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University scandalized by “Monologues”

Letters to the Editor | Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Two years ago, I was stunned and disturbed by Fr. Jenkins’ decision to continue to allow the “Vagina Monologues” to be performed on campus, especially since it seemed to be a complete turnaround from his earlier statements of concern. I believed then (as now) that its continued performance on campus was scandalous to the University, and by extension the Catholic Church.

I see no point in listing the reasons for my concerns, as the points for both sides of the debate have been discussed at length. Suffice it to say, I find the arguments for supporting this play’s presence on campus grossly unconvincing. This year, we have another statement by Fr. Jenkins and another set of performances. Although still disturbed, I cannot say I am stunned since my expectations of the University are much lower. (The University appears much more ordinary to me now than I once naively envisioned it).

I imagine that this (once again) was not an easy decision for Fr. Jenkins. As a priest, I would expect that he sees the play as potentially harmful to the spiritual well-being of those who perform it, as well as to those who attend the performance. Of course, he also undoubtedly knows that people are watching what Notre Dame decides more than other Catholic institutions, and so knows the decision can be scandalous.

At the same time, as president it seems he is charged to do what he believes is best for the University, which can be in conflict with his role as a priest. I strongly believe that this decision is not in the long-term interest of the University, but understand the reasons why others may feel differently. Perhaps he thought that after having made their point and won the day two years ago, the “academic freedom” proponents would graciously avoid once again antagonizing a significant segment of the Notre Dame community by sponsoring performances in the future. Alas, this was not to be the case – perhaps because the idea of “academic freedom” was simply used as a red herring by folks who really just wanted to generate controversy and conflict. If that is the case, then the efforts by the organizers (as well as the faculty and departments that support them) to feed such a cancer would be particularly contemptible. Regardless, it seems to me his decision would have been less complicated if he had not been a priest.

Surely, chief executives of other organizations, including other universities, do not spend much time thinking about the spiritual well-being of individuals within their organizations. Perhaps then, it really is time to consider that the office of the president of the University no longer be occupied by a Holy Cross priest, and that Notre Dame move to be independent altogether. Unbounded by concerns about the spiritual well-being of students as a priest is, a lay president could simply focus on what’s “best” for the University. No more concern about Catholic faculty ratio, no more concern about bothersome bishops and their conferences. No more conflict between Catholic character and academic freedom. He or she could simply concentrate on what’s “best” for the University (which presumably means higher US News and World Report Rankings, and the esteem of so-called peer institutions).

Personally, I think it would be a great loss to see Notre Dame become an independent institution. However, it wouldn’t be the first Catholic institution to do. It does have advantages for both sides. Academic freedom would presumably be unlimited to the delight of one side of the debate, while those of us on the other would at least not have to see the university we loved used as a weapon in the culture war against the Catholic Church, with the approval of a priest. We would also likely see the play end its run on campus more quickly (with the controversy gone, support for what is essentially a bad play would probably dry up).

If a distorted view of academic freedom trumps Catholic character at Notre Dame (as this decision suggests is the case), and we are on the road to independence, let’s be done with it sooner rather than later. If that is the direction of the University, perhaps it is “best” to do so in an expeditious manner. Otherwise, disappearing bishops and a visit to this country by a pope with more than an interest in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” may be signs that if Notre Dame does not make the explicit decision to be independent itself, the decision for Notre Dame to be independent may be made by somebody else.

Michael R. Waters


MBA 2000

Mar. 17