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COMMENTARY: Dream alive

Claire Heininger | Thursday, April 6, 2006

So it was more than an applause line after all.

When University President Father John Jenkins closed his Sept. 23, 2005 inaugural address by declaring, “Let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small” – at once a nod back to the resolve of Notre Dame founder Father Edward Sorin and a thrust forward into Jenkins’ own era – the ambitious, unapologetic turn of phrase sent the audience roaring to its feet. To be in the Joyce Center at that moment was to gladly choke on the crowd’s collective passion for Notre Dame.

Exactly four months later, however, a different audience felt a different kind of suffocation emanate from the presidential podium. As Jenkins assembled the faculty – and the next day, students – to unveil his belief that the “distinctive character and aspirations of Notre Dame” could call for certain restrictions on academic freedom, fractures formed in the Notre Dame community’s monolithic support for its first-year president. Could the president – the whispers asked – who at his inauguration so boldly vowed to advance academic excellence and religious faith as “two indespensable and wholly compatible strands of higher learning” be reversing course, placing the two at odds? Could the priest who disdained “dreaming too small” be the same man now splitting hairs over the words “festival” and “queer”?

Sure seemed that way. And Jenkins’ initial faculty and student audiences largely behaved as though they assumed as much – first peppering the president with narrow questions in hostile tones, then pleading with or barking at him in defensive prepared statements. Naturally, other administrators, faculty and students quickly rushed to laud Jenkins’ judgment. Notre Dame looked poised to tear itself down the middle – the Catholic on one side, the university on the other, with “The Vagina Monologues” the least of the casualties.

But then strange things started to happen. Rather than sulking or lashing out about their relocation to 101 DeBartolo, student and faculty organizers of “The Vagina Monologues” embraced the academic arm of their purpose, organizing purposeful panel discussions to complement their provocative performances. Rather than shirking the responsibility of his self-inflicted spotlight, Jenkins attended the “Monologues,” and also met with diverse groups of students and faculty to engage their concerns. And rather than rehash the same black-and-white, pro- or anti-“Monologues” arguments of the past four years, this year – in classrooms, dorm rooms, offices and dining halls – people who love Notre Dame debated respectfully and intensely about what the “distinctive character and aspirations of Notre Dame” really imply. About what Notre Dame stands for now. About what Notre Dame might and should become.

Thankfully, Wednesday’s closing statement doesn’t begin to settle those questions. And that, it seems, was part of Jenkins’ idea all along.

Describing a contemporary Catholic university as “where the Church does its thinking,” the president on Wednesday refused to suppress speech, but also refused to neglect the Catholic teaching that lies at Notre Dame’s roots and nurtured its growth. With his gutsy acceptance of the dual challenges to examine the world through the lens of Catholicism and to scrutinize Catholicism in the context of the world – no topics or views barred – Jenkins came full circle to his inaugural promise to “rise up and embr-ace the [Notre Dame] mission in our time.”

As long as that duality persists, the mission will be fulfilled. And as long as the debate continues, Notre Dame and its leader will be dreaming anything but small.