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Beyond either-or

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

In 2003, I left a tenured position at Stanford University, where I had taught for seven years, to come to Notre Dame. I did so partly because here, unlike at secular universities, we can engage religion in the classroom not only as a subject to be studied like any other, but as a human response to the living God. Here we can engage not only Catholic but also other religious beliefs in this way, because of Catholic imperatives to ecumenical understanding and interreligious dialogue. At secular universities, categories characteristic of revealed religions – including faith, revelation, grace, salvation, sin, prayer, miracles, the supernatural and more besides – cannot be pursued from standpoints of religious belief, without presumptive recourse to reductionist explanations dependent on secular beliefs embedded in social scientific and humanistic theories. In the classrooms of such institutions, neither students nor faculty can seriously address religiously related big questions – about life’s purpose, objective values and meaning that transcends human constructions – because the governing ideology is anti-teleological. It is antagonistic to any objective moral norms and naturalistic in its metaphysical convictions. At secular universities, a professor who in class sought to analyze prayer as a human experience of relating to God, or who sought to understand the Bible as God’s saving revelation for humanity, would quickly find herself censured. A Solemn Authority would admonish her that such notions were “inappropriate” in class and that she must keep her “personal beliefs” to herself. Secular universities restrict academic freedom because they exclude from the classroom engagement with religious beliefs precisely as religious. The secular academy thus puts itself in the curious position of excluding from non-reductionist consideration the beliefs by which the overwhelming majority of the human race lives. Such self-censorship is dangerous. Because of the sometimes threatening manifestations of religion in our world, the stubborn refusal even to acknowledge religion as religion and to study it as such amounts to an ivory-tower dereliction of intellectual duty.Notre Dame rejects these secular restrictions on academic freedom vis-à-vis the great religions and their related ultimate questions. Hence I am much freer academically and pedagogically here than I was at Stanford – I can do everything I did as a Stanford professor and more. The same freedom applies to other faculty members at Notre Dame and, in its respective way, to students as well. As an intellectual community we have critically important academic opportunities that are lacking at higher-ranked, secular institutions and vitally needed by the wider world.Nothing in University President Father John Jenkins’ address suggests any threat to this expansive academic freedom that we enjoy at Notre Dame. Rather, he has asked whether Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, should oblige itself officially to sponsor certain events which “in name or content clearly and egregiously” are “contrary to or inconsistent with the fundamental values of a Catholic university,” such that Notre Dame would be or would seem to be sanctioning something which, as Catholic, it simultaneously professes to oppose. Jenkins has suggested that it should not, lest it act or seem to act self-contradictorily.Jenkins’ position is more complex than some of his critics have alleged, although in my view it needs further development and revision. Some responses thus far have recast what he said in crude, “good vs. evil” binaries characteristic of our debased national political discourse and of fundamentalisms of all kinds. This does not seem productive. Jenkins’ address precisely does not assume or imply a simplistic, zero-sum game: either we place no restrictions on any public event officially sponsored by the university and thereby become “greater” and ostensibly more Catholic (or incrementally more secular?) because more “inclusive;” or we formulate restrictions which, no matter how carefully articulated and prudently implemented in choosing not to sponsor certain public events, are tantamount to censorship and mark us as a retrograde, conservative bastion unworthy of the appellation “university,” indifferent to our students, certain to lose top faculty and donor dollars and bound for ignominy as a third-rate institution. In this scenario it is all or nothing, greatness versus embarrassment, real university versus pseudo-university. Either we’re liberated or we’re oppressively Catholic.Such a dichotomy has little if any basis in what Jenkins said. At the same time, questions about the relationship between sponsorship and endorsement merit serious consideration. For example, might an event clearly inimical to Catholicism be sponsored as part of legitimate inquiry and a stimulus to discussion, yet insistence on its regular repetition and/or expansion suggest endorsement and imply a political advocacy that goes beyond academic freedom? If so, then there might be a point at which repeated sponsorship connotes endorsement; a one-time or occasional performance of “The Vagina Monologues” or an equally controversial event would be regarded differently than its regular repetition. A test of the University’s commitment to academic freedom might be its willingness to sponsor almost any event, even those inimical to Catholic values; a test of its Catholic character might be its willingness not to sponsor that same event over and over, lest it seem to be evangelizing in a sustained manner against its own mission.Jenkins’ request for “careful listening” and “reasoned argument” is not well served by creating caricatures and taking sides. The University can and I hope will do more, as Jenkins pledged he would, to oppose all forms of violence against women in a focused and sustained manner, acknowledging the deep concerns, genuine fears and horrific experiences of those who champion Ensler’s play. In no respect should these be minimized or marginalized. Yet our concerns and actions should also acknowledge wider realities. In university settings, date rape is an appallingly widespread form of violence against women. Multiple studies have shown the high percentage of date rape cases in which one or both parties had been drinking alcohol, often heavily. It would seem, then, that if beyond raising awareness and generating discussion, we care about reducing actual violence against women at Notre Dame, students should join faculty and administrators in doing everything possible to discourage excessive alcohol consumption and especially binge drinking. Or do we imagine a wonderland in which students party as much as they wish, date rape disappears and no one regrets upon waking up the hooking-up of the night before?Jenkins’ address raises complex questions. Let us seek to formulate fitting answers. I see no obvious models for us in the endeavor to create a Catholic, great research university in this age. But this open-endedness is precisely what is exciting and important about Notre Dame and its ambitions: we are being invited to participate in an original exercise of institution-building, not to submit to the patterns and conform to the precedents of other institutions.Sectarian Catholic universities such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville or Ave Maria University can offer no instruction. They are not research universities, and their missions seem too narrowly, inwardly Catholic to allow for (in Jenkins’ words) “a variety of views expressed vigorously, even those contrary to deep values of Catholicism.” Rejecting such institutions as models doubtless will displease those Catholics who want to refashion Notre Dame in their image and likeness.Neither will the best private secular universities such as Stanford or Princeton suffice for Notre Dame. We must learn all that we can from them, for they have much to teach us, but we cannot uncritically mimic them without forsaking our Catholic identity. They forfeited commitment to their religious traditions (or in some cases never had one) and forbid consideration of religious positions on their own terms in the classroom. Rejecting such institutions as models doubtless will displease those uneasy with Notre Dame’s Catholic character, particularly if they equate secularization with progress and hope that the University will eventually “get over the whole Catholic thing.”Finally, traditionally Catholic universities whose Catholic identity has been perhaps irretrievably compromised will not do. They are difficult to distinguish from secular universities in all but certain devotional respects. Their lack of vigorous discussion about how to be both first-rate and Catholic fostered their uncritical emulation of highly ranked, secular institutions. As a result, they appear to have forfeited any serious commitment to Catholicism and Catholic intellectual traditions. Rejecting such institutions as models doubtless will displease those who think that Catholicism’s “universality” should oblige Notre Dame to sponsor all things for all people. But a university that gauges its identity primarily by how much it tolerates, that speaks of truth only as something to be pursued and never as someone already incarnate and that is embarrassed to be a witness because it no longer knows what it is witnessing to, is arguably no longer a Catholic university. As it is, we are uniquely and questioningly Notre Dame. Now all of us, faculty, students and alumni, have been invited to participate in becoming Notre Dame, helping to build a Catholic, great research university by daring to discover how to be different as well as similar, by exercising our minds critically, and by refusing to simplify complex questions.

Brad Gregory is an Associate Professor of History. He can be contacted at bgregor3@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.