Academic freedom and Catholic values


Author: Richard Conklin '59M.A.

Against the backdrop of two controversial campus events, Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, has proposed a rethinking of what constitutes academic freedom in a Catholic institution of higher learning.

Speaking to separate open meetings of faculty and students in January, Jenkins took up the nettlesome issues of The Vagina Monologues, a nationally performed play about female sexuality and identity, and the erstwhile titled Queer Film Festival. Monologues was about to have its fifth annual performance on campus, while the gay film event was scheduled for its third season. In a key point, a total of eight academic entities in the College of Arts and Letters—six departments and two programs—were involved in sponsorship of the two events, both publicly opposed by Most Rev. John M. D’Arcy, bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Jenkins was careful to defend academic freedom. “Academic freedom is essential to a university. It ensures that faculty have the ability to research, create, teach and express themselves in accord with their own best judgment,” he said. “Appropriately applied to students, it ensures that they have the opportunity to inquire, express opinions, explore ideas and engage in discussion.” But he went on to note, “I do not believe that freedom of expression has absolute priority in every circumstance. While any restriction on expression must be reluctant and restrained, I believe that, in some situations, given the distinctive character and aspirations of Notre Dame, it may be necessary to establish certain boundaries, while defending the appropriate exercise of academic freedom.”

What troubled Jenkins is that the events under question “are cases in which the University, or some unit in or recognized organization of the University, sponsors the activity, university facilities are used for the event, and the University’s name is associated with it.” He added, “A reasonable observer would assume that the University is sponsoring an event that is clearly and egregiously at odds with its values as a Catholic university.” He emphasized that he was concerned “not with censorship but with sponsorship.” He differentiated his position from one dealing with the right of an individual faculty member or student to publish a book or article, write an editorial or a letter, expressing a view in his or her name.

He also said he was laying out his ideas in order to solicit responses from faculty, alumni and students, but that he “will not lead by consensus, nor by majority vote, nor in response to the pressures that individuals or groups inside or outside the University may bring to bear.” The response began immediately in question-and-answer periods following both talks and carried over into The Observer, the student newspaper. While there was widespread appreciation for Jenkins’ openness on a sensitive topic and some support for his initiative, most campus reaction was critical. Some said that positing a distinction between the rights of faculty when they act as individuals and their rights when they act collectively (e.g., as an academic unit) was untenable. Others objected to what they saw as a false equivalence between sponsorship and endorsement. Still others decried what they described as a retreat from the mainstream definition of academic freedom. Although the results are not yet known, more than 1,000 alumni responded to an online request for comments.

The immediate result was a renaming of the film series as the less celebratory “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorships” and the transfer of the _Monologues _performance to a classroom venue without attendant fundraising for community groups working to end violence against women. In his talk, Jenkins made clear Notre Dame’s continued support for that goal but said he did not think Monologues an appropriate means to that end. Notre Dame’s president set no timetable for policy decisions on the future of the two events.

A ‘Catholic’ university

The balance between the adjective and the noun in “Catholic university,” the interplay of religious identity and academic mission, the relationship of a Catholic intellectual tradition to an increasingly secular society, are inevitably linked to another matter treated candidly by Jenkins in his inaugural address—the hiring of Catholic faculty. “In the 1970s,” he noted, “the percentage of Catholic faculty [at Notre Dame] was near 85 percent; in 1984 it was 62 percent. It is currently 53 percent. With the retirement of senior faculty who are Catholic in greater percentages, it is likely to drop further.” While reaffirming the contribution of non-Catholic faculty to making Notre Dame a better university, even a better Catholic university, Jenkins emphasized the ability of a Catholic faculty member to bring a faith tradition to bear on intellectual life. His point was clear: the DNA for Catholicism on campus is carried by the faculty, not the administration or the students. He promised to work with academic leaders to find ways to attract “a faculty which includes a diversity of perspectives and commitments but which has a preponderance of Catholics.”

