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A response to Father Jenkins

Letter to the Editor | Thursday, April 20, 2006

In his Closing Statement on Academic Freedom and Catholic Character, University President Father John Jenkins expresses his belief that he has articulated “principles that a large majority of this community can embrace.” If Jenkins is right, I feel obliged to respond as a member of the minority. Apart from the decision about whether or not to sponsor a particular play on campus, I share Bishop John D’Arcy’s “deep sadness” about the Closing Statement. In my view, the statement espouses a conception of the Catholic University based upon a divorce between reason and faith. This divorce will hardly settle the matter about the relation between academic freedom and the Catholic identity of Notre Dame. Moreover, Jenkins’ raising of the issue may have unwittingly polarized the University community and damaged Catholicism at Notre Dame. I must say at the outset that I have not been eager to enter the present controversy. Concern for the future of Catholicism at Notre Dame, however, has convinced me to overcome my reticence. Please permit me to speak as a Franciscan priest, faculty member and lawyer.

First, I would like to speak as a Franciscan priest who has attempted to assist in the magnificent ministry of the Congregation of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame. The euphoria expressed in The Observer as a result of Jenkins’ Closing Statement indicates that he has made some students very happy. At the same time, I know that there are more than a few good Catholic students who are scandalized by the President’s action and statement. These students believe that violence against women and sexual harassment are wrong not because of secular ideology. Rather, violence and harassment are wrong because they are sins against the law of Christ. Likewise, these same students are striving to live in accord with the radical nature of the Catholic teaching on sexuality. At no point in history has it ever been easy to live a life of chastity. The crudeness and eroticism of certain aspects of contemporary culture have rendered the task all the more difficult. This is true for all of us and especially for the talented young women and men who are our students.

Although the president’s statement uses certain Catholic language, it contains no endorsement of the teaching that the only proper place for the consummation of sexual intimacy is between a man and woman united in Holy Matrimony. In fact, Jenkins admits that the Vagina Monologues “stand[s] apart from, and indeed in opposition to, Catholic teaching on human sexuality.” Instead of adopting a policy that permits this kind of speech, the president of a Catholic university should be guarding against it. For those of us who are committed Catholics, and Jenkins no doubt belongs to this group, we should be doing all in our power to create a culture that fosters the Catholic truth about the gift of human sexuality and its proper place in the order of creation. My opinion is that there is, to quote the late Pope John Paul II, a “new Spring” of Catholic life blossoming at Notre Dame. I base my opinion on my grace-filled experience here with our wonderful Catholic students. It is also the case that some of our students are nominally Catholic as a result of inadequate catechetical formation through no fault of their own. Evangelization is needed to invite them into the “new Spring” of Catholic life. I agree with Jenkins that plays such as the Vagina Monologues stand in opposition to Catholic life and culture. For this reason, I doubt that his Closing Statement will nourish the “new Spring.”

Second, please permit me to offer a few observations as a member of the faculty. In his Closing Statement, the president stresses his desire to ensure “the academic freedom to explore the full range of ideas and expressions produced by human thought …,” “a wide-open, unconstrained search for truth” and “open, unrestricted academic inquiry.” Moreover, he wants to “animate the debate” and “strive to bring these various views into dialogue with the Catholic intellectual tradition.” The proposed debate and dialogue seems to presume that our University is at present characterized by a flourishing and pervasive Catholic intellectual life. I firmly believe that Notre Dame is both the best academic institution and most dynamic faith community of the great Catholic universities in the United States. Personally, I feel grateful to be a member of the faculty of a University that I have come to love. I pray for this University on a daily basis. However, I am not so certain that the present state of the Catholic intellectual life here at Notre Dame would make for the strongest Catholic participant in the dialogue with contrary views. I think we ought to be honest and acknowledge that many, and perhaps most, members of the faculty are skeptical about the validity of Catholic truth claims based upon faith. Likewise, many would be suspicious about faith claims as proper participants in public discourse. Vatican II rightly urged that the Church be open to the world. The on-going dialogue continues to bear fruit for all the participants. It must be admitted, however, that the effects of the ensuing dialogue with secular culture have not always been beneficial to the life of the Church. When secular culture rather than the Church begins to serve as the primary formator, the effects are not likely to foster the gospel life. The Catholic intellectual life here at Note Dame has not been immune from the negative effects of the dialogue as it has transpired in the Church over the course of the last four decades. My impression is that secular speech of all types is alive and well at Notre Dame. Rather, it is the Catholic intellectual life that needs to be fostered and nourished.

