Engage in contemporary culture
Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 16, 2006
Some people have come to believe that the recent address by University President Father John Jenkins is an assault on free speech that would result in Notre Dame becoming a pariah among universities. But is it the case that secular universities are promoting a freer discourse than Notre Dame? Having spent the first 10 years of my career at the University of Virginia as an assistant and associate Professor and the next eight years as a full professor at Harvard Divinity School I do not believe this is the case.
Let me begin with freedom of expression regarding the matter of homosexuality at Oberlin College. Required reading on this score is an essay by Gilbert Meilaender titled, “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point.” I met Meilaender for the first time while reviewing research proposals at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. The fact that he was chosen to review the work of senior colleagues from across the country is testimony to his scholarly credentials. And the fact that my former chairperson at Virginia and Dean at Harvard counted him as their friend is a good sign of his personal demeanor. As a general rule, he is well liked by those who don’t share his views.
Yet he had the temerity one year to voice in a public fashion his reservations about the normalization of homosexual behavior in civic life. For his efforts he was subject to terrible harassment at Oberlin – a process that became so uncomfortable that he eventually left. I remember during this episode talking to another junior colleague at Virginia who shared Meilaender’s position. He feared going public would severely hamper his career.
As a young, impressionable faculty member I watched all this with great earnest. No doubt it had a lot to do with my own choice to remain silent. I can’t imagine that I would have been appointed to Harvard had I chosen otherwise. I watched other applicants to that school never reach the front door for far lesser crimes. Outside of Notre Dame, freedom of expression on issues like this is fraught with risk.
And then there is the matter of abortion. During my last few years at Harvard our senior faculty was debating the merits of various candidates we were interviewing for a position in religious ethics. As it turned out there were reasonable grounds to wonder whether one of the persons in the running might have some reservations about unlimited access to abortion. One faculty member piped up in discussion: “how do we know that [this female candidate] thinks the way we do about women’s reproductive rights?” By this point in my stay at Harvard, I was not surprised that this would be a real problem.
Mary Ann Glendon of the Law School had been ordered not to use Harvard stationery to promote pro-life values even though colleagues on the other side of the fence were able to do so with impunity. A pro-life ethicist was not going to be appointed to this faculty in religious ethics. And all of this occurred at a school whose very raison d’Ãªtre is that of offering a pluralistic perspective on the great religions of the world. That pluralism could often reduce itself to a very narrow bandwidth.
In his Feb. 7 letter to the editor (“Beyond either-or”), Brad Gregory noted that secular universities are non-theleological. Although I know what he meant in context, there is a way in which non-religious universities very much have certain “ends” in view especially when it comes to homosexuality and abortion. And on these issues there is much more diversity at Notre Dame and scope for wider freedom of expression. One can actually hear the positions of the Catholic Church argued and defended here alongside a vocal opposition to those very positions. And faculty members can assume positions that are consonant with church teaching without fearing that it will compromise their academic advancement or standing.
But let me not be misunderstood. I am not arguing that we should follow the example of Harvard or Virginia and censor discordant voices on campus. Let’s not take away their stationery. But if so, what is the bottom line with respect to the Queer Film Festival? As long as it is renamed, I don’t think it should be censored. Homosexuality is an issue about which the church still has a lot to learn. Showing films does not constitute endorsement.
Yet, I must confess, I don’t understand the logic of presenting “The Vagina Monologues” every year on the same day, Feb 14. Would we allow “The Merchant of Venice” to be performed every year during Holy Week? And what if groups gathered to revel in the “values” of that play (yes, anti-Semites still exist). Would we stand mute before the totem of “unlimited academic freedom?” Certainly not. Academic freedom does not have a univocal meaning; it is always under negotiation. “The Merchant of Venice” is okay on campus as long as it’s performance is occasional and its repugnant presentation of the Jews is named and criticized (which frequently happens in the program notes if not in other ways leading up to the performance).
Catholic universities need not and should not fear positions that challenge their own, nor should they hesitate from engaging all forms of contemporary culture. But they should take special care to make sure that allowing such events on campus is not confused with endorsing them. How to do that is precisely the discussion Jenkins wishes us to have. Let’s be thankful that Our Lady’s University allows us the freedom to do this.
Gary AndersonProfessordepartment of theologyFeb. 15