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Father Jenkins’s “Creative Contextualization”

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NOTRE DAME, IN – Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs reflects on the fallout from and issues raised by Fr. Jenkins’s decision to keep The Vagina Monologues on campus.

In the cover article of the August/September issue of The Catholic World Report,Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs, Dean of the Honors College of Baylor University, provides an exceptionally insightful discussion of The Vagina Monologues episode. He brings to this subject impressive credentials. A Notre Dame graduate, Dr. Hibbs was Chair of the Philosophy Department at Boston College before assuming his present high position at Baylor. His many books and articles range from medieval philosophy to contemporary ethics and modern culture. He is a frequent radio commentator and speaker, and in the latter role he appeared at Notre Dame last year as a panelist in a discussion of the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, Boston College, and Baylor.

Dr. Hibbs’s analysis of The Vagina Monologues episode is comprehensive and compelling. He discusses the issues against the background of the secularization of the major Catholic universities, where faculty “have been hired on the basis of academic pedigree, with nothing more than lip service paid to hiring for the Catholic identity of the institution” and where “there is almost nothing distinctively Catholic about the curricula.” To faculty so constituted, he writes, “The very suggestion that [The Vagina Monologues] might not receive permission seems a peculiar holdover from the dark ages of medieval Catholicism.”

At Notre Dame, then, when Father Jenkins “turned what is – under the most charitable interpretation possible – a tawdry piece of mediocre art into a defining litmus test for academic freedom,” faculty opposition was inevitable.

Dr. Hibbs contrasts Father Jenkins’s accession to this faculty insistence with the contrary decision of the President of Providence College, Father Brian Shanley, O.P. Both “faced an early test of leadership with the issue of The Vagina Monologues,” and their “differences emerge most sharply in the reasoning each Thomist president brought to bear….Shanley allowed a much more detailed argument about the incompatibility of the play with Catholic teaching to inform his judgment….The denial of permission…Shanley admits, will likely spark controversy, but such disputes are an important part of education – something Father Shanley states that he has learned as a long-time student of Thomas Acquinas.”

After describing the pervasively pernicious aspects of the play that led to Father Shanley’s decision and that explain why “so few Catholic institutions now allow such performances,” Dr. Hibbs turns to Father Jenkins’s rationale for approving it: the “creative contextualization” he believed would emerge from an academic discussion of the pertinent moral issues in the context of the Church’s teaching.

Having earlier in the article recounted how the Monologues controversy had “spawned a very interesting new organization, Project Sycamore,” and describing our mission, Dr. Hibbs endorses our view “that the conditions under which Father Jenkins approved the play have not been upheld and that it is time to reconsider the matter.” He writes:

“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. This past spring, hundreds of students showed for the play itself, but very few – estimates are in the 20 percent range – remained for the discussion. Jenkins hope for ‘creative contextualization’ has failed.”

Dr. Hibbs closes with an account of how this controversy has disclosed a troubling disjuncture between University and Church:

“…[T]ensions 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…Then, last February, the bishops’ committee on doctrine…moved its meeting off campus and decided not to stay at Notre Dame’s Morris Inn because of the disagreement.” This is a jarring counter, Dr. Hibbs notes, to the oft- repeated boast that Notre Dame is “the place where the Church does its thinking.” Rather, it reinforces the worry of Dr. John Cavidini, the Chair of Notre Dame’s Theology Department, that the University is dealing with issues of this sort “in the absence of an indispensable conversation partner, namely, the Church.” Not merely “the Catholic intellectual tradition,” but “the concrete, visible” Church. In an observation the magazine’s editors drew upon in designing the cover page, Dr. Hibbs writes, “Substituting a ‘disincarnate, a-historical church of the mind’ for the ‘incarnate, historical body’ is a form of Gnosticism.”Given Notre Dame’s “fabulous wealth” and U.S. News ranking – “thebiblia sacra for administrators” – Dr. Hibbs says that it “remains to be seen…whether the persuasive powers of the bishops or…Project Sycamore will have any long-term impact.” But if not, “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.”

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