Dear Members of the Providence College Community:
Having spent my first six months trying to learn about the campus culture, I would like to inaugurate a series of letters reflecting on some of the most debated questions that I have heard discussed since I began my ministry as president. I begin with the question of what is the most appropriate way for the Providence College community to work together to prevent violence against women. Some people feel passionately that the college ought to sponsor a V-Day production of The Vagina Monologues, and I have often been queried about my position on this matter. To prepare a response, I have carefully read and studied the play. I have met with some of the student leaders of Women’s Will, the main sponsoring group, to listen to their perspective and share some of my concerns. I have pondered their position, discussed the matter with many people, educated myself about what other Catholic schools have done, and prayed to God for guidance. I have come to the conclusion that a V-Day presentation of The Vagina Monologues is not appropriate for a school with our mission. Let me explain why.
The back cover of my paperback edition of The Vagina Monologues asserts (1) that its principal aim is to be “a celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity and mystery” and (2) that it has been “hailed as a bible for a new generation of women.” I would argue that both of these claims are false. First, far from celebrating the complexity and mystery of female sexuality, The Vagina Monologues simplifies and demystifies it by reducing it to the vagina. In contrast, Roman Catholic teaching sees female sexuality as ordered toward a loving giving of self to another in a union of body, mind, and soul that is ordered to the procreation of new life. The deeper complexity and mystery lies in the capacity of human sexuality, both male and female, to sacramentalize the love of God in marriage. Any depiction of female sexuality that neglects its unitive and procreative dimensions diminishes its complexity, its mystery, and its dignity. Moreover, to explore fully the dignity of woman requires not only a consideration of female sexuality, but also of the capacity of women for intellectual, artistic, moral, and spiritual activity; none of these dimensions are featured in The Vagina Monologues.

Second, the description of the play as a “new bible” is an indication that its depiction of female sexuality is meant to displace the traditional Biblical view that inspires the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The two positions are deeply and diametrically opposed. Nowhere is this clearer than in a monologue wherein the alcohol-fueled seduction of a sixteen-year-old girl by a twenty-four-year-old woman is described as resulting in “salvation” and “a kind of heaven.” What is thus characterized in traditional religious language is instead abusive, demeaning, exploitative, and morally wrong according to the true Bible. Precisely because its depiction of female sexuality is so deeply at odds with the true meaning and morality that the Catholic Church’s teaching celebrates, The Vagina Monologues is not an appropriate play to be performed on our campus. Therefore the college will prohibit the production of The Vagina Monologues.

Doubtless some will reply that this is a violation of artistic freedom. But artistic freedom on a Catholic campus cannot mean the complete license to perform or display any work of art regardless of its intellectual or moral content. Any institution which sanctioned works of art that undermined its deepest values would be inauthentic, irresponsible, and ultimately self-destructive. At Providence College artistic freedom is governed by the values embodied in our mission statement. A Catholic college cannot sanction the performance of works of art that are inimical to the teaching of the Church in an area as important as female sexuality and the dignity of women.

This policy will inevitably raise questions regarding academic freedom. The true meaning of academic freedom is often misunderstood; it is not the license to hold any view that one chooses. Academic freedom is instead always governed by truth. It is the freedom to pursue the truth in a discipline in accord with the accepted canons of inquiry without any impediment by extraneous considerations. Prohibiting a theatrical production of The Vagina Monologues does not prohibit free inquiry about the play. All members of the campus are free to read, study, and discuss the play in various settings, especially the classroom. It is perfectly appropriate that we study texts that have diverse views in order both to broaden our understanding of others and to bring our own views into sharper focus. I fully expect that one result of this communication will be some controversy. As a long-time student of St. Thomas Aquinas, I think disputes are an important part of education, so long as they are conducted with charity. While arguments about intellectual positions help us to learn from each other, attacks on persons do not.

Instead of producing The Vagina Monologues, the best way for Providence College to work together to combat violence against women is to strengthen its commitment to support Project S.A.V.E. (Sexual Assault and Violence Education). Project S.A.V.E is a collaborative effort of many student groups to educate the campus about how to prevent violence against women and help survivors heal. The week-long effort will begin with a Mass on April 23rd to pray for victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence. It will continue with educational presentations, displays, and performances, and culminate with the annual Take Back The Night vigil and walk. The college’s administration will work directly with student leaders to make this week the centerpiece of our efforts to educate everyone about violence against women. I shall personally take part in events that week, and I encourage everyone in the community to play a role in making the week a success.

It is my hope and prayer that we can move beyond disagreement on the merits of a particular text and work together on a cause that unites us all. Let us strive for a deeper appreciation of God’s gift of human sexuality in all its complexity and mystery. Let us endeavor to educate the community about the peculiar threat to human dignity that is violence against women. Let us work together for the healing of all who have survived such violence. If our efforts are grounded in truth and animated by love, then by the grace of God at work within us, our efforts will bear much fruit.

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., Ph.D.

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