Monday, February 14, 2005

Academic Freedom in a Catholic World

There's a controversy concerning one of our greatest Universities, Notre Dame, the Catholic Church, and, well, Queer Film. Seems the school sponsors a festival of gay and lesbian film, and it is was successfully shown this weekend, February 10-12. It was started a year ago by then gay Senior Liam Dacey, who now runs the festival after having graduated, and it appears he is getting a great deal of support from students, faculty and the Administration. Dacey's aim has all along been to foster understanding about a misunderstood and discriminated against minority in our society, gays and lesbians, and he speaks as one who has struggled with his sexuality while attending a school run by the Catholic Church, and held up as a moral beacon in our country (from the Notre Dame/St. Mary's campus newspaper, the Observer):
"We think that a film festival is a good medium to bring the entire community together. This type of festival - not just for gay and lesbian people to enjoy, but for students, alumni and members of the community - is a way to bring in award-winning filmmakers, directors, and writers," said Notre Dame graduate Liam Dacey, director of operations and co-founder of the festival as a senior film major last year. "And it's a good way to create tolerance and acceptance of all kinds of people at Notre Dame."

Last year's festival spawned many angry letters, both to The Observer and to the festival committee itself. Thus far, this year's festival has not been protested. Dacey said.

"I think that because we've done everything in such a positive way, we haven't had any protests," Dacey said. "We don't expect any this year either, I think it's just credit to the way we've gone about it."

Seems like a sincere man, don't you think?

Notre Dame has not always been so tolerant, but I suppose overall they have a pride in the kinder approach that resides within religion. Sure, the grotto on campus is likely more full of candles burning before a big game, but I don't doubt there are candles burning there year-round representating the prayers and hopes of students for their loved ones, and yes, gay and lesbian loved ones. I imagine there have been many young men and women who have discovered they were homosexual while attending Notre Dame, or even as faculty members. No, I am certain of it because I have met some. I also imagine there is a strong support group developed over the last 25 years for those members of the Notre Dame community who are conflicted about their faith and their most basic desires. This film festival surely is well-intended, to educate all about being gay and lesbian in a world where they are used as pawns in elections, if not seen outright as objects of hate.

So far a nice picture, but in steps the local Diocese, in the person of Bishop John D'Arcy:
D'Arcy, who presides over the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter to the South Bend Tribune stating the festival was "an abuse of academic freedom" and a violation of rights.

According to D'Arcy, the festival's organizers are at fault for not devoting enough focus to the Church's opinions.

"In this seminar, held at a Catholic university, there is no place given to the presentation of Catholic teaching on the matter of homosexuality," he wrote. "The rights of others are violated."

In addition to homosexuals, who D'Arcy said are wronged by not receiving the Church's actual teachings on homosexuality at the festival, the Church and parents are also wronged, he said.

"What about the rights of the church to have its teachings properly presented?" he wrote. "What about the rights of parents of those students at Notre Dame who find the contents of this seminar offensive?"

First, Bishop D'Arcy's message does not address any notion of "love," but instead addresses a subject he apparently knows little about, academic freedom. Once upon a time, when Bishops and Cardinals and Popes attacked the scholarship of Copernicus and Gallileo, the words about freedom in academia were not just words, but were the threat of pain and torture, and I see this as only a matter of degree. For what Bishop D'Arcy calls for, a representation of church teachings, is available to every Notre Dame and St. Mary's student and faculty every single day in the Chapels on campus, from the Priests and Nuns who teach there, from theology courses, and from student groups. As such, his pleading is empty, especially when we note that there is little in the way of protest among students and faculty. Here's one student:
"I don't really understand the point of the festival other than that it is a themed series that explores a poorly-understood and highly-discriminated portion of our population," said senior Joanna Cornwell. "I don't understand why such a series would be so controversial. It appears they are just showing films."

What is amazing to me, given my knowledge of the past at this school, which knowledge I will not detail here, is that the protests are so silent and that the students, faculty and Administration so supportive. Would that the Diocesan Bishop could follow their lead in the love and understanding they show. Certainly the most important and promising words can be found in Mr. Dacey's message to open this year's festival:
It seems like just yesterday when we were celebrating the success of the first ever Notre Dame Queer Film Festival. That weekend was truly magical for all who were involved; never before have I felt so much camaraderie, joy, and love. It was my favorite moment in my four years at Notre Dame. For many of us, Father Hesburgh's blessing on the last day of the festival was a life-altering event. For me, the success of the 2004 Notre Dame Queer Film Festival reaffirmed my faith in a University I nearly transferred from during my sophomore year.

Yes, that's THE Father Hesburgh, the legendary President of the school. Perhaps at least this university, the most important Catholic school in the nation, is finally getting it right. I salute Father Hesburgh and a campus that seems to be getting it right, despite the words of a meddling Bishop.