Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Fresh From South Bend

From Notre Dame, university president Fr John Jenkins, CSC returns to the question of "Vagina Monologues" as litmus test....

Over the past ten weeks, I have met, talked to, and heard from hundreds of men and women – faculty, students, and administrators; alumni and friends. I have met individually with department chairs and faculty; attended a forum put on by the College of Arts and Letters; and participated in meetings of the Faculty Senate, the Student Senate, and the Graduate Student Council. I have read the e-mails sent to me, and I have carefully and faithfully read the news coverage and opinions in The Observer. I thank everyone who took the time to share their thoughts; I have been impressed by the passion, intelligence, and civility of this debate.

Some of the individuals I’ve talked with are adamantly opposed to the performance or expression on campus of a work, play, book, or speech that contradicts Catholic teaching. To them, we must say, with all respect: "This is a Catholic university." We are committed to a wide-open, unconstrained search for truth, and we are convinced that Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture.

Others I talked to were appalled that we would raise any question about the content, message, or implications of a work of art, drama, or literature here on campus. To them, we have to say, with the same respect: "This is a Catholic university." It is founded upon our belief that love of God and neighbor are eternal teachings that give context and meaning to our search for truth. As I said, Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture, but we all have something to fear if the wider culture never engages Catholic teaching. That is why the Catholic tradition must not only inspire our worship and our service on campus; it should help shape the intellectual life of the university. Our goal is not to limit discussion or inquiry, but to enrich it; it is not to insulate that faith tradition from criticism, but to foster constructive engagement with critics.

Like any university, we have a responsibility to foster intellectual engagement with various perspectives and forms of knowledge, but as a Catholic university, we have the added responsibility of fostering engagement among these perspectives and forms of knowledge with the Catholic intellectual tradition. As Pope John Paul II wrote, the Catholic university is "a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture" [Ex corde ecclesiae, 3.34].

Grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Catholic intellectual tradition develops through this dialogue with culture, as it encounters new questions and discoveries; as it speaks on emerging social questions; as it applies the truths of the Gospel to complex situations wrought by advances in science. How our ancient but evolving Catholic tradition expresses itself in the future depends to a large extent on the work of this and other Catholic universities. After all, a Catholic university is where the Church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world.

For these reasons, I am very determined that we not suppress speech on this campus. I am also determined that we never suppress or neglect the Gospel that inspired this university. 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....

In the ten weeks since my faculty address, I have seen The Vagina Monologues performed by our students, and I have discussed the play with its performers and supporters. I still believe – as I said in my address to the faculty – that its portrayals of sexuality stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Of course, as I have described, there must be room in a university for expressions that do not accord with Catholic teaching, and that is true in the case of this play.

My concern with The Vagina Monologues was not simply with some of its content, but with the prominence given to it by annual performances over five years, accompanied by publicity and fundraising activities. It is essential that we hear a full range of views on campus, including views contrary to Catholic teaching. But because we are a Catholic university, we must strive to bring these various views into dialogue with the Catholic intellectual tradition. This demands balance among diverse views and the inclusion of the Catholic perspective. There are no sharp, easily drawn lines here, and achieving this balance requires discretion and judgment.

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. These panels taught me and perhaps taught others that the creative contextualization of a play like The Vagina Monologues can bring certain perspectives on important issues into a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the Catholic tradition. This is a good model for the future. Accordingly, I see no reason to prohibit performances of The Vagina Monologues on campus, and do not intend to do so.

Well, there you have it... Let the brawling begi -- er, continue.