Given the less than ideal state of Catholic intellectual life at Notre Dame, how might the president of the University respond? To be sure, he should not retreat from the dialogue as it was intended by Vatican II. Whoever the President of the University is at this perilous yet promising time, he would be well advised to come to terms with reality, drink deeply from the living fountain of faith and act with all in his power to strengthen Catholic intellectual life. Unfortunately, nowhere in his Closing Statement does Jenkins affirm that Catholic belief is necessarily normative within the Catholic intellectual community. The statement creates the impression that Catholicism is just another “good idea” sometimes at issue and to be batted around in the on-going intellectual debate at the University. Without the recognition of the primacy of Catholic truth claims at Notre Dame, the University’s own internal dialogue will fail to ensure integration of faith and reason; and in its dialogue with wider culture, Notre Dame will be a weak partner with little of its own to offer. Truth claims based upon faith and safeguarded by proper authorities remain integral aspects of the Catholic approach to reason. Catholic thinkers as diverse as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have recognized the need for intellectual humility in light of sacred scripture, tradition and the magisterium of the Church. The Catholic approach to reason stands in contrast to the hermeneutic of suspicion and skepticism, which seems to be all too characteristic of contemporary academic culture. Such a rationalist approach labors under the burden of an Enlightenment myth in which rational inquiry is thought to exist independent of viewpoint, tradition and community. To say the least, this myth has long been exposed by scientists, philosophers, cultural anthropologists and theologians alike. The rationalist approach is incompatible with Catholic faith. It demands a divorce between faith and reason. Rather than facilitate the divorce, the president enjoys a principal role in setting the conditions for the reconciliation between faith and reason.

The Catholic tradition respects individual conscience, and not every individual who is a member of a Catholic university community needs to embrace Catholic faith. However, all members of a Catholic university community are asked to respect faith and the truth claims that flow from it. On an institutional level, the proper authority must express the University’s commitment to the priority of Catholic truth over all other claims. Frankly, the University needs to hire more devout Catholic professors who cherish the Catholic approach to reason and are also top-notch in their respective academic disciplines. I am humbled by the excellent hires that the University has made in this regard. Ex Corde Ecclesiae requires that at least a simple majority of the faculty be practicing Catholics. Jenkins has expressed his commitment to this goal. I doubt that his recent action and statement have advanced the goal. To the contrary, I suspect that the president’s Closing Statement will discourage some prospective Catholic hires. I hope that it will not give cause to present colleagues to think about leaving Notre Dame.

Finally, I would like to offer a brief comment as an attorney and canon lawyer. The president states that he is “determined that we not suppress speech on this campus.” Although this kind of rhetoric may have a certain populist appeal, I am surprised to read it from the pen of a respected priest-philosopher. Indeed, the Closing Statement and the accompanying guidelines recognize the need to “suppress” certain types of speech at Notre Dame. From the perspective of constitutional law, the first amendment’s free speech guarantee is not absolute. Depending on the type of speech, judicial review of government regulation of that speech recognizes varying levels of scrutiny. Even government regulation of pure political speech, which requires the highest level of judicial suspicion, may be curtailed by time, place and manner restrictions. In the United States, non-governmental institutions such as universities and colleges enjoy the right not only to regulate, but to suppress, speech on their private property. Virtually every major educational institution in the United States does regulate and ban certain types of speech. Regulation of so-called “hate speech” is a good example of the exercise of this right. The canon law of the Catholic Church also recognizes free speech as a quailed and not absolute right. According to Section 3 of Canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law, speech in the Catholic community is to be freely expressed as long as it “respects the integrity of faith and morals, shows due reverence to Pastors and takes into account both the common good and dignity of individuals.” In my view, a Catholic University must suppress certain types of speech-albeit only on rare occasions. Pornography, racism, obscenity and war-mongering constitute speech that has no place in any Catholic community. To suppress such speech is not only a right; it is an affirmative obligation of the proper authority at the Catholic university. The good of the community depends on such regulation.

Last May, I had the privilege of addressing a large group of alumni meeting here on campus, who posed many questions about the current state and future of Catholicism at Notre Dame. I took this opportunity to express my strong support and admiration for then President-elect Jenkins. On numerous private occasions, I have continued to express this support to concerned persons all over the country. His public statements up until his most recent Closing Statement gave me good reason for expressing this support. In light of his previous statements, I must be honest and confess that I was stunned by the recent Closing Statement. Jenkins may be correct that I am in a distinct minority of faculty members who feel this way. Although none of us are indispensable, I think that the “minority” is a sine quo non to the health of this great Catholic university. The Closing Statement notwithstanding, there seems to me to be a splendid opportunity to foster Catholic intellectual life and culture at Notre Dame. Some features of the wider American culture are gravely ill and badly need the medicine of Catholic truth. I continue to believe that Notre Dame can be a big part of the cure and not the problem. A University founded under the patronage of Our Lady ought to be nothing less.

Rev. John J. Coughlin, O.F.M.professor of lawApril 9