Panel Discussions

The Effectiveness of Panel Discussions

Illuminating relevant Catholic doctrine and tradition in relation to The Vagina Monologues?

In his Closing Statement, Father Jenkins referred to the faculty panels that were charged with the task of illuminating relevant Catholic doctrine and tradition in relation to The Vagina Monologues. Detailed accounts of these presentations were published in the February 14, February 15, and February 16, 2006 issues of The Observer. Bishop D’Arcy, having read these accounts, concluded it was simply “not true” that “Catholic teaching and culture” were “fully and fairly represented in these discussions.” His conclusion is amply supported by the reports.

Three panelists discussed the play after each of its three performances. So far as appears, only one of the panelists on one of the evenings underscored the collision between play and Church and examined the conflict in the light of a thorough and uncompromising explanation of relevant Church doctrine and tradition. The other six panelists praised the play and, as a group, appear to have devoted most of their attention to the play’s minor theme of violence to women. Their comments ranged widely over terrain untouched in the few, brief passages in the play, including matters such as “how the culture inside the Church can be violent,” “the worldwide delay in affording the right to vote,” and “unequal economic distribution.” As to the sexual issues, what these panelists had to say arguably made matters worse rather than better, and, in any event, inarguably did not amount to a “full and fair” representation of Church teaching. While the reports do not, of course, cover all that was said, what is reported makes it very unlikely that unreported remarks materially changed the general picture outlined in The Observer.

Here’s a summary of what happened

The organizer of the panels opened in surprising fashion by saying that it was “not the purpose of the panels” to discuss “the values, or lack of values of ‘The Vagina Monologues.’” It does seem doubtful that any panelist would have taken this seriously; but it is certainly true, nonetheless, that, except for one panelist, scant praise, if any, was accorded the Catholic values implicated by the play’s adulation of sexual gratification. The first panelist set the tone by opening this way, according to The Observer:

“While she presented the Church’s point of view, [she]… made her opinion perfectly clear by slapping the heavy ‘Documents of Vatican II’ volume onto the table. ‘This is theology, as good as it gets,’ [she] said, provoking a few laughs. ‘Now that we have Catholic theology here, let me say what I have to say.’”

While nothing would have been gained had she opened the Documents, since they contain little if anything relating to the moral issues at hand, she did report that Bishop D’Arcy thought the play promoted “masturbation, abortion [sic], lesbianism, and seduction of an underage girl.” But then she “said what she had to say.” Rather than explaining the Church’s position on these issues, much less signaling agreement with the Church and the Bishop, she bypassed the issue by asserting that “’it’s possible” not to read the play this way.’” Then she took a further step by charging that people who do so read it – perhaps forgetting for the moment that she had just noted that the Bishop read it precisely “this way” — are guilty of a “malicious interpretation.”

The second panelist declared that the play is not about a set of theological doctrines but rather about “women’s feelings of embodiment” and that it bore comparison with St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which “Augustine places all of his experiences, good and bad, before God.” (There is no indication whether she noted that St. Augustine grieved for his sins whereas the monologists reveled in theirs.) The third panelist devoted all of her time, it appears, to the violence issue.

The second evening saw the only extended and unconditional explanation of the Church’s views. Father Paulinus Odozor, the sole priest panelist, declaring that the play’s “’one-sided propaganda…cannot go unchallenged in a Catholic university,’” did just that. But then another theology professor, while saying that she, too, “would like to challenge the views of the play,” found that “the play challenges me to think about how we got there.” Since she evidently did not undertake to explain how the Church did get there, the audience was presumably left at large. The third panelist had nothing to say on the matter, so far as appears.

There was no one taking Father Odozor’s role on the third night any more than on the first. While two of the three panelists did discuss the sexual issues, their remarks hardly amounted to a rigorous examination of the Church’s views in relation to the play’s. One of the panelists, again, avoided the problem by characterizing the play as “an artistic performance” rather than as “an answer to moral issues.” Still, evidently recognizing some form of moral conflict, she “expressed confidence that the two views could find some areas of mutual understanding.” If she explained what those areas might be, that explanation was not reported. The final panelist, while evidently not trying to minimize the problem by viewing the play as a work of art devoid of message, did echo the “mutual understanding” theme by stating her “hope” that “the Catholic Church can be open to listening to views such as those presented in ‘The Vagina Monologues.’” This did not, however, introduce a discussion as to exactly what the Church might hear and how it would respond, so that the audience evidently was left with only this hope that the Church be more “open.” Nor was it perhaps clear how the play might help satisfy, rather than aggravate, the complaint of another panelist that the student dorms were “awash in pornography.”

These, then, were the panel discussions that were supposed to constitute, as Father Jenkins put it, a “serious and informed discussion” involving the “presenta[tion] of Catholic teaching on sexual morality.”