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IN FOCUS: Church figures upset with decision

Amanda Michaels | Thursday, April 6, 2006

As the Notre Dame community looks within to evaluate the impact of the closing statement on academic freedom issued Wednesday by University President Father John Jenkins, the Church is standing without and judging where this latest missive puts one of the nation’s top Catholic institutions in the spectrum of ideology.

Harsh critiques surfaced Wednesday from several right-wing Catholics who initially applauded Jenkins’ Jan. 23 address on academic freedom and Catholic character, which they read as an attack on the controversial Eve Ensler play “The Vagina Monologues.”

The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) – the national, conservative Catholic organization most recently associated with Notre Dame when it accused theology professor Richard McBrien of plagiarism – issued a statement Wednesday afternoon that asked, “Where did Father Jenkins go wrong?”

While “Jenkins rightly described ‘The Vagina Monologues’ as antithetical to the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity” in his Jan. 23 address, the CNS statement read, in choosing not to ban their presence on campus, he “simply ignores the facts.”

The CNS has campaigned for years against the performance and reading of “The Vagina Monologues” on Catholic campuses.

Citing the section of Jenkins’ statement that speculates the only limitation of speech would occur “in the case of expression that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of this University,” the CNS said “The Vagina Monologues” constitutes such a case.

“Without any explanation, Father Jenkins has either come to a radically different perspective on ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ or has simply abandoned Notre Dame’s Catholic mission,” the CNS statement read. “‘The Vagina Monologues’ and its author Eve Ensler exhibit obvious contempt for the Christian values that the University of Notre Dame once fearlessly embraced, only a few decades ago.”

The CNS then chastised Jenkins for “giving Catholics around the world false hope” in his inauguration speech and January addresses – the “false hope that Notre Dame would come to the same appreciation for its Catholic identity” that has prompted peer institutions like the Catholic University of America, Marquette University, Providence College and Seton Hall University to ban “The Vagina Monologues” on their campuses.

Jenkins’ decision, the CNS said, will force Notre Dame to “remain substandard as a Catholic institution for the foreseeable future.”

The CNS statement ends with a series of comments directed against “The Vagina Monologues” from speakers the CNS said Jenkins “pointedly snubbed” Wednesday. Among these voices was Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy.

D’Arcy was restrained in his reaction to Jenkins’ concluding statement, issuing only a two-sentence response Wednesday morning.

“As pastor of the diocese with the sacred responsibility for the care of souls of all our people, including the young men and women at the University of Notre Dame, and with pastoral concern always for the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, as is my obligation, I am deeply saddened by the decision of Father John Jenkins, CSC, to allow the continuing sponsorship of the Vagina Monologues by Notre Dame, the School of Our Lady,” the statement reads.

D’Arcy then referred back to his previous statements condemning the presence of “The Vagina Monologues” at Notre Dame for “further understanding” of his position on the matter.

In February 2004, D’Arcy called the play “antithetical to Catholic teaching on the beautiful gift of human sexuality and also to the teachings of the Church on the human body relative to its purpose and to its status as a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

And because it violates basic truths, D’Arcy argued in February 2006, the play violates the tenets of academic freedom.

Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham – who said he knows D’Arcy “very well” – said he was not surprised by the bishop’s statement, especially considering his past thoughts on the subject.

“[To release the statement] was not only [D’Arcy’s] right but his duty as a bishop of the diocese,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham did, however, offer another reading of Jenkins’ closing statement and its relationship to Church teaching.

“If I take [Jenkins’] letter at face value, what [Jenkins is] trying to say is this: There are certain things that the Catholic Church stands against, and does so vigorously and adamantly, and it is the responsibility of a Catholic university to be aware of what the Church stands for and doesn’t stand for,” Cunningham said.

He said this awareness of Church teaching is accompanied by an awareness of opposing viewpoints, by virtue of Notre Dame’s position as an academic institution.

“There’s a great line about Cardinal Newman’s idea of the university,” Cunningham said. “He said, ‘The university is a place where mind clashes [with] mind,’ with the caution that discussion and so on cannot turn into total advocacy.”