The Vagina Monologues
The unyielding and successful insistence of the faculty that Father Jenkins approve The Vagina Monologues is strong evidence of loss of Catholic sensibility.
Over the past decade Notre Dame has become The Vagina Monologues’ poster school. As Dr. Lawrence Cunningham, a former chair of the Theology faculty, has lamented, the Vagina Monologues “has become a kind of code word to identity Notre Dame.” He does not exaggerate. In a Wall Street Journal feature interview of April 12, 2008, “Rev. John J. Jenkins, Catholicism, Inc.,” Naomi Riley Smith reported:
Father Jenkins recently made headlines with his decision to allow the college to sponsor a performance of Eve Ensler’s ‘Vagina Monologues” during the week leading up to Easter. He is not the first Catholic college president to accede to campus demands for this play, but his nod of approval is deeply symbolic.
Similarly, in a “must read” examination of this and related issues in a Catholic World Report cover article, “Father Jenkins’ ‘Creative Contextualization,’” the noted scholar and author (and Notre Dame graduate) Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs observed:
At Notre Dame, the furor over The Vagina Monologues…has been more heated than at any other Catholic institution, perhaps because so few Catholic institutions allow such performances.
These reverberations suggest that the issue involves a good deal more than speculation as to what adverse consequences might result from the performance of a single play, no matter how repellent in tone and hostile to Church teaching. And indeed it does. The importance of this issue arises from four considerations unrelated to debates about whether this play’s performance might cause harm on campus:
- First, the intense faculty opposition to Father Jenkins’s initial disposition to withhold approval of a play so antagonistic to fundamental Catholic principles has revealed a decree of secularization hitherto unsuspected by many outside university precincts.
- Second, Father Jenkins’s reversal of his initial disposition in the face of faculty opposition raises for many a question as to how he will deal with even stronger faculty opposition on the much more important issue of faculty hiring.
- Third, by “having turned a…tawdry piece of mediocre art into a defining litmus test for academic freedom and issues of Catholic identity,” as Dr. Hibbs has put it, Father Jenkins has set a precedent under which it is hard to imagine any realistic limits.
- Finally, Father Jenkins’s dismissal of Bishop John M. D’Arcy’s repeated and considered objections opened a breach with the Church that was widened by last year’s cancellation by fifty bishops of a campus conference on account of the play – an event we describe below – and has now reached truly fearsome proportions because of the University’s honoring of President Obama.
Here is what has happened during the course of this controversy:
Although this play is performed annually on the campuses of hundreds of secular colleges and universities, it has gained little traction at Catholic institutions, as Dr. Hibbs noted. The small group of Catholic institutions hosting the play peaked at 32 out of about 230, and it has shrunk to but 15 as criticism has mounted.
In 2003, for example, the Rev. David Tyson, C.S.C., now the C.S.C. Provincial for the Indiana Province and then President of the University of Portland, declared, “In conscience, I cannot approve of [the play’s] performance on campus.” And recently the President of Catholic University, the Very Reverend David O’Connell, C.M., characterized the play “as a symbol each year of the desire of some folks to push Catholic campuses over the edge of good and decent judgment,” and declared, “Sooner or later, someone has got to simply say ‘enough.’” For more detail, see The Vagina Monologues on Catholic Campuses, and for extensive coverage, see The Cardinal Newman Society.
The reason for this resistance to the play is evident from its text. While the play’s full measure can be taken only by reading it in its entirety, we have provided a summary in Description of The Vagina Monologues. Most of the monologues of any length are extraordinarily explicit accounts by women of highly charged sexual episodes, typically but not exclusively lesbian intercourse (including seduction of a minor) and masturbation. Perhaps the most telling testimony to the play’s character and intended effect comes from the author herself, who, on the first page of her introduction to the 2001 edition, boasted of having experienced “thirty-two public orgasms a night” while performing the roles.
In short, the play is, and is plainly intended to be, a celebration of the joys of sexual gratification through actions gravely immoral in the eyes of the Church.
To be sure, not everyone reads the play this way. For example, a Notre Dame professor, writing in the May 8, 2006 issue of the Jesuit magazine America, declared that the “overarching goal” of the play is the “combating of violence against women.” This is the theme of the play’s apologists. But it is a transparent fiction. No disinterested viewer would be able to subordinate the ubiquitous sex scenes to the relatively few devoted to violence. Strip the play of its sex scenes and little remains.
Notwithstanding protests, the play was performed by Notre Dame students on campus annually during the four years preceding Father Jenkins’s presidency. At first, it seemed that his accession would mark the end of the play. In impressive January 2006 addresses to faculty and students, Father Jenkins explained why he thought continued sponsorship of the play was “problematic.” The play, he said, “contains graphic descriptions of homosexual, extra-marital heterosexual, and autoerotic experiences,” and “even depiction of seduction of a sixteen year-old girl by an adult woman,” in “portrayals [that] stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, the view that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage….” Moreover, he said, “the repeated performances of the play and the publicity surrounding it” suggested endorsement, or at least neutrality, by the University respecting these themes of the play.
