The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Jenkins says events conflict with values

Mary Kate Malone | Friday, February 10, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins delivered a firm yet open-ended statement to faculty Monday about the interaction of academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame, calling the University’s sponsorship of events inconsistent with Catholic teaching “problematic” while asking for continued dialogue before he announces a formal policy.

Jenkins said events sponsored by the University or one of its units, including academic departments, that are deemed to conflict or appear to conflict with Catholic values “should not be allowed at Notre Dame,” making clear his opposition to the sexually explicit anti-violence play “The Vagina Monologues.” Monday’s speech was the first of three addresses the first-year University president scheduled for this week aimed at soliciting feedback from faculty, students and alumni about striking the correct balance between academic freedom and Catholic identity.

“While any restriction on expression must be reluctant and restrained, I believe that, in some situations, given the distinctive character and aspirations of Notre Dame, it may be necessary to establish certain boundaries, while defending the appropriate exercise of academic freedom,” Jenkins said.

Pausing only for brief sips of water during the 50-minute speech to a nearly full Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, Jenkins was steady and straightforward as he spoke candidly about the campus presence of “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival – events entering their third and fifth years at Notre Dame, respectively – in the context of academic freedom.

Rather than issuing a firm policy, Jenkins discussed his convictions and then encouraged feedback from faculty. He later declined to provide a specific timetable for his final decision or to predict how broad his eventual policy on the events will be.

“I don’t want to speculate on how much it will cover and how much it won’t cover – we’ll just listen to responses and see what the best decision is,” he said. “I want to give people a chance to respond, and I think that will take six to eight weeks just to give them plenty of time. It’d be nice to have some sort of resolution this semester, but I’m not going to commit myself to a definite timetable.”

While the permanent fates of both “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival will not be determined until Jenkins has heard and examined the opinions of various constituencies on campus, he said this year’s “Monologues” will be held in a classroom setting without ticket sales and the festival will go on under a new name.

Unlike the “Monologues,” which Jenkins said he has “difficulty seeing” as “the appropriate means” to the ends of promoting female empowerment and eliminating violence against women, the Queer Film Festival prompted two more specific concerns from the president.

Jenkins said the festival’s title – which some members of the University community understood as celebrating a homosexual lifestyle – and its content, which some said neglected to include the Catholic position on homosexuality, were his primary concerns, both of which have been resolved through discussions with the Film, Television and Theatre Department.

“Both of those have been addressed as I understand it,” he said.

He declined to specify the exact replacement title for the festival.

Jenkins repeatedly praised “The Vagina Monologues” in his speech for the play’s objectives – “that women should be aided to affirm their own bodies, the gift of their sexuality and their identity as women” – but criticized its attempt to meet them.

“The concern that I and many others have is that in the Vagina Monologues … there is no hint of central elements of Catholic sexual morality. The work contains graphic descriptions of homosexual, extra-marital heterosexual and auto-erotic experiences.”

“The Vagina Monologues” will be held in a to-be-determined classroom setting this year and will be open to the University community, Jenkins said.

“The point is it’s an academic exercise sponsored by an academic department in an academic setting,” he said.

That sponsorship for the long term, however, was exactly what the president said prompted his disapproval of events deemed inconsistent with “certain fundamental values of a Catholic university.”

“The fact that [“The Vagina Monologues” and Queer Film Festival] have been sponsored annually by units of the University, and have been widely publicized, prominently associates the University’s name with them,” Jenkins said, saying this publicity can mislead the public. “Such occurrences suggest the University endorses or at least finds compatible with its values certain views which are not in fact compatible. The wide publicity and prominence given such events tends to instrumentalize our collective identity and our higher mission.

“The concern here, as I said, is not with censorship, but with sponsorship.”

Theology professor Jean Porter said Jenkins’ statements about sponsorship seemed to place severe restrictions on the activities of departments and other units of the University. During the 20-minute question-and-answer session following Jenkins’ address, Porter echoed her colleagues’ fears about the president’s definition of academic freedom, which she interpreted as protecting faculty members when acting individually but restricting them when acting collectively.

“And that, I have seen, seems to be a very narrow construction of academic freedom, and I have to admit frankly I’m not sure how academic freedom can really exist if that constraint is taken seriously – particularly since much of school and academic life is carried out collectively as members of a department or unit,” she said.

To avoid narrowing his focus solely to events pertaining to Catholic teaching on issues of sexuality, Jenkins said, he mentioned in his speech hypothetical examples of other conferences that would be unacceptable for the University to host on the grounds of their own conflicts with Catholic teaching – including “Childish Fancy and Adult Ignorance: Theism as Delusion and Psychosis,” “The Moral Legitimacy of Infanticide and Euthanasia” and “The Moral Acceptability and Strategic Value of First-strike Nuclear Attack.”

“Again, the problem would be that this Catholic institution would seem to be sponsoring an event that supports or appears to support a position clearly and egregiously contrary to the certain central values of Catholicism,” he said.

Seated in the auditorium’s front row for the duration of the address, University

President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh said afterward that the discussions

represent a constructive step for the Notre Dame community.

“I think it brings the University to what a University should be – a place of serious discussion, a discussion founded not just on emotion but on principle, a discussion that tries to avoid prejudice or unfairness,” Hesburgh said, “but which tries to bring to the fore the light of the object, which is truth.”

Hesburgh, who served as president from 1952 to 1987, the longest such tenure in Notre Dame history, said the University ultimately benefits from differing opinions.

“I’m happy the discussion is open, and I’m sure it will bear good fruit in time, and I don’t think it’s a question of personal animus or anything of that sort,” Hesburgh said. “I think we have to respect each other and each other’s opinions against the backbone of where we began as a Catholic university.”

Jenkins said his address to students today at 12:30 p.m. in Washington Hall will be similar to the faculty address, but shorter and more geared toward student interest. He was introduced Monday by Provost Thomas Burish and will be introduced today by student body president Dave Baron.