Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom

The importance of academic freedom in a university is unquestioned, but so, too, is the acknowledgement that it is not absolute.

[A]ny appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission. (Pope Benedict, XVI, May 2008.)

Notre Dame’s formal statement respecting academic freedom and freedom of expression reflects the university’s Catholic character in declaring that the exercise of these rights is to be “consistent with the objectives of the University as a community that… lives in the tradition of Christian belief.” But Father Jenkins’s decision that The Vagina Monologues passes that test shows that this qualification means very little. That is what is to be expected in a school in which Catholic faculty no longer are a determining force.

While few question the central importance of academic freedom to the mission of a university, competing views of precisely what that term means have bedeviled higher education for a very long time. Current reports of disputes on campuses, mostly the product of relentless calls for political correctness, are legion.  The banning or “words that cause emotional distress” illustrates this phenomenon.“

The Vagina Monologues controversy, thus, was of a genus common to all universities, though of a species unique to those claiming a religious identity. There have been a number of recent studies of the role, actual and ideal, of academic freedom in Christian, often including Catholic, universities, some of which we have collected in our Resources section for those interested in examining the issue in depth.

We do not do so here, for we think the issue is simple enough to make elaborate analysis needless. The Vagina Monologues’ unrelenting exaltation of illicit sex is so hostile in its substance to Catholic doctrine and tradition and so scornful in its style of Catholic, indeed of civilized, sensibility that learned discussion and textual dissection seem quite beside the point. What is called to mind, rather, is Mr. Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum respecting the difficulty of defining obscenity. However complex that task, he said, “I know it when I see it.” Jacobelli v. United States, 378 U.S. 184, 197.

Father Jenkins’s approval of the play is an important marker.  In his talk to the faculty, he said the dispute presented a “test” of his views on academic freedom and its relation to Catholic identity. It is now hard to visualize any circumstances in which protection of Catholic identity would trump academic freedom. An event would have to evince even more hostility to the “tradition of Christian belief,” in the words of the school’s declared principles of academic freedom, than does The Vagina Monologues to run any risk of disapproval. No wonder, then, that Father Jenkins remarked that he “did not expect” ever to face “this sort of expression.”

The disconnect between Father Jenkins’s action and his elaboration of the governing principles underscore the significance of this case. He said that he would “suppress”” expression “that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of the University,” but would “welcome” “any serious debate on any thoughtful position” “as long as the Gospel message and the Catholic intellectual tradition are appropriately represented.”

These sensible-sounding principles disappeared in their application. Surely the play can’t be thought of a “serious debate” on a “thoughtful position,” to put it conservatively. There is here presented no question of interdicting classroom study of the play, should that for some reason be thought worthwhile, nor of foreclosing a scholarly debate respecting the morality of, say, homosexual intercourse or masturbation (although the promotion of seduction of minors or sadism would seem to raise a question of a different order no matter how imposing the academic credentials of the proponents or the vigor of the opposition).

No impediment to academic freedom in any serious sense, that is, is implicated. What is implicated, in striking fashion, is “an overt and insistent” expression of “contempt for the values and sensibilities of the University.” Surely Father Jenkins could not have meant that anything and everything gets a free pass as long as it does not have affixed a prominent and explicit “anti-Catholic” label. And so far as “sensibilities” are concerned, in a discussion with faculty Father Jenkins himself noted that “groups of both women and men feel ‘offended and alienated by the play’” as “an affront to Catholicism.” As well they should. (For this and other interesting interchanges between Father Jenkins and faculty members in which Father Jenkins defended his initial doubts about permitting the play’s performances, see the February 3, 2006 issue of The Observer.)

The short of it is that The Vagina Monologues decision shows that in practice the claims of academic freedom are to be more honored than the claims of Catholic identity. No different result should be expected in a school in which Catholic faculty no longer dominate.