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Statutes at other Catholic institutions less stringent

Katie Perry | Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Since the liberal policy of the “Land O’ Lakes” statement was reached in a 1967 assembly of Catholic university leadership, the paths of colleges affiliated with the Church have been divergent regarding issues of academic freedom and religious character.

The group of Catholic college administrative members – hosted by University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh – asserted that Catholic universities “must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external or the academic community itself.”

Although the statement emphasized the need for colleges to uphold a “perceptively present and effectively operative” Catholic character, the conference’s Vatican II thinkers left the term open to interpretation by individual universities.

University President Father John Jenkins suggested his own interpretation last week – a bold stance that would disallow the presence of campus events that fail to align with Church teaching, if implemented into official University policy. Jenkins specifically cited the Queer Film Festival and the Vagina Monologues as events not in concert with teachings of the Catholic Church.

The “Vagina Monologues” has faced increased scrutiny in recent years from Catholic leaders who believe the play degrades women with its frank and candid discussion of rape, sexual intercourse and female genitalia.

In 2004, the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) paid for a full-page advertisement in USA Today, denouncing the play’s production on Catholic campuses and calling for members of the public to contact school presidents and other leaders to stop performances.

Last February, the CNS released a statement on its Web site asking Catholic women to condemn the play’s presence at universities affiliated with the Church.

The Society’s efforts were not in vain, as 16 Catholic colleges across the country consequently canceled performances of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus. But some Catholic schools, like Notre Dame and Boston College, continued to show the controversial play.

A number of groups at Boston College endorsed the show, including the office of the vice president for student affairs, the women’s studies program and the English and sociology departments.

“The current student body is different from people that might have graduated from BC years ago,” communications department chair Lisa Cuklanz said in a Feb. 17, 2005 article in Boston College’s student newspaper, The Heights. “There is a cultural shift, and people have different thoughts on what Catholic tradition is. In that light, ‘The Vagina Monologues’ produce tension.”

Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy expressed this tension at the onset of last year’s “Vagina Monologues” performances at Notre Dame.

“Freedom in the Catholic tradition, and even in the American political tradition, is not the right to do anything,” D’Arcy’s said in a February, 2005 statement. “This play violates the truth about women; the truth about sexuality; the truth about male and female; and the truth about the human body. It is in opposition to the highest understanding of academic freedom … A Catholic university seeks truth.”

Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), adheres to a policy of academic freedom heavily centered around the deep-seated Catholic character of the institution and its desire to seek such truth.

According to the university’s mission statement, “Franciscan University … opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching. This in no way impinges on true academic freedom, as the Catholic Church accepts all that is true and rejects all that is false.”

Franciscan University Associate Director of Public Relations Tom Sofio said rigorous discussion of all viewpoints can occur in the classroom, but professors are not to “promote” or advocate topics in conflict with Church teaching.

“The pro-choice view could be explained or examined in the classroom but not endorsed or advocated,” he said. “I recently sat in on a Great Books class where students learned all about the views of Nietzsche, the atheist who referred to himself as “the Antichrist,” but those views were not endorsed by the teacher – his role in the shaping of human events in Germany, however, were examined.”

Statutes of academic freedom at other Catholic colleges are less stringent. Georgetown University’s policy, as outlined in its Faculty Handbook, emphasizes toleration but asks faculty members to “recognize that [Georgetown] is a Jesuit university committed … to Catholic principles and religious values.”

Notre Dame’s current policy on academic freedom is also relatively open-ended in its interpretation of Catholic character in an academia. According to the Faculty Handbook, “freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are safeguarded by the University.”

The policy adds that although “the rights and obligations of academic freedom take diverse forms for the students, the faculty, and the administration,” they must be consistent with certain University objectives and “[live] in the tradition of Christian belief.”

The struggle to maintain Catholic values on campus goes beyond the narrowest definition of academic freedom – that is, the right of students and faculty members in an academic institution to express their beliefs unabashedly and without discrimination.

Groups, speakers and other non-academic events deemed in conflict with Catholic character have also faced sanctions on campuses across the country.

Franciscan University policy places standards on speakers – who must express views “consistent with [the college’s] stated mission as a Catholic Franciscan institution of higher education.”

Speakers must be sponsored by a University department or officially-recognized student organization. Sofio said the president can deny any approval for a speaker whose “appearance or remarks … would compromise the University’s mission or promote propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching.”

In his seven years at the University, Sofio said he cannot recall any “controversies or confrontations” concerning invited speakers or cultural events on campus.

The story was not the same at Boston College in December, 2005, however, when the University canceled an AIDS benefit dance designed to be a “safe zone event” for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender) students due to its discordance with teachings of the Catholic Church.

“The University’s policy is that students apply for permits for events through the Office of the Dean for Student Development, and upon reviewing the request … concluded, appropriately, that they could not endorse an event that advocated a position that was in conflict with church teaching,” University spokesman Jack Dunn told The Heights in a Dec. 5, 2005 article.

Dunn said the stance is what any of the other 238 Catholic universities in the United States would do in a similar situation.

“As a Catholic university, we cannot sanction an event that promotes a lifestyle that is in conflict with church teaching,” he said.

Jenkins reiterated this belief in a series of speeches last week in which he called Notre Dame’s sponsorship of certain events inconsistent with Catholic teaching “problematic.”