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In defense of dissent

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

There are times when the privilege that I have as a columnist in this paper is brought to the forefront of my attention. Today, as many other valid and lucid voices are contending for the limited space of this venue, while I am granted automatic entry, is one of those times. It is in light of my responsibility to those other voices (whom I wish other columnists were more concerned about) that I address my reflections to University President John Jenkins and to the Notre Dame community across the world.

I firmly believe this discussion must begin with a thorough grounding in history, for if it fails to do so, then it may well fail at its purpose.

Academic freedom and its intellectual and spiritual brother, religious freedom – although embraced and accorded great value for many centuries throughout the world – have only recently made an impact on the core of the Catholic Church, and to this day are not always accorded respect by those in power. Any who are skeptical of this point should read a collection of papal encyclicals, published prior to Vatican II, which outline the “ideal” Catholic state – a state in which religious freedom is nonexistent and adherence to doctrine is a matter of law.

It may be that all human organizations, no matter how noble, tend to tyranny and stasis unless there is constant vigilance on the part of those who love them. This includes the Church, and this includes the University.

To its credit, the Church reversed its position on religious freedom during Vatican II, largely under the guidance of a notable academic it had previously censored. However, today that culture of freedom is still both young and fragile.

When Father Theodore Hesburgh was president of the University, the Church still maintained and enforced a deplorable tool called the Index of Banned Books. This list included most of the great works of Western social, political and philosophical literature. By Canon Law, no student or faculty member could access these banned books through the University library without a signed exception from Hesburgh. It is to his great credit that Hesburgh chose to issue these exceptions carte blanche, in a minor but critical rebuke of a central authority that did not yet understand the core values of his University.

At length, the Index was repealed, and it is now mostly forgotten. In such a way are ancient mountains worn down with raindrops. Yet I believe that the lesson of the Index points to the most crucial point in this discussion.

Full academic freedom in the Church is a check on the power of the central authority. It was not conceived as such, and its defenders rarely apologize it this way, but this is the practical reality. Church leaders, divinely guided or not, are still men – many ill-prepared for power – and free discussion in the Church of all issues, no matter what the official attitudes of the day, keeps the leaders honest and mindful of the concerns of their people and of truths that would otherwise be lost under the weight of their office.

The truth is that if the Church has a duty to Notre Dame to teach and protect the faith, then even more so Notre Dame has a duty to the Church to challenge and refine that faith. It is a hidden duty that may never be acknowledge by the hierarchy and which will be fought and criticized again and again, but without which the Church would be lost in the modern world. The umbrella of the Church has a tendency to narrow, and the hearts of old truths pass away under the strain of politics. Notre Dame must keep the Church broad, and keep it constantly re-examining itself and rediscovering those truths.

This is why we embrace dissent at the University, not as something to be feared or rebuked or closeted in a darkened classroom, but as an equal partner in all ways in the beauty and splendor of teaching, because today’s dissents sometimes become the seeds to tomorrow’s truths and because the lens of an outsider examining our hearts is also the mirror we use to examine ourselves. There can be no burden placed upon dissent, no hurdles that it must pass to be heard by our community, because we need dissent so very much that we can risk no harm to it.

It is part of the price that we all pay as seekers of truth, as we must walk edges and push boundaries, that we are often misunderstood and hated and feared in our time. We continue to push, not because we hate or fear the Church or the truth, but because we must love and serve them in our way. For we – you and I and this University – are more than trophies that the Church uses to brag about its intellectual strength. If the Church is the mirror of the face of God then we are the servants who keep that mirror bright and shining.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. Comments should be e-mailed to comments@tidewaterblues.com More of his opinions can be found at www.tidewaterblues.com

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