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Clarifying academic freedom

| Sunday, February 13, 2005

Bishop John D’Arcy has written about Notre Dame’s “Queer Film Festival” in the public press as follows:

“This presentation is an abuse of academic freedom. Pope John Paul II makes clear the place of academic freedom, when he says it must always be linked to certain values central to a Catholic university: A Catholic university possesses the autonomy necessary to develop its distinctive identity and pursue its proper mission.”

D’Arcy’s comments illustrate a common tendency of conservative Catholics, many on campus and in high places, to confuse freedom of religion and academic freedom.

Conservative Catholics often challenge the conditions under which scholarship and artistic expression thrive and flourish by appealing to authority (e.g., JP II). The Constitution protects their right to do this. My sense is no law can require that such challenges be consistent or that they meet any other criterion of rational discourse.

The bishop, however, has chosen to challenge the University, or at least six departments of the University, as violating the rights of the Church and, by extension, of parents who expect their students to be protected from challenges to orthodoxy, on purely sectarian or parochial grounds: papal authority and the Catholic Catechism as he, bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, interprets them.

“Academic freedom,” however, is a term whose meaning has been settled by appropriately academic means. It is clearly not a term whose meaning is open to manipulation by political or religious authorities. If the University or the bishop were to require six of its departments to present topics challenging Catholic Orthodoxy in a specific format intended to protect or defend religious orthodoxy, the academy would have no difficulty recognizing that as a violation of the academic freedom of the departments and individuals involved.

The bishop muddies the waters of intelligent public discussion of the relationship between the Church and Catholic universities in the United States by confusing “freedom of religion” with “academic freedom.” The liberties involved are always in active tension with each other and will always be so unless Churches were to be required to restrain their teaching by the “requirements of reason alone.”

The assumption that this tension can or should be overcome by authoritative fiat is at odds with my reading of the Gospel.

Ed Manier


Philosophy department

Feb. 11