How we can use the Main Building to proclaim our Catholic identity
On January 20, 2019, Fr. John Jenkins announced a decision regarding the Luigi Gregori murals that portray scenes from the life of Christopher Columbus and that have, for well over a century, decorated the ceremonial entrance to “the Dome,” the University’s Main Building. Readers of The Rover are, no doubt, familiar with the decision and aware of the fact that it has been welcomed in some quarters and criticized in others.
How should we think about this decision and its coming implementation?
First, it is crucial that decisions about the murals, the Main Building space, and, indeed, everything else at Notre Dame be regarded as decisions about how to express, deepen, and advance—in an authentic and inviting way—the University’s Catholic character and mission. These are not, and must never be, merely matters of “heritage,” marketing, or alumni-maintenance. Our distinctive project of being a great Catholic research university—and, as such, a “powerful force for good”—is what makes the Notre Dame experiment interesting and important. Some have expressed concern that the decision to cover the murals represents a defensive, apologetic retreat from this project. It must not be.
Second, some have connected the debate about the murals with the broader argument about free expression, civil discourse, ideological conformity, and political correctness on campuses. It is reasonable to worry that the climate on our campuses and in our communities is unfavorable to wide-ranging discussion, free-wheeling debate, unpopular opinions, and challenging ideas. Fr. Jenkins insisted, in his September 18, 2018 address to the faculty, on the importance of making “sure that a broad range of views are represented on campus” and said he was “proud of the fact that Notre Dame has hosted controversial speakers, left and right.” An excessive urge to tear down or defenestrate all historical figures whose failings have become more clear to us, the mistaken turn to the language of “safety” and “violence” to describe encounters with moral and policy disagreements, an aggressive application of the “hermeneutic of suspicion” to our interlocutors, and the temptation to reduce others’ positions to self-interested emanations of their identities or to tactics for maintaining privilege should be resisted.
Relatedly, it is important not to conflate the question of the murals’ continued display in the Main Building with questions about the nature and content of academic freedom. The boundaries of academic freedom are debated, of course, but this is an easy case: no scholar’s ability to study and write about the murals should be curtailed in any way. That the murals’ merits and meaning may and should be freely discussed, debated, and engaged does not mean that they must continue to be displayed in a particular place. The decision about the murals’ display is not a decision about what may be said at the University; it is about what should be said by the University.
Next, it seems reasonable to distinguish between, on the one hand, the murals in the Main Building and, on the other, public Confederate memorials or the official display of the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s army. As Fr. Jenkins made clear, the Gregori murals were commissioned to combat very real anti-Catholic prejudice and discrimination, and their intended message was not to commemorate the subjugation and enslavement of indigenous persons but instead to stake Catholics’ claim to a place in the history, present, and future of the United States. Many public Confederate symbols and statues were designed to express resistance to the Reconstruction Amendments, to affirm the racist ideology animating the “Jim Crow” regime, or to oppose desegregation decisions and civil-rights legislation.
Finally, it is not an option for Our Lady’s University to regret the coming of Christianity to the Americas. The Great Commission of Jesus—“Going therefore, teach ye all nations”—was given, with full knowledge, to sinners. There is no avoiding the fact that the Gospel and the Faith have been proposed—and, sometimes, imposed—in ways that are unworthy of the Good News. And yet, it is the Good News. It is the Notre Dame’s calling and privilege to proclaim and bear witness, in a manner appropriate to a University, to the Christian proposal—including the Christian insistence on the radically equal dignity of every human person.
So—what next? The murals were intended to make a statement, and to convey a message, at a particular time, in a particular context, to particular audiences. It is not a retreat from or a repudiation of our Catholic character to conclude that, today, they are not succeeding at their task. It is not a matter of yielding to the “heckler’s veto” or to those who too quickly invoke offense as a justification for limiting inquiry and debate. Instead, a next step could be to ask, how do we use the instrument that is our beautiful Main Building to convey boldly that our Catholic university is called to heal, unify, and enlighten; that Catholics have a right to enter and to participate, authentically and with integrity, in the public square; and that Catholic teachings about human nature and dignity provide a more-sure foundation than cost-benefit analysis, radical individualism, or tribal politics for sound policies that serve the common good? We might decide to speak—and, as we did in the 1880s, to proclaim our message to a cultural context that is clouded by increasing anti-Catholicism—through images of Katharine Drexel, Dorothy Day, and Elizabeth Ann Seton. And also of Bartolome de las Casas.
Professor Richard W. Garnett is is an associate dean and professor of law at Notre Dame Law School. He teaches and writes about the freedoms of speech, association, and religion and constitutional law more generally. You can reach him at email@example.com.