I am used to the New York Times getting under my skin, but I read it anyway. (Maybe it is a bad habit.) So I was not all that surprised on Saturday, February 18th, while sipping my morning coffee to come across a photo of Notre Dame’s new president, Fr. John I. Jenkins, running alongside a shot of four Notre Dame students in t-shirts imprinted with the slogan “Gay? Fine by me.” It looks to me as if the Times is giving Fr. Jenkins a shot across the bow.
The students, members of a group at Notre Dame called “United for Free Speech,” were gathering signatures for a petition asking the university to “maintain its openness” toward events such as this year’s showing of Brokeback Mountain at the university’s gay film festival, as well as a student-staged production of The Vagina Monologues, performed on Valentine’s Day. The students’ concern was prompted by recent speeches by Fr. Jenkins that indicate this may be the last year for events such as these at the university.
In a speech last month before faculty members and students, Jenkins stated that permitting productions of this sort on campus implies an “endorsement of values in conflict with Roman Catholicism.” It was for that reason, says the Times, that this year the university ordered The Vagina Monologues to be “performed in a classroom, not a theater, by a group that was not allowed to sell tickets to raise money for women’s groups as it once had.”
The students gathering the petitions fear that more restrictions are in store for next year. In his speech, Jenkins also stated, “Precisely because academic freedom is such a sacred value, we must be clear about its appropriate limits. I do not believe that freedom of expression has absolute priority in every circumstance.” Of The Vagina Monologues, he stated that the play should be commended for trying to reduce violence against women, but that its “graphic descriptions” of various sexual experiences “stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to” the Church’s teaching “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.”
Not every Catholic college president agrees. The Times reports that of “the 612 American colleges that are staging the play from Feb. 1 to March 8, 35 are Catholic universities, one more than last year, according to V-Day, an anti-violence organization affiliated with the play.” United for Free Speech has gathered 3000 signatures so far in its effort to keep Notre Dame on that list.
United for Free Speech was not alone in its opposition to Fr. Jenkins. Ed Manier, a professor of philosophy and graduate of Notre Dame, told the Times, “Practicing Catholics do not hold exactly the same beliefs about how the faith needs to be translated into the public sector, matters of law or even into issues as serious as moral development of children.” Fr. Kevin Wildes, S.J., president of Loyola University New Orleans weighed in as well: “To exclude the play from a Catholic campus is to say either that these women are wrong or that their experience has nothing important to say to us. I would argue that these are voices that a Catholic university must listen to if we are to understand human experience and if we are to be faithful to the one who welcomed all men and women.”
The Times even managed to get a quote to suit its purposes out of former Notre Dame president, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who, though retired for many years now, still maintains an office on campus. Hesburgh did not come out directly against Jenkins’ decision about the play, but told the Times, “I think the real test of a great university is that you are fair to the opposition and that you get their point of view out there. You engage them. You want to get the students’ minds working. You don’t want mindless Catholics. You want intelligent, successful Catholics.”
Hard to quarrel with that. Who does not want intelligent, successful Catholics? What educator would want to be unfair to the opposition, or would not want to get his students' minds working? But what about providing them with occasions of sin? There are such things.
Look, it is true: Catholic university students should be introduced to the work of the secular scholars who openly attack the Church’s teachings. Educated Catholics who will be engaged in the arena of ideas need to possess an accurate understanding of the writings of Marx and Freud, Nietzsche and Sartre, the logical positivists and moral relativists, the radical feminists and the deconstructionists who promote the homosexual agenda. If they do not, they will not know how to defend their beliefs. Their faith will be placed in jeopardy.
But the ideas of the secular humanists should be presented by a Catholic college in a setting that makes clear why the Church holds them to be in error (yes, Fr. Wildes, why they are “wrong”), one which provides a rich and full introduction to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman and Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson and Orestes Browning, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis, as a counterweight to the attacks on the Faith.
Perhaps that is what is taking place at Notre Dame and Loyola these days. But I can’t help but think that students concerned about gay bashing and cruelty toward homosexuals, who were familiar with the richness of the Catholic Tradition, would have come up with t-shirts emblazoned with something about lost sheep and the prodigal son, or hating the sin but loving the sinner, rather than “Gay? Fine by me.” If the years they spent at a Catholic college led them to embrace the principles of the homosexual revolution which openly defines itself by its opposition to the Church’s teachings on sexual morality something is seriously out of kilter.
Obviously, a Catholic college has no way of guaranteeing that its students will graduate with a commitment to Jesus and the Church. But it should be in pursuit of that goal. Catholicism should not be offered by a Catholic university as some alternative lifestyle in an intellectual smorgasbord. That is what secular and public universities do (when they are not actively attacking the legacy of the Christian West).
Nicholas Matich, the politics editor of The Irish Rover, a conservative student newspaper at Notre Dame, has it right. He told the Times reporter, “The Vagina Monologues is performed everywhere else in the academic world. It doesn’t mean Notre Dame should do it, too. We have our own measures of what’s good and what’s right.”
If a Catholic college is embarrassed by the notion that there is a Deposit of the Faith that it must defend and extend, then it should not call itself Catholic.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)