In a 1995 address sponsored by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Peter Steinfels, former senior religion correspondent for The New York Times, pointed to Catholic identity as the pivotal issue for the future of Catholic higher education in the country. He quoted George Marsden, McAnaney professor of history at Notre Dame: “The puzzle is how to hold the middle ground. How is it possible, short of reverting to repressive strictures of earlier days, to maintain a vital religious presence, including an intellectual presence, in a modern university? Is there any way to retain the balance of being a university that is both Catholic and open to many other points of view?”

The question is of interest to the Vatican as well. Speaking at Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies in October, a top Curia education official said that “the Holy See’s primary concern at every level is encouraging the fostering, and, if necessary, the reclaiming of the Catholic identity of institutions of higher learning . . . by insisting, first, on the university’s institutional commitment to the Church and, second, on its fidelity to the Catholic faith in all its activities.” Archbishop J. Michael Miller, a Canadian who is secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, went on to speculate on Pope Benedict XVI’s attitude toward a nominally Catholic university “no longer motivated by a strong sense of its institutional Catholic identity.” The views previously expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger would suggest, the archbishop said, “that it is better to let it [the institution] go, to end its claim of being Catholic.” The archbishop softened this stance somewhat in subsequent comments, but the point was made.

Notre Dame has not been immune from prior conflicts over academic freedom and Catholic character. Back in 1969, an ill-advised student-sponsored conference on pornography and censorship resulted in a shuttered erotic art exhibit and a police raid to confiscate a pornographic film. More recently, in 1990, protests over the public showing of the film The Last Temptation of Christ, considered blasphemous by its detractors but sponsored on campus by the Department of Communication and Theater, drew national publicity. On the latter occasion, professor of law Charles Rice wrote a letter to a conservative Catholic newspaper in which is found echoes of Jenkins’ approach. “The public exhibitions could not be justified on the ground of academic freedom,” he wrote. “If the film were privately shown to a class for examination and discussion, no objection would have been made.”

Rice’s opening target 16 years ago in his letter to The Wanderer was the 1967 “Land O’Lakes Statement,” universally considered the Declaration of Independence of American Catholic higher education. Drafted by a group of 26 Catholic educators, religious leaders and lay persons under the guiding spirit of Notre Dame’s then-President Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, it declared, “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of the authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” The document also said a Catholic institution of higher learning must be a place where “Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.” It remains the seminal description of the contemporary American Catholic university.

The statement was a preliminary position paper for the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), headed by Father Hesburgh from 1963-70. It was during his tenure that several exchanges between the IFCU and Rome took place concerning the nature of the modern Catholic university, culminating in the 1972 IFCU statement on “The Catholic University in the Modern World,” promulgated by the Vatican. It fell short of the autonomy claims in the “Land O’Lakes Statement” but for the first time formally recognized educational institutions not chartered by the Vatican (as is the case with virtually all American Catholic colleges and universities) as deserving of the appellation “Catholic” if they had certain characteristics spelled out in the document.

Since then, the proposed revisions of canon law affecting Catholic universities in 1981 and the 1990 papal document “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” dealing with Catholic colleges and universities have been viewed by most American Catholic educators as attempts to roll back the guarantees of academic freedom necessary to be taken seriously in the American context of higher education. The Vatican has defended them as “truth-in-advertising,” an attempt to make sure “Catholic” is an adjective with real meaning.

Interviewed by the National Catholic Reporter, Jenkins said, “This is not a reaction to anything out of the ‘Ex Corde’ discussion. This is not a response to the bishops or to any external pressure.” Asked about the difficulty of sustaining a dialogue when each side sees itself defending an important value—academic freedom on one side and Catholic identity on the other—Jenkins told the newspaper, “Like it or not, we are in this together, and we have to find a way to talk to each other. What we need is an intellectually rich and vibrant debate, one that doesn’t fall into a kind of amorphous lack of clarity about who we are but which is open to the issues of the age.”


Dick Conklin retired as associate vice president of University Relations at Notre Dame.

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