Still, he concluded, he would not decide finally until all had had an opportunity to respond. There ensued months of intense debate on campus together with a barrage of alumni mail. This played out against the background of a lengthy statement by Bishop John M. D ‘Arcy deploring Notre Dame’s prior sanctioning of the play. What stood out was ardent faculty support for a policy of academic freedom so sweeping as to compel authorization of the Vagina Monologues and whatever else might fall within the emanations of such a precedent. See Notre Dame Voices.
In the wake of this protest, Father Jenkins changed his mind. In his April Closing Statement, while expressly reaffirming his view that the play “stands in opposition to Catholic teaching on human sexuality,” Father Jenkins decided that its performance was an acceptable exercise of academic freedom. This decision triggered expressions of surprise and dismay by Bishop D’Arcy, prominent faculty members, and Catholic commentators, though of course it brought relief and satisfaction to the large and vocal faculty element whose insistent claims had been satisfied.
The following year the student organizers, having gotten a late start, decided to produce the play off campus. But this respite was short-lived. Two years ago the play, sponsored by three departments, was again approved and performed. Before describing what happened at the performances, we recount briefly an earlier, startling event that is described in detail in our Newsletter of February 10, 2008.
Dr. Hibbs summarizes:
Tensions over The Vagina Monologues between the Notre Dame administration and the US bishops heated up last winter. Bishop D’Arcy has been a consistent, clear, and charitable critic of Father Jenkins’ decision to allow the play…. Then, last February, the bishops’ committee on doctrine, scheduled to meet on campus, moved its meeting off campus and decided not to stay at Notre Dame’s Morris Inn because of the disagreement.
He concluded, “The Vagina Monologues may be symptomatic of “an alienation of Catholic universities from the Church that is deeper than either its fondest defenders or its most adamant critics have yet been able to fathom.”
Detailed accounts were published in The Irish Rover and The South Bend Tribune, and major articles appeared in the two leading national publications Our Sunday Visitor and The National Catholic Register.
Bishop D’Arcy denounced Father Jenkins’s decision once again.
Preparations for the play continued. The play’s organizers, in selecting performance dates, were careful to avoid objection from still another quarter – parents. In a comment notable for both its candor and its colossal understatement, the Chair of a sponsoring department “noted how Junior Parents’ Weekend might be a bad weekend to have the play because ‘some parents might be offended or upset.’”
It is what happened during the performances, however, that is of most interest. We recounted the events in detail in our letter of July 10, 2008 to Father Jenkins. As we noted there, while Father Jenkins from the outset recognized the meretricious nature of the play, he approved it nonetheless on condition that the play be “brought into dialogue with Catholic tradition through panels” following each performance. Through “serious and informed discussion” of the moral issues, he declared, there could be “creative contextualization” of the play and a “constructive and fruitful dialogue with the Catholic tradition” in an “academic setting.”
But as a practical matter there was no such dialogue during the play’s three 2008 performances . The auditorium was filled to its 450-person capacity on two of the evenings and almost so on the third, but when the play ended and the panels were to begin most of the students headed for the exits. Only 60-80 were left, including cast members. To the extent there was the “serious and informed discussion” anticipated by Father Jenkins, it was directed at a largely emptied, cavernous hall. Moreover, the message to the few students who did not shun the panel discussions was that the Church’s view on the moral issues involved was simply one choice among several held by faculty members.
For example, a Notre Dame theology professor spoke dismissively of the “narrow” view of the Church that had been explained clearly and compellingly by Lisa Everettt, a Diocesan representative (and Notre Dame graduate). This was to be expected. The play is an encomium to homosexual and lesbian sex, and the professor has written in opposition to the Church’s position on that issue. “Homoeroticism,” she has declared, “is seen as wrong or unnatural because it interferes with, violates, the superior status of men.” Turning to Notre Dame, she has charged that its “administration has chosen to maintain homophobia and the rule of the fathers.” Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Common Sense,” March 1997.
Dr. Hibbs, recounting these events, concluded, “Jenkins’ hope for ‘creative contextualization has failed….Not only is the Church’s position a minority voice on panels purportedly designed to supply a Catholic commentary on the play, but the very idea of an academic setting has been publicly mocked by the fact that so few students are present for the panel discussions.”
Last year, whether some faculty discouraged students from producing the play because of the drumbeat of criticism or for some other reason, the play was not produced. Perhaps most of its student promoters graduated. Some perhaps turned their attention to another student production, “Loyal Sons & Daughters,” which we will describe in a future bulletin. It is scarcely a good trade. It is so objectionable that, though he had encouraged its composition, Father Jenkins declined to sponsor it once he saw it, even while the committee he chaired promoted it.
This respite, likely temporary, is fundamentally inconsequential. What is of lasting importance is what this sorry episode teaches about the Catholic identity of the University. The resolute resistance of the faculty to any suggestion that the play be barred from campus and the consequent acquiescence of Father Jenkins are symptoms of the secularization that has been produced by the weakening of the Catholic presence on the faculty.