Vagina Monologues 2, Bishops 0

NOTRE DAME, IN – Father Jenkins disappoints again.

The Vagina Monologues will, after all, be performed on campus later this month. We recently reported that some 50 bishops had moved their conference off campus because the play might be produced. Father Jenkins has now decided it will be. He says this “best serves the distinctive” – presumably the Catholic – “mission of Notre Dame.”

His decision is as unsound now as it was two years ago. He invokes the same incontestable but inapt generalities and imposes the same pointless requirement that some faculty member declare what is glaringly obvious, namely, that the play is inherently hostile to Church teaching.

To Father Jenkins’s credit, he does not maintain the play is worthy because it is devoted to prevention of sexual abuse. That is the transparent dodge of apologists. More than two-thirds of the play consists of extraordinarily explicit accounts by women of highly charged sexual episodes, typically but not exclusively lesbian masturbation and intercourse (including seduction of a minor). The author herself offers telling testimony to the play’s character and intended effect when she boasts in the introduction of having experienced “thirty-two public orgasms a night” while performing the play.

In short, the play is, and is intended to be, a celebration of the ecstasies of sexual gratification through actions gravely immoral in the eyes of the Church. As Father Jenkins himself said: “[I]ts portrayals of sex stand…in opposition to Catholic teaching on human sexuality.” For those who have any doubt, we provide on our web site an extended and representative series of verbatim passages from the play.

How, then, does Notre Dame’s hosting the play serve the University’s “distinctive mission” as a Catholic institution? Because, we are told, following the performances a faculty member will “offer a thorough and sympathetic account of the Catholic tradition” which will promote a “reasoned and respectful debate” of “multiple viewpoints” on “controversial issues.” The fundamental policy “rests on the conviction that truth will emerge from reasoned consideration of issues in dialogue with faith” and that students should not be “insulated from controversial views” but should rather “engage” them.

But what do these lofty truisms have to do with this play? This is not a drama about ideas. It appeals, not to the mind or heart, but to the libido. Who in the audience would think for a millisecond that the Church does not condemn precisely what the play portrays? Who will there be to argue in favor of lesbian abuse of minors? Of the sexual pleasures aroused by a dominatrix? Of vagina fixation? Of the countless techniques of vagina manipulation? Of the naming of, and speaking with, vaginas? Of the liberating effect of mouthing streams of obscenities? Where will be the “reasoned and respectful debate”? The “multiple viewpoints”? The “energetic engaging” of views by students? And if there were indeed extended discussion of these base subjects, would this be the sort of “free and open discussion of controversial issues” that would advance Notre Dame’s “distinctive mission”?

Certainly a critique of a presentation from a Catholic point of view is sometimes desirable, even necessary. A case in point, as Father Jenkins once observed, is the annual homosexual film festival — where it is not provided. But surely this device cannot immunize everything. Take, for example monologues by pedophiles describing their seductions of children. Or by members of a lynch mob describing a hanging. Or by serial murderers describing the orgiastic pleasures of mutilation. The cases are analogous. There is nothing to discuss.

The haplessness of this approach was demonstrated by panelists two years ago. To be sure, Father Jenkins was satisfied: “Panelists presented Catholic teaching on human sexuality, and students and faculty engaged one another and these issues in serious and informed discussion.”

But if the extensive Observer coverage is to be believed, this simply did not happen. Rather, the discussions made matters worse. Only a lone priest criticized the play from the Church’s point of view. In response, another panelist wondered “how we [the Church] got there” Yet another condemned this sort of “malicious” criticism. And yet another compared the play to St. Augustine’s Confessions. Almost all the time was spent on sexual abuse. The precedent is grim. But the overarching concern is not the play’s performance but rather the fading Catholic sensibility that is behind it. The former will not topple the Golden Dome. The latter, if unchecked, will.

Notre Dame is now the leader of a small and shrinking band – 20 out of 230 – of Catholic institutions hosting this meretricious play. Is that because the rest are benighted or because their Catholic identity is sturdier?

Half of the Vagina Monologues institutions are Jesuit and most of the others are headed by laypersons. While we do not know their faculty composition, we do know that at Notre Dame the proportion of Catholic faculty, conservatively adjusted for nominal and dissenting Catholics, no longer meets the University’s Mission Statement requirement. The faculty pressure on Father Jenkins to reverse his initial tentative decision to bar the play was intense, and departmental sponsorship of the play has been strong. And even Father Jenkins’s approval is not good enough for many of the play’s supporters, he tells us, for they are “upset” that there is to be an “account of the Catholic tradition” during the panel discussions. It is to wonder.

Whose words ring more true to the Catholic mind and heart, those of Father Jenkins or those of Father David Tyson, now the C.S.C. Superior of the Indiana Province and then President of Portland University:

“In conscience, I cannot approve of its performance. This play is not in keeping with the respect accorded the human body in this institution’s religious tradition.”

Or that of Father David O’Connell, the President of Catholic University: “I find the play unworthy of staging at CUA. In addition to the affront and offense posed to Catholic teachings and values it has become a symbol each year of the desire of some folks to push Catholic campuses over the edge of good and decent judgment. Sooner or later, someone has got to simply say ‘enough.'”

Would that Father Jenkins had.

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