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The speech that wasn’t

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, January 26, 2006

Last night, I dreamed that President Jenkins presented to the faculty the speech below on “Academic Freedom and Our Catholic Character.” I woke up today, however, to the realization that he’d given a very different one.

I’d like to extend a warm welcome to the faculty and colleagues who have turned out in inspiring numbers. It is an indication that we all share a concern with what I’ve come to you to talk about today: academic freedom and the Catholic character of Notre Dame. I have spent much of the fall listening to faculty opinions and ideas on this topic, and now I hope to initiate a larger discussion on the issue. I want this discussion to be lively, even heated, but always respectful, because I presume that everyone here – students, faculty, staff, and others – has something to contribute to this discussion and bears good will toward the university and its mission.

What needs to be said, before this discussion even begins, is that censorship is not an option. An institution that censors its faculty or its students, inside or outside the classroom, has no right to call itself a great university; it is dubious whether it should call itself a university at all. A university that censors cannot call itself an intellectual community, because it devalues the ideas, and in some cases even the identities, of some of its members. A university that censors cannot expect the best students to apply to it, and cannot expect to recruit or retain the best faculty. A university that censors any event, performance, or speech proposed by individuals, groups, or units within it – other than an act of libel or incitement of violence – has violated the principles not only of academic freedom but of intellectual inquiry itself. My job, as president of the University of Notre Dame, is to make this a great Catholic University, and as such, I cannot censor, or threaten to censor.

That is a simple statement, but it is the truth, and so it must be said. The Board of Trustees, the alumni, all those who care deeply about Notre Dame and wish it to be a great university must come to understand this truth. I hereby commit myself to educating them on this matter, and I ask you to join me in this task.

Here is why I see this as so important: I have come to see that there are two ways of conceiving the relationship between academic freedom and our Catholic character, two options between which we must choose. Only one of those ways leads us toward becoming a great Catholic university. In one way of understanding the two themes in my title, a Catholic university is like any other university, but without certain kinds of events, performances, lectures, films, and so on. Someone – and this is not a job I would want to have – has to decide what kinds of events a Catholic university can and should do without. And, ultimately, whether through direct or indirect means, those things must be censored, forbidden.

In this first model, Catholicism is quite literally a minus for the university: a Catholic university is a university minus certain features. In the second way of understanding Notre Dame as a Catholic university – which is my vision of Notre Dame – our Catholic character is a plus.

In this model, Notre Dame provides its students with everything they would find at any other great university plus the opportunity to view those things through the lenses that our Catholic character can provide. Those lenses lead our students and faculty to ask different questions of the events, performances, conferences, and other events that we bring to our campus.

Those questions include issues of dogma and doctrine, of social justice, of the place of religion in our personal and our public lives. These are essential questions to ask about the issues raised by such events as the Vagina Monologues and the Queer Film Festival. They are essential questions to ask of businesses that recruit on campus, of political figures who come to speak here, and of each other as part of this intellectual community. And they are questions that we at Notre Dame are uniquely equipped to ask and to explore.

I am not saying this is an easy mission to live up to. But we have the resources here – intellectual, moral, and yes, financial – to make this possible. The only thing that will make this impossible is shutting down the occasions for such discussions. To fulfill my vision of Notre Dame, we must ask more of ourselves than other great universities ask of the members of their community. It will take work to provide those opportunities to encounter Catholic perspectives on difficult and challenging things that students and faculty choose to bring before our campus community. What I want to result from the dialogue and discussion I’m beginning tonight is ideas about how to make those opportunities happen, and to make them productive.

As an example, let me present to you some preliminary ideas about how we could view the student production of the Vagina Monologues as an opportunity to fulfill my vision of Notre Dame’s Catholic character and the place of academic freedom within it – an opportunity that we have thus far not fully taken advantage of.

The Vagina Monologues raises issues that are crucial to our society as a whole, and are no less crucial to the Catholic Church. The students who perform it each year are committed to a struggle against violence against women.

Their performances raise thousands of dollars each year for local anti-violence organizations. What these admirable, intelligent, and committed students do is precisely what we want our students to do with their education: they use their skills, talents, and intellects in service to their community. Their intentions and actions are unquestionably aligned with the mission of both our university and our religion, and we applaud them.

