SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The local bishop pulled no punches in denouncing the University of Notre Dame’s authorization of new performances of a sexually explicit play.
“I am convinced that permitting performances of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is not consistent with the identity of a Catholic university,” Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said in a statement released after Notre Dame announced March 10 that the play would be staged at the university’s South Bend campus March 26-28.
“The play is little more than a propaganda piece for the sexual revolution and secular feminism,” Bishop D’Arcy said in his statement (available on the Internet at diocesefwsb.org). “While claiming to deplore violence against women, the play at the same time violates the standards of decency and morality that safeguard a woman’s dignity and protect her, body and soul, from sexual predators.”
So why has Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, decided to allow the play’s staging despite the strenuous objections of Bishop D’Arcy and other Catholic leaders who say its pornographic content violates Church teachings?
According to Notre Dame faculty members and alumni interviewed by the Register, a crisis of Catholic identity among the university’s faculty is at the core of the controversy. And, they said, more problems are inevitable unless steps are taken to restore the faculty’s Catholic commitment.
“The Vagina Monologues” was written by Eve Ensler, ostensibly as a vehicle to raise awareness about violence against women. The play features graphic anecdotes about women’s recollections of various kinds of sexual acts, many of them lesbian ones including a scene that depicts a girl’s memories of being raped by an adult woman.
The play is staged each year on hundreds of college campuses, usually around Valentine’s Day, as part of Ensler’s “V-Day” campaign to raise funds to combat violence against women.
Nineteen of America’s 213 Catholic campuses allowed performances this year, according to the Cardinal Newman Society. Due to pressure from opponents of the play, that number has declined sharply from the 42 colleges that allowed performances several years ago.
Holy Cross Father David Tyson, currently the Holy Cross provincial for the order’s Indiana province, canceled a planned performance of the play in February 2003 while serving as president of the University of Portland.
“In conscience, I cannot approve of its performance on the campus,” Father Tyson said. “The play is offensive, questionable in its portrayal of violence, and not in keeping with the respect accorded the human body in this institution’s religious tradition.”
After Father Jenkins became Notre Dame’s president in September 2005, it initially appeared the university would also reject the play.
In a January 2006 speech to Notre Dame faculty and students about academic freedom and Catholic character, he said the play’s portrayals of sexual experiences “stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, the view that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of procreation.”
Said Father Jenkins, “Despite the many laudable goals of those who support this performance, I find problematic that the university continues to sponsor annual performances of this play.”
But after a 10-week campus discussion about whether to stage the play — during which many faculty objected that banning it would violate academic freedom — Father Jenkins announced in April 2006 that Notre Dame had authorized student-organized performances. The performances would take place in a classroom setting, followed by panel discussions during which Catholic teachings would be presented.
Bishop D’Arcy said at the time that Father Jenkins had erred in concluding the play could be staged acceptably in this way.
Said Bishop D’Arcy, “What I found to be missing in the decision at Notre Dame and in the rationale of Father Jenkins that accompanied it is any sense that critical decisions for a Catholic university must be based on truth as revealed by Christ and held by the Church.”
This February, as preliminary indications emerged that Notre Dame was about to approve more performances, the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops signaled its disapproval by moving a planned meeting of 50 bishops off the Notre Dame campus.
This signal from the U.S. bishops’ conference did not sway Father Jenkins. In his March 10 statement authorizing more student-organized “Monologues” performances, the Notre Dame president said, “I am well aware that the performance of this play will upset many.”
Father Jenkins said his decision “arises from a conviction that it is an indispensable part of the mission of a Catholic university to provide a forum in which multiple viewpoints are debated in reasoned and respectful exchange — always in dialogue with faith and the Catholic tradition — even around highly controversial topics.”
Contacted by the Register March 14, Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said Father Jenkins would not reply to questions about his March 10 statement.
Father Wilson Miscamble is an associate professor of history at Notre Dame, and like Father Jenkins he is a member of the Holy Cross order that oversees the university.
Father Miscamble wrote a public letter in April 2006 calling on Father Jenkins to reverse his decision authorizing performances of the play.
“I offered the view Father Jenkins was worried by the reaction of a significant number of faculty members, particularly in the College of Arts and Letters,” Father Miscamble said. “And while he obviously doesn’t like the play, he doesn’t feel in a position to cancel the play and he thinks this so-called compromise … is probably the best arrangement he could achieve.”
Father Miscamble said the issue “is a symptom of a larger problem” — the secularization of the campus due to the diminishing percentage of Notre Dame faculty who are committed Catholics or non-Catholics who support the university’s Catholic identity.
“Folks who come to Notre Dame should be committed to its mission as a Catholic university, and should realize that that involves Notre Dame pursuing quite a distinct course,” he said. “The task is to find and appoint such people.”
One Notre Dame board member has been publicly identified as a strong supporter of the “Monologues.”
Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, was listed on a V-Day poster in 2003 as a “V-Counsel,” along with other prominent supporters of the play like Jane Fonda. Hearst has also served as a V-Day sponsor.
“It was just literally a life-changing experience,” Black said about the play’s impact in a CNN interview in 2001. “She [Ensler] has kind of taken it all out of the closet and kind of put it right on in front of people so that you can say the word v-----.”
Notre Dame alumnus Bill Dempsey is president of Project Sycamore, a group dedicated to preserving Notre Dame’s Catholic identity (projectsycamore.com).
Like Father Miscamble, Dempsey pinpoints the declining Catholic identity of faculty as a central element in the “Monologues” controversy.
Dempsey said the percentage of Catholics on faculty has dropped from 85% in the 1970s to a bare majority of 52% today. “The Catholic sensibility has declined accordingly,” he said.
Dempsey remains a strong supporter of Notre Dame. He said that while his alma mater is “perilously close to losing its core Catholic identity,” the university is “measurably better than every other major Catholic university in the country” in terms of retaining its Catholic character.
The university has itself noted the need to recruit more Catholic faculty. A 2005 report by the dean of the College of Arts and Letters said, “The combination of impending faculty retirements and predominant recent hiring trends in many departments threatens Notre Dame’s capacity to realize its mission.”
And Notre Dame currently has an initiative in place to identify high-caliber Catholic scholars who would be suitable faculty members, in order to help meet its goal of filling 50% of faculty openings with Catholics.
But Dempsey and Father Miscamble say that to protect Notre Dame’s identity, a much higher percentage of new faculty hires must be Catholics because most of the university’s younger faculty currently are non-Catholics.
Father Miscamble suggested a minimum of 60% of new appointments must be Catholics if the university is to prevent falling past “the tipping point” of losing its Catholicity.
And Father Miscamble and Dempsey hope that Pope Benedict XVI’s April 17 address to Catholic university presidents at The Catholic University of America will reinforce Notre Dame’s resolve to fulfill its mission as a Catholic university.
Father Miscamble pointed out that Catholic college leaders already have a clear set of directions about how to operate their institutions, contained in Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities).
Said Father Miscamble, “My hope is that Pope Benedict’s speech will encourage Catholic presidents to live out the kind of principles that are set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.