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The Catholic university: commending Jenkins’ position

Letter to the Editor | Friday, April 21, 2006

Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., has written an Open Letter disagreeing with the outcome of the recent Catholic Nature debate; specifically the decision to not ban “The Vagina Monologues” from campus (“An open letter to Father John Jenkins,” April 11). I was profoundly offended, and write as a loyal son of Notre Dame to disagree.

I am personally offended by the assertion that those who happen to agree with University President Father John Jenkins “are those who care least about Notre Dame’s Catholic mission.” An Associate Professor of History betrays his profession by making such sweeping generalizations in the absence of at least some empirical evidence. I have been a part of the Notre Dame family since the mid-1950s, when Father Hesburgh would come to Indianapolis for the annual Mass and Communion Breakfast and stay at our house, to 1986 through my father’s various activities, including permanent master of ceremonies for the Indianapolis Club, member of the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors (and ultimately its President and Sorin Award recipient) and one of the founding members of the Board of Lay Trustees (and ultimately its second Chairman and Laetare Medal recipient). I have been a part of that family from 1963 to now as a student and an active member of both the Washington D.C. and the Lake County clubs, serving two years as President of the Lake County Club. And I have been party to that family since 1991 when my first son entered to begin a string of 15 consecutive years – and counting – with a son, nephew or niece on campus. So, yes, I am deeply offended that Miscamble so casually dismisses my concern.

But more importantly, I am offended by the dismissal of Jenkins’ reasoned approach as cowardly. Jenkins does not need me to defend him, but for Miscamble to suggest that Jenkins can’t really believe what he said, was concerned only about damage to our reputation, was “spooked” by the fear of negative publicity and “backed down” is simply degrading, and uncalled for. For Miscamble to complain that Jenkins actually may have been “influenced by the young women who produce this play and somehow see it as a contribution to the prevention of violence against women” is absurd: isn’t being open to the ideas of those who might actually know something about the subject an essential element of intellectual honesty? For Miscamble to suggest that Jenkins thought he would avoid controversy by this decision is to suggest that someone simply has not been paying attention.

Such dismissiveness is the stuff of political attack ads, not reasoned debate; it is possible to disagree with another’s opinion without demeaning the personhood of the opinion holder – but not, apparently, for Miscamble. It is not that we care any less about the University’s Catholic mission; it is that we have a different view of what that mission entails, what it allows and what it requires.

Having read Jenkins’ opening statement, having followed the comments in The Observer and The Irish Rover and elsewhere, having read the closing statement, and having meditated on all of them and more, I believe Jenkins’ conclusion is correct. But the issue is not truly academic freedom, for I would suggest that is too narrow and, in my view, too technical.

Rather, in my view, the debate is about the very essence of a Catholic university. What does it mean? Does the Catholic add something to the university, or subtract? Does it enhance or restrict the essence?

And I would argue that the Catholic university’s function – Our Lady’s University’s function – is enhanced by its evangelical and magisterium obligations. A secular university may be able to get away with avoiding moral issues; we can’t. A secular university may be able to get away with avoiding questions of the role of women in society; we can’t. A secular university may be able to get away with ignoring violence against women, preemptive war, capital punishment, the misdistribution of resources, degradation of the environment, labor rights and all of the other attacks on the culture of life set forth in Evangelium Vitae; we can’t.

To those who would suggest conflict between Catholic and university, the Church says no: the first three words of the recent apostolic constitution on the relationship between university and church (Ex Corde Ecclesiae) teach us that the Catholic university arises out of the very heart of the church.

I wholeheartedly agree with Miscamble’s analysis of the underlying moral problem: “The painful reality is that much of the violence against women in our society results from a sick view that separates sex from love and genuine relationship, from the commodification of sex, from the portrayal of women as objects, from the blatant refusal of some men to treat women with dignity and respect.” I was married for 29 years, privileged to have been able to give of a total, committed love, and blest to have received the same. I am fully aware of the glories of that relationship, in which physical intimacy is a profoundly sacred manifestation of God’s infinite love.

But, contrary to Miscamble’s suggestion, there is no contradiction between that essential link between intimacy and love, and the approval of “the continued production of a play that [at least to Miscamble] reduces women to body parts.” While such an interpretation of the play may involve certain Rorschachian elements, what if it were true? How do we address error?

Do we say no, Catholic teaching is clear and we can’t have anything contrary on campus, as though it will not continue to exist, or the students will not find it? I think not, for that is parochial, not Catholic.

Rather, I would respectfully suggest that both the evangelism and the magisterium obligations of the Catholic university demand – not just allow – engagement; we must, after all, follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and He did not refuse to engage sinners because some might see it as endorsement of sin

Christ suffered the unclean to touch Him; invited sinners to break bread with him; even, as the five times married woman at the well, to question Him. And to those who cried scandal, who challenged Him about the appearances of it all, who called upon Him to be concerned about what people would think, Christ did not back away: “Does the well man have need of the physician?” He suffered sinners to come to Him where they saw the truth and were saved. Is the Catholic university to do less?

And it is not enough to say that the sick He cured, the unclean He touched, the sinners He engaged, had come already to believe, for the woman at the well had not. More importantly, even were it true, the question would remain: How did they come to believe? And the answer is both clear and on point: they came to believe because He came to them; He was among them, present to them and their needs – and their doubts – showing them the way. Should the University named in honor of His mother do less?

In short, I believe that everyone ought be welcome at a university, even (or, more precisely, especially) a Catholic university, because we have a special obligation to confront – to engage. The American Bishops have placed on all the Church’s institutions an obligation to make clear the Church’s social teachings. And truth is taught, at least in part, by examination of error. Just as light shines brightest when contrasted to the dark, the Light of the Word is made clear when set in contrast to erroneous views. But given the intensity of the criticism, I am left to wonder if the critics have actually read what Jenkins so carefully wrote, for setting those objectionable themes in the context of Catholic teaching is precisely what he proposes.

We have a message, and it is joyous. We should proclaim it, indeed, sing it – and not just to ourselves as in the shower, but to the world. And if the University’s response here, precisely tailored to engage the errors of the world in the context of Catholic teachings, is not satisfactory, then nothing would be – short of abject abandonment of our role in the evangelical tradition, our prophetic mission, to present the truth of the Resurrection of Christ, both God and man, to the world, so that the world may see and believe, rather than cowering behind the stone, shielding under the bushel the full majesty of that which we believe.

Be not afraid, for Christ’s sake.

Thomas P. Carney, JralumnusClass of 1967April 13