For a while it seemed that Father John Jenkins, the new president of the University of Notre Dame, was going to do the sensible thing about the performance of “The Vagina Monologues” on his campus. Unfortunately, he seems to have suffered some kind of collapse, whether of the will or the intellect it is hard to say. In any case, after his earlier brave statements, he now looks terribly weak and confused.
On Wednesday, Fr. Jenkins issued a “Closing Statement on Academic Freedom and Catholic Character.” It is really an instrument of surrender to the most fatuous ideas about academic freedom. In it he frames the question facing Notre Dame as being whether the university should prevent “the performance or expression on campus of a work, play, book, or speech that contradicts Catholic teaching.” However, that is emphatically not the issue. The word “contradict” (from contra + dicere) means “to speak against.” Simulating sex acts and orgasms on stage and presenting for an audience “graphic descriptions of homosexual, extra-marital, and auto-erotic experiences” (these words are Fr. Jenkins’s own) is not speaking against Catholic teaching, it is acting in a way that Catholic teaching condemns as indecent.
Fr. Jenkins refers frequently in his surrender document to the need to “engage the culture.” He seems not to grasp the elementary point that one can maintain standards of conduct while engaging in free and open debate with those who disagree with those standards. One can “engage” the ideas and arguments of people who think public indecency acceptable without letting them practice public indecency on the Notre Dame campus.
Recently, Delaware Catholic Scholars, a group to which I belong, sponsored a public debate at the University of Delaware on the morality of abortion. We were engaging the culture. Having a similar debate at Notre Dame would be a fine idea. However, it would be a far different thing for Notre Dame to allow its facilities to be used for performing abortions. Similarly, Notre Dame should not suppress debate on sexual subjects—it should welcome it.
At the same time it has every right to enforce rules of sexual behavior. Indeed, it does so, and doubtless will continue to do so under Fr. Jenkins. One can debate every idea without tolerating every deed.
Of course, the deeds in question here are done in the context of an artistic performance. Does that mean that rules of decency are in complete abeyance? Does Art sanctify every kind of act? There are many who regard striptease as a form of art; would Notre Dame allow strippers to perform on campus? And if not, why not? Well, obviously one must draw the line somewhere. Yes, and why not draw it at simulated sex acts and orgasms on stage?
As Fr. Jenkins himself suggests, this issue was a great test for the University. It was a point at which the University of Notre Dame defined its own self-understanding. As such, it may have been a point of no return. Fr. Jenkins’ decision is tragic enough for Notre Dame, but far worse in the long run are the muddled arguments with which he attempts to justify it. His words can now be used at Catholic universities and colleges everywhere to undermine their Catholic character. He has not only surrendered, he has drawn up a blueprint for surrender everywhere.
Richard John Neuhaus writes:
The above statement by Stephen Barr will meet with agreement from most of the people I’ve heard from. For a different judgment, consider this , posted as a comment on Amy Welborn’s blog:
I know that many are disappointed by Fr. Jenkins’ decision. I sat through several discussions involving the Jenkins and the faculty on the this matter, and, frankly, it is a surprise to me as well. But, it seems the majority of those who are now crowing loudly about Notre Dame going down the toilet or calling Jenkins a "so-called" priest, are really missing the substance of what he has done. I teach at ND in the Writing program, a program that asks students to fine-tune their ability to argue persuasively, intelligently, and rigorously, using their intellect while allowing their faith to guide their reason. His decision is consistent with this model of Catholic education.
If you read carefully, you see that Jenkins is setting an important precedent for any and all plays, panels, programs, what-have-you that present a position contrary to Catholic teaching. For example, immediately after each performance of the V Monologues a panel discussion was held¯actually, where the performers had only moments ago stood¯in which the Catholic position toward sexuality was upheld. Let me reiterate: that happened after each performance. This seems to me a significant and extremely restrictive move. What it communicates to me is that no performance of a play or program such as the VM will be allowed the so-called "artistic integrity" that other plays or performances are afforded. Jenkins is, in effect, insisting that departments sponsoring such controversial events clearly articulate the educational goals of the event, and, in so doing, adhere to Catholic mission of the university.
Gone are the days when moral teaching is compromised of a textbook and a lecture. In these times where students are constantly being bombarded with competing cultural values from the "secular" sector, a Catholic university must aggressively take on these messages instead of running from them. To me, Father Jenkins is dealing a blow to those teachers and students who feel that their academic freedom should be absolutely unfettered. In short, he is making an example of the V Monologues , an example that suggests what the Catholic educational model might look like in the twenty-first century¯aggressive engagement instead of self-righteous indignation.
In my usual wishy-washy way, I’m somewhere between Stephen Barr and this Notre Dame teacher who commented on Amy Welborn’s site. It was a judgment call, and I think Fr. Jenkins probably came down on the wrong side. But I resist the conclusion that this decision is the defining moment in his promising leadership of Notre Dame.