There are, however, many readers and viewers of this play who see aspects of it as in contradiction with these intentions, in conflict with Church teaching on sexuality, and deeply personally offensive. I am one of those readers myself.

As the leader of a great Catholic university – and, for that matter, as a teacher, a professor – I feel called to explain these contradictions, to bring them before the performers and viewers, to help them understand why there are demonstrators outside the door of their performance, why Bishop D’Arcy writes so passionately against the play. My responsibility, in that case, is to provide the strongest and most persuasive argument I can about the faults I see in this play, about the mistakes I think they are making in presenting it rather than taking another approach to their cause. As a teacher and a scholar, I also have the responsibility to listen to those students respectfully as well, to presume that they are full human beings with sophisticated intellects – that they have reasons for what they are doing – reasons I may learn from myself.

There is no guarantee that the Catholic perspective I present to them will persuade them. That is another truth about academic freedom and intellectual inquiry; there are no guarantees of particular outcomes.

But suppose we work together to provide fora for discussion of the play – for critiques from Catholic perspectives, from feminist perspectives, from Catholic feminist perspectives, and from others – and enter into a truly intellectual and open discussion with those who read it differently, who don’t necessarily share my interpretation of the play, and even those who don’t share a Catholic perspective on issues of sexuality (remember, not everyone who teaches at, or studies at, this university, is Catholic, and we don’t require our faculty to believe in or uphold every aspect of Catholic doctrine).

Suppose we make these discussions compelling and exciting, and at them we model for our students styles of respectful but substantive disagreement. Suppose that the result of that is that some in attendance are deepened in their commitment to their Catholic faith, and those who are not have at least had a meaningful encounter with it and gained a deeper understanding of it.

Won’t we then have fulfilled the Catholic mission of our university far more fully than if we had not allowed the play to be performed at all?

Our challenge is even greater because, as the leading Catholic University, we speak and are visible to a larger public, a larger constituency, than other universities. This fact is of course a blessing for Notre Dame, both in terms of the loyalty of our alumni, fans, and others, and in terms of the financial support that is a result of that loyalty. But this fact brings with it added responsibilities. We have a responsibility to educate our alumni and the rest of our constituency about what we do here, what our mission is, and why we believe that the path we are taking will enhance both the academic standing and the Catholic character of Notre Dame.

No, we can’t bring every one of them into our classrooms and lecture to them about principles of academic freedom. But if they can understand Coach Weis’s elaborate offensive strategies, they can surely come to understand how a truly free and open debate both tests and strengthens our students’ faith and character, and prepares them to encounter a world in which they will face moral challenges a lot more difficult than a viewing of the Vagina Monologues or a film depicting gay and lesbian people as something other than intrinsically disordered.

They, like our students, can understand distinctions between sponsorship and endorsement, between toleration and affirmation, and recognize that when we allow a performance or other presentation on campus, we are almost never sending the message that we support everything that will be said or represented in it.

They can understand that what makes Notre Dame a great Catholic university is that we trust that the presence of the Catholic faith, its ideas and doctrines, and arguments drawn from them. We can stand up in a free exchange of ideas, to ideas and arguments that are indifferent or opposed to the Catholic faith.

They can understand that we trust our students enough to let them see and perform in the Vagina Monologues and to organize a Queer Film Festival and see the films in it, and that we trust our students to take seriously the Catholic perspectives on such events that we provide for them, to think about them deeply and make informed and conscientious decisions about how to respond to such events.

Again, I ask of you, as a faculty, that you be willing to take on the work of creating an institution build on this trust and this faith. More immediately, I ask for ideas about how best to take advantage of the opportunities provided by controversial events such as the two I’ve mentioned tonight.

How, in short, can we enhance the Catholic character of our university precisely through defending and affirming an uncompromised academic freedom, thereby making Notre Dame the truly great Catholic university it can and must be?

I look forward to hearing your answers to these questions, and to working with you to rise to this challenge. Thank you.

Professor Glenn Hendler is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in English. He can be reached at ghendler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.