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University of Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., transformed Catholic education. In the 1967 Land O'Lakes Statement, he laid out his vision for the Catholic university in the modern world, calling for autonomy from the Catholic Church’s authority. Charismatic and well-connected, he was a liberalizing force in an increasingly secular educational environment, transferring ownership of Notre Dame from the Congregation of Holy Cross to a lay board, admitting women into the student body, building the school’s capacity for research, and chasing prestige while expanding the school’s footprint. Hesburgh was a tough act to follow, but if there’s anything to learn from the recent history of Notre Dame, it’s that transformational leaders aren’t always visionaries.

Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., doesn’t command a room like his famed predecessor. Preparing to retire after an eighteen-year tenure, Jenkins has built on Hesburgh’s legacy with the continued growth of fundraising and research facilities. But something far more interesting transpired during his two decades at the helm—the sexual revolution came to that little campus in South Bend, Indiana. 

At his inauguration in 2005, Jenkins spoke of higher education’s descent into secularism, acknowledging that many of the “other truly great universities in this country . . . began as religious, faith-inspired institutions, but nearly all have left that founding character behind.” Not so at Notre Dame, he promised: “If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?” 

It wasn’t long before the campus left tested Jenkins’s promise. A performance of Eve Ensler’s feminist play The Vagina Monologues was scheduled to take place on campus during his first year on the job. Jenkins initially took a strong stance against the performance, emphasizing that the play’s graphic portrayals of sexuality stand “in opposition to the view that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of procreation.” The play’s performance at Notre Dame, Jenkins explained in January 2006, “suggest[ed] that the university endorses certain themes in the play, or at least finds them compatible with its values.” 

But despite his condemnations, Jenkins looked to the public, taking the views of the show’s advocates and opponents into consideration. It wasn’t long before he changed his mind, hedging that disgruntled conservatives posed less of a risk than an increasingly liberal campus hegemony. 

Once a reason to oppose the Vagina Monologues, the university’s Catholic identity was suddenly the impetus behind allowing the performances, replete with depictions of homosexual, extramarital, and auto-erotic sexual experiences. “Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture,” Jenkins said when explaining the rationale behind his reversal. “But we all have something to fear if the wider culture never engages Catholic teaching.” 

Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from culture, but Catholic institutions do, as do Catholics themselves. Jenkins’s decision wasn’t evangelization as much as it was capitulation, falling prey to the pretense that there can be half measures when dealing with the sexual revolution.

But when Barack Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandated that religious organizations provide contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and abortifacients through health insurance, Jenkins took a stand. In 2012, the university filed a suit against the HHS for an infringement of religious freedom. After five years of legal battles, Notre Dame won in 2017; it would not have to provide drugs and services contrary to Catholic beliefs. 

Yet, mere days after securing victory, Jenkins reversed course. Under no threat of further legal action, Notre Dame decided to provide contraceptives after all. “Stopping any access to contraceptives through our health care plan would allow the University to be free of involvement with drugs that are morally objectionable in Catholic teaching,” Jenkins explained, “but it would burden those who have made conscientious decisions about the use of such drugs and rely on the University for health care benefits.”

Prior to the HHS mandate, Notre Dame had not provided contraceptives. But during the lawsuit, Jenkins said, “some of those enrolled in our health plans—an increasingly diverse group—have come to rely on access to contraceptives.” Once again, the university president appeased the conscientious, diverse few despite protestations from the Catholic many. 

Jenkins’s initial opposition to earlier hallmarks of the sexual revolution—performative feminism in the Vagina Monologues and the separation of sex from procreation in birth control—was soon followed by qualified endorsements. By the time the LGBTQ issue came to campus, Jenkins had little resistance to spare. When Notre Dame extended employment benefits to the same-sex partners of faculty and staff, Jenkins publicly praised the decision as part of the university’s effort to “welcome, support, and cherish gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.” That effort, he said, “must not and will not flag.”

And flag it has not. The not-so-fallacious slippery slope of pro-LGBTQ policy quickly led to a mealy-mouthed acceptance of transgenderism. While incoming freshmen are universally paired with random roommates and sorted into single-sex dorms, transgender students get special treatment from administrators who “handpick” their residence halls. This February, the university opened a new co-ed residence community and would not respond when asked if the community was designed to accommodate transgender students. 

When multiple academic departments sponsored a drag show on campus this fall, nary a word was heard from Jenkins or his administration. It’s a poetic conclusion to his presidency: Nearly two decades after he first opposed the Vagina Monologues, transvestites took the stage to mock the very womanhood that Ensler’s play ostensibly sought to glorify. 

Hesburgh gave women a seat at the table, but Jenkins sold out to the godless disciples of the sexual revolution. Sometimes the most transformative leaders aren’t visionaries; sometimes, they’re just weak. 

Mary Frances Myler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where she served as the editor in chief of the Irish Rover. 

Image by The White House licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

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