‘What the Mandatum Asks Is Not Controversial’

Change is afoot at Notre Dame — and not just on the gridiron, where the team’s improvement over a year ago was so dramatic that Charlie Weis was named, in just his first year here, college coach of the year by the Football Writers Association of America.

The Fighting Irish in 2005 got a new president, too — Holy Cross Father John Jenkins.

Inaugurated in September, Father Jenkins is just the third president in 53 years of the most visible Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. He is a philosopher with multiple degrees in that field and an expert on St. Thomas Aquinas. He spoke with Register correspondent (and fellow Omaha, Neb., native) Anthony Flott on the Notre Dame campus.

When did you first hear the call to be a priest?

It was after I graduated from Notre Dame. I had thought about it off and on before. I think when you graduate, you start thinking about what you’re going to do with your life in a more focused way. At that time the question coalesced for me around — it may be a very dramatic way to put it, but it did — “What would I be wiling to die for?” I entered the seminary about a year after that.

What first attracted you to philosophy, especially ancient and medieval philosophy?

I’ve always been interested in the sort of profound questions that philosophy at its best asks and tries to address. Questions about God, about the nature of the human person, about right and wrong, good and bad — about what exists and why it exists. Questions about truth. About ancient and medieval philosophy. I find that tradition important in forming sort of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

What’s the attraction to Aquinas?

He’s formative for the Catholic tradition on these issues that interested me. His reflections on God are among the most profound that I’ve run across, his understanding of how reason and faith work together in harmonious fashion. He’s just a thinker of the highest quality.

Notre Dame has been called “the place where the Church does its thinking.” Is that true?

I think the Catholic university is where the Church does its thinking. Universities are places that encourage inquiry, thought and debate. Catholic universities, Notre Dame in particular, is a place guided by key doctrines of Catholicism, and so it is a place where those doctrines and traditions are engaged … on the pressing problems of the age, the important intellectual issues we face. In that respect it is a place where, as a community, the Church does its thinking.

There are some who wonder if there’s reason for a “New Evangelization” at Notre Dame — and they don’t mean football.

I’m not sure I’ve heard them. What would their point be when they say that?

Given the appointment of a new president, they hope for possible changes.

In a way, any institution, as any individual, demands repeated, maybe constant, evangelization. I think to continue that evangelization, hearing the Gospel anew and responding to it anew, is part of the life of any Catholic institution and any individual Catholic.

Some are hoping that, under your presidency, “The Vagina Monologues” will not be presented at Notre Dame Feb. 14. But it’s my understanding that it will be staged this February, sponsored by the English and Sociology departments. Have you seen the presentation?

I have read it, but have not seen it performed. I will address that issue with the faculty, students and alumni. There are extremely important issues for any university community involved with that. One is academic freedom, and that is an essential value of any university. Universities should be places of debate, inquiry and discussion. People need to feel free to say what is on their mind and what they believe.

Notre Dame is a Catholic university. It has certain values that are a part of being a Catholic university. Those must be upheld.

What makes the performances you mentioned important is that they call us to think deeply about those issues. What I’m going to do is try to think about those issues and present my thoughts on it and invite this community to think about it. It’s only by engaging that that you can really be a place of thought and reflection.

On the other hand, you don’t want something that’s going to be fundamentally opposed to the principles at a Catholic university. The question, then, is where to draw that line appropriately.

Are American universities beacons of truth or, as some contend, has a fog dulled their light?

By and large I think they’re a great strength for this country. They’re always places of controversy, they’re always places that are sort of around the edge with regard to social discussions.

There were controversies in Catholic academia in Aquinas’ time.

Oh, absolutely. There were several controversies. One was the appointment of a Dominican to a chair at the university; the Pope had to intervene. There were subsequent controversies about the works of Aristotle and the role [of his thought] in the curriculum. There were subsequent controversies about the nature of the soul that were quite heated. There were just controversies after controversies in the universities.

What do you think would be Thomas Aquinas’ take on Ex Corde Ecclesiae?

Well, there are two things here. There’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which is a great encyclical and a great statement of the character of a Catholic university. And then there’s the mandatum, which all the controversy is about. I think the controversy … has generated much more heat than light. On one hand, if a person is a Catholic theologian, that person inevitably has a relationship to the bishop.

I think what the mandatum asks of Catholic theologians is not controversial: Present Catholic doctrine in an accurate way. That’s not tremendously difficult. I hope they’d do that. I will say at Notre Dame it just was wholly unproblematic. Well, not wholly. I should say a few Catholic theologians protested it, but they were pretty clearly a minority. And the bishop handled it in a very equitable fashion.

What percentage of Notre Dame’s theological faculty have signed the mandatum?

You know, only the bishop knows that.

What is your primary goal for Notre Dame?

I want Notre Dame to be a university that is Catholic in the richest sense of the word, that enjoys the benefits of [the Catholic] tradition and the life of faith. I want this to be a truly great university that gives unsurpassed undergraduate education and conducts inquiring research at the highest level.

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.