dame sponsored a public showing of a blasphemy of Christ, in the film, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ he wrote. “That event remains crucial in the history of Notre Dame. The University decided there that the First and Second Commandments were superceded by the authority of the secular establishment.”

Rice wrote that such sponsorship was a result of the “Land O’ Lakes” statement, which he called “an institutional renunciation of the duty to affirm religious truth.”

A year later, The Observer published a lengthy essay by a Protestant alumnus that spanned two full-size pages. David Lutz wrote he feared Notre Dame might become “merely one more secular university” and that “there should be no hesitation on the part of its leaders to state that … the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church will not be compromised on the Notre Dame campus and that anyone not interested in teaching at a Catholic university should teach elsewhere.”

“If positive action to halt and reverse the secularization of the University of Notre Dame is not taken soon, the question will not be whether, but when. Notre Dame will be a Christian [u]niversity in the same sense that Northwestern University is now Christian,” Lutz wrote.

Lutz’s comments drew strong opposition and a debate ensued regarding restrictions on academic freedom, as students and faculty questioned whether those restrictions could affect a student’s pursuit of the truth. Assistant philosophy professor Paul Weithman wrote in a Viewpoint letter that “restrictions on academic freedom are restrictions on the pursuit of truth” – a belief expressed by many in the Notre Dame community since Jenkins’ addresses.

The debate on academic freedom quieted somewhat until the 2000s – when two highly controversial and publicized events made their debuts on campus.

“The Vagina Monologues” debuted in 2002, the Queer Film Festival in 2004. As the most recent additions to Notre Dame’s decades-long debate on academic freedom, both events entered the campus conversation amid a flurry of fervent support and equally loud dissent.

The strong reactions to the events have come from within the University and from far beyond its campus boundaries. Though University President Emeritus Father Edward “Monk” Malloy permitted both controversial events with little public comment, Jenkins has exerted a new leadership style – one he said last week he hopes will result in a formal policy on academic freedom and Catholic character.