THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES
The importance of the Vagina Monologues issue does not arise from speculation as to what adverse consequences might result from the performance of a single play, no matter how repellant in tone and hostile to Church teaching. It arises, rather, from two quite different considerations: First, Father Jenkins, in extraordinary addresses to faculty and students, made the issue a defining event in the debate over the proper scope of academic freedom in a Catholic university; and, second, the intense and widespread faculty opposition to Father Jenkins’ initial disposition to withdraw approval of a play so antagonistic to fundamental Catholic principles has suggested a degree of secularization hitherto unsuspected by many outside university precincts.
Although this play is performed annually on the campuses of hundreds of secular colleges and universities, it has gained little traction at Catholic institutions. Notre Dame is one of but 22 Catholic hosts out of a total of approximately 230 Catholic institutions. (After a short run, the play was banned at St. Mary’s after 2001.) This already small group, moreover, has been shrinking still further over the past several years 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 this year 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, distasteful though that may be to many, 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, boasts 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, during a panel discussion held during this year’s Alumni Weekend, a Notre Dame professor said she preferred an allegorical to a literal interpretation; and another 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."
If the play is so viewed, it of course raises no problem. But it has in fact presented grave problems, and the most likely reason is the correct one: Few are likely to get past the plain meaning of the script to some more profound message, if one indeed exists; and no disinterested viewer would be able to subordinate the ubiquitous sex scenes to the scant few devoted to violence. For a reader, the script for those scenes amounts to a mere handful of pages – perhaps 14 out of 125. 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 assumption of the presidency last fall. At first, it seemed that the beginning of the new administration would mark the end of the play. In major January addresses to faculty and students respecting academic freedom and Catholic identity, 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. See Statements of Father Jenkins.
There ensued months of intense debate on campus together with a barrage of alumni mail. This played out against the background of a previous lengthy statement by Bishop John M. D ‘Arcy deploring Notre Dame’s sanctioning of the play. The balance of alumni opinion has not been disclosed, and it is not possible from press reports to gauge student opinion with any accuracy, although it is perhaps reasonable to suppose that, as would be expected, most preferred that there be no restrictions on what they do. What did stand out unmistakably, however, 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 declared that he now saw “no reason to prohibit performances of The Vagina Monologues." By way of explanation, he described the faculty discussions that followed the performances as having “brought [the play] into dialogue with Catholic teaching on human sexuality."
Father Jenkins’ decision, widely reported in the press, 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. For the most part, the critics paid no heed to Father Jenkins’ stated reliance on the supposed antidotal effect of the faculty panels, evidently believing that the play is so manifestly hostile to Catholic culture, teachings, and tradition and so devoid of substance that the only proper action for an institution true to its Catholic identity is to withhold approval. Bishop D’Arcy, however, did examine the lengthy accounts of the panel discussions in the student publication The Observer and declared that it was simply “not true" that “Catholic teaching and culture" were “fully and fairly represented in these discussions." In fact, so far as appears (see Panel Discussions) of the eight panelists only the lone priest dealt squarely with the collision between Church and play. Insofar as the others spent any time on the dominant sexual themes of the play rather than violence to women, their comments included, for example, a condemnation of Catholic criticism of the play of the sort leveled by Bishop D’Arcy as “malicious" and an analogy of the play to St. Augustine’s Confessions.
While Father Jenkins’ statement was reported by the press as conclusively ending the debate, in subsequent letters to objecting alumni Father Jenkins and other officers have stated unequivocally that, to the contrary, further requests for permission to produce the play will be evaluated each time on the basis of the criteria set forth in the Closing Statement. Thus, in a typical letter Father Jenkins characterized as “not true" the “misleading press reports" stating “that performances such as the Vagina Monologues will go on as before." Rather, Father Jenkins declared, “If there is a problem with an event, we have proposed a process by which I can address these issues." And in a similar letter, Vice President Louis M. Nanni, again rejecting as “not true" press reports that performances of the Monologues “will go on as before," said that “[a]ny particular proposal for this kind of event will be evaluated on its own merits, rather than repeated regularly without critical examination."
It is, therefore, open to alumni to examine this issue with care and to express their views to Father Jenkins. By way of the Petition we have composed, those alumni convinced that a policy of academic freedom so elastic as to countenance events such as The Vagina Monologues is not compatible with the essential character of a Catholic university – a subject we discuss under the heading Academic Freedom below – may express to Father Jenkins their collective concern.
For additional discussion and materials, see
The Vagina Monologues on Catholic Campuses
Description of the Vagina Monologues
Effectiveness of the Panel Discussions
Notre Dame Voices
The Queer Film Festival