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Common Proposal must be followed

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, May 3, 2006

I was very heartened by University President Father John Jenkins’ Jan. 23 address to the faculty on academic freedom and the Catholic character of Notre Dame, and while disappointed by his “Closing Statement” in which I thought he took a large step back, I finally concluded that if presentations counter to Catholic belief on campus were balanced by explanations of Catholic tradition (see quote from the “Common Proposal” that accompanied the “Closing Statement”), then such events might indeed have some value.

These explanations of Catholic truths would provide students and faculty ignorant of them insights and information they might not otherwise receive given the large number of non-Catholic faculty, the deplorable state of Catholic religious preparation of so many entering students and the very limited and inadequate instruction in theology and philosophy currently provided to undergraduates at Notre Dame. (As to the preparation of the faculty in Catholic teachings, I leave that to the Administration, and some there have expressed concerns on this point.) Having now followed the reports and statements in The Observer and elsewhere for several months, I fear that my initial optimism was badly misplaced.

Readers may recall that in his closing statement Jenkins‚ wrote: “As long as the Gospel message and the Catholic intellectual tradition are appropriately represented, we can welcome any serious debate on any thoughtful position here at Notre Dame.”

He continued, “The only exception I can imagine would come in the case of expression that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of this University, or of any of the diverse groups that form part of our community. This sort of expression is not at issue in the current debate, nor do I expect it to be an issue in the future.”

Finally, he noted, “Thanks to the efforts of some faculty members, this year’s performance of “The Vagina Monologues” was brought into dialogue with Catholic tradition through panels which followed each performance. Panelists presented the Catholic teaching on human sexuality, and students and faculty engaged one another and these issues in serious and informed discussion.”

I am troubled by these statements of Jenkins on two counts. First, I believe a fairly large segment of the “community,” particularly if that includes graduates, indeed did find “The Vagina Monologues” to be “overt and insistent in its contempt for [their] values and sensibilities.” Jenkins’ assertion that the play was not at issue with the values and sensibilities of a very large part of the community simply mystifies me. Rather than to simply assert this, it would have been useful had he explained how he arrived at this conclusion, and I hereby invite him to do so publicly.

Second, I have seen practically nothing in The Observer or elsewhere on how the panels that followed presentation of “The Vagina Monologues” appropriately presented Catholic tradition as called for in Jenkins’ closing statement. Indeed, with the exception of Fr. Paulinus Odozor’s comments at the panel on the evening of Feb. 14, the other panel participants were quite supportive of the presentation and dismissive of Catholic tradition and teaching as set forth in the statements of Bishop D’Arcy, Frs. Bill Miscamble and John Coughlin, David Solomon and many others who have commented on the play.

I have not changed my mind about the opportunities for education and enlightenment of students and faculty that presentation of materials counter to Catholicism might offer. However, Jenkins needs to step forward now and ensure that the tenants of the “Common Proposal” are adhered to fully and, if they are not, to take appropriate action.

Given the statements of professors Robin Darling Young, Cathleen Kaveny, Jackie Smith, Carolyn Nordstrom, Mary Doak, Jean Porter and Mary Rose D’Angelo that followed the presentations of the play (as reported in The Observer), I am not at all confident that some faculty members, perhaps even a good number, plan to follow the “Common Proposal” in good faith. Five of the panelists named above are members of the Theology department and all but Odozor defended the presentation. How could they defend in the context of Catholic teaching this vile piece of pornography that so debases women? And how could they justify its sexual violence as serving to defend women from sexual violence? These panelists pursued their own agendas, and to them I would suggest that there are a good number of secular universities that would no doubt welcome their applications, having thus so clearly demonstrated their contempt for the Catholic Church. This would also offer an opportunity to repopulate the Theology department with theologians who believe in and defend the faith.

William A. SigleralumnusClass of 1958April 24