By Malcolm Lazin
I am the Executive Producer of “Saint of 9/11,” a documentary about Father Mychal Judge, Chaplain, FDNY. Father Judge was a gay priest who died ministering to victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. “Saint of 9/11” will have its world premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.
“Saint of 9/11” was to be screened at the Notre Dame gay and lesbian film festival. But instead of the documentary being promoted as part of the festival as represented, “Saint of 9/11” was repositioned to screen prior to the start of the festival for film students, faculty and their friends.
Flyers for “Saint of 9/11” posted on campus were promptly removed. Scant notice was provided to film students. Ten people attended the screening. Most stated that “Saint of 9/11” should have been the centerpiece of the festival.
In a major address to the campus community last month, Notre Dame’s new President Father John Jenkins questioned whether staging “The Vagina Monologues” and holding a gay and lesbian film festival implied endorsements of values that conflict with Catholic teaching. Father Jenkins likened the film festival to endorsing an anti-Semitic passion play, infanticide, euthanasia and nuclear holocaust. Father Jenkins will make a decision this spring about future productions of the play and the film festival.
In February 2005, Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend wrote a letter to the South Bend Tribune in which he called the Queer Film Festival an “abuse of academic freedom.” Despite that criticism, former University President Father Edward Malloy did not interfere with either the Queer Film Festival or “The Vagina Monologues.”
In fall 2005, the new administration mandated organizers of the Queer Film Festival to change its name to “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships” and required “The Vagina Monologues,” which had previously been produced in a Notre Dame theater, to be presented in a classroom. The production was not allowed to sell tickets to raise funds for a women’s group.
In early February 2006, Father Jenkins and Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees visited the Vatican, where Father Jenkins met with Pope Benedict XVI. According to the official Notre Dame newspaper, “the event marks Jenkins’ first big trip as University President and a new era in Notre Dame-Vatican relations.”
Academic independence for Catholic universities was bolstered over 30 years ago by Pope Paul VI. That Pontiff called on then Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh to protect academic freedom. With Papal support, Father Hesburgh and others rewrote the constitution of the International Federation of Catholic Universities to make Catholic universities more independent.
This relationship between the Vatican and Catholic universities continued under Pope John Paul II. The prior Holy Father believed that Catholic universities served as an intermediary to sometimes opposing voices and a primary place for mutually beneficial conversation. Pope John Paul II recognized Catholic universities as an important facilitator of dialogue between the Church and the wider culture by which both were enriched.
This month, 42 Notre Dame faculty wrote Father Jenkins about their concern that his address contributed to a climate of hostility to gays and lesbians. The 42 faculty members including three Department Chairs, 20 Professors and two Professors Emeritus called on President Jenkins for a public apology.
While academic freedom in Catholic universities is at stake, so are the best interests of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic universities nourish the church by providing open discourse and cultural engagement. To bridle academic freedom or foster the chilling effect of that perception diminishes Notre Dame’s stature and undermines the university’s contribution to the church.
In the Feb. 18, 2006, edition of The New York Times, Father Hesburgh noted that a modern university had to face the crucial issues of the times. The former Notre Dame President stated, “You want to get students’ minds working. You don’t want mindless Catholics. You want intelligent, successful Catholics.”
I am certain that Father Mychal Judge would concur.