An interview with Rev. John Jenkins President of Notre Dame introduces some unintentional hilarity mixed with some wisdom. Regarding the Pope he says:
He is a person who could easily hold an endowed chair at Notre Dame."
Wow, imagine that. Maybe a corner office next to Dicky McBrien and tickets each year for the Vagina Monologue. Though the interview improves with:
Asked to speculate on what Pope Benedict might say, Father Jenkins tells me, "The greatest respect we can show him is to let him speak and then reflect." But the president, who himself has a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, says that the pope is "a subtle thinker [who] doesn’t think in slogans." Father Jenkins is worried that "people with various interests will pick out a line or a phrase," and misunderstand the pope’s message.
But then deteriorates when he says:
"The Newman society has no ecclesiastical standing and no academic standing," Father Jenkins says. "For me, it resembles nothing more than a political action committee."
While certainly these points are true, the real question is whether the Cardinal Newman Society is right in their critique or not and not their ecclesiastical or academic standing.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an encyclical whose provisions included a requirement that theologians teaching at Catholic schools receive a stamp of approval from the church (a "mandatum"), and that the campus environment should be supportive of a Catholic way of life.
Father Jenkins calls Ex Corde a "superb document" that he has read "many times." But most Catholic college leaders, including Father Jenkins, have not implemented it to the extent that they or others expected they would have to. The mandatum provision, for instance, was met at the time with outrage by college faculty and administrators, who found it to be an infringement on academic freedom. But since then, Father Jenkins explains, "positions softened a bit on that. Misunderstandings were eliminated."
The way the mandatum controversy was resolved is this: Local bishops give their approval to some theologians and not others. But no one besides the bishop and the theologian knows who has it. So Father Jenkins can claim total ignorance about which members of his own theology department are approved by the church.
Surely he must have a small statue of those famous monkeys on his desk. "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Or possible Sergeant Shultz has been appointed as the universities president "I see nothing!"
Other intellectual battles seem to have been resolved in the university’s favor as well. Despite the Vatican’s clear condemnation of liberation theology, a Marxist approach to Christianity, the doctrine is still proudly taught at Notre Dame.
Father Jenkins says the situation is not so clear cut: "Liberation theology is a label for a family of views and concerns . . . [a set of] theological reflections in light of certain social and economic conditions." In other words, no violent revolutionaries here.
Despite the large presence of liberal faculty members, Father Jenkins complains that in some circles, the school is not considered radical enough. People on the left say that "we’re too tied to the Republican party. We don’t advocate enough for women’s ordination. You name the socially divisive issue and we’re criticized that we’re not on the front on [it]." And it is true that on the spectrum of Catholic universities, Notre Dame is considered somewhat middle of the road – still less radical than its Jesuit brethren like Georgetown, Fordham and Boston College.
While I think Notre Dame is moving in a positive direction, it often seems that this is largely the result of the students and not the faculty.