Today CatholicExchange.com ran George Weigel’s article “An Opportunity Missed” (http://www.catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?vm_id=1&art_id=32976), criticizing the president of Notre Dame University, Father Jenkins, for allowing a production of “The Vagina Monologues” to run on campus.
While I rarely find myself on the opposite side of the ideological fence with Mr. Weigel, in this case I would suggest that, while I agree it was not a good idea to sponsor this production with university resources, there could be legitimate reasons for the “creative contextualization” of the work in another context. For me, the issues to be considered: Could this work be a useful teaching tool, and is the intended audience ready to receive it?
Out of the Saltshaker
First, an illustration. I attended a production of the V-Monologues here in Ann Arbor, a benefit for Safe House, a local domestic violence shelter. (Went with a girlfriend, as this is not appropriate for young teenagers or husbands because of the anti-male bias). We have incidents of domestic violence in my family, and so this is an issue I feel compelled to support whenever I can. (A full-length feature article on my family story will be published about this in the August issue of Canticle magazine. To get a copy, go to www.womenofgrace.com.)
At the benefit after-glow, I introduced myself to several members of the SafeHouse staff, and told them that I was a Catholic writer. Immediately they assumed I was pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and anti-establishment (the only kind of Catholic, presumably, they encounter in their work).
“Not at all,” I told them. “Have you ever read the Catholic Bishop’s letter on domestic violence? It sends a very clear message to the world that we need to work together to end it — and that a woman being abused does not need to subject herself or her children to this kind of treatment. This is the kind of client resource you need at your fingertips … Can I send you a copy?” (To read this document, go to http://www.usccb.org/laity/help.shtml.)
Watching the production, I was struck by the fact that nowhere does the beauty of authentic Catholic femininity shine so brightly as when it is placed alongside the darkness of the prevailing culture. Jesus ate and drank with sinners … I’ve got to believe that prostitutes and tax collectors were not always diligent about keeping kosher! If we are going to be salt and light, we must get out of the collective saltshaker from time to time and find these “points of connection.”
There is a strong anti-Church bias among those who attempt to address the social cancer of domestic abuse, seeing us as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They will never come to us to seek out the truth; we must go to them. From my point of view, in my situation The Vagina Monologues provided an “opportunity found.”
Ready, Even If You’re Not
When I originally posted this response to Mr. Weigel’s article on the discussion board of CatholicExchange, several were quick to remind me that the issue was not whether adults should see the production, but whether a college should sponsor it (arguing that it was contrary to the principles of good Catholic education).
However, I’m not willing to concede this point, either.
I can understand the need to carefully form children in truth before expecting them to defend error. And I understand that parents sending their children to a Catholic university would expect that kind of careful faith formation to be reinforced in their learning.
And yet, college-age young adults — even (and perhaps especially ) those who have been given the benefit of this kind of faith formation at home — will often explore alternative points of view, including those that offend the sensibilities of their parents. Given the choice — my daughter sneaking out to see V-Monologues with a group of friends and chatting about it over a pitcher of margueritas, or discussing it in a Catholic educational forum –I’d definitely prefer the latter.
This is very different from saying, “They’ll have sex/drink/do drugs anyway, so let’s provide a safe environment for it.” Criticial thinking is crucial to their long-term spiritual health; the other behaviors are detrimental to it.
When my children reach college age, I will want their education to include learning HOW to dialogue with people who subscribe to these kinds of cultural biases. For example, a teacher might have chosen to show a few brief, carefully-chosen segments as part of a classroom discussion on authentic Catholic womanhood. However, many Catholic parents would object to even this kind of exposure to the messages contained in “The Vagina Monologues”. And I’m not sure their children are better off for it.
All this is predicated on the idea that students learn the truth first. One of the other posters indicated that Notre Dame doesn’t have a class on the Theology of the Body — which would be an important prerequisite to discuss intelligently the subject of human sexuality.
In an article for National Review criticizing the Notre Dame president and administration (http://www.nationalreview.com/campbell/campbell.asp), Colleen Carroll Campbell hints at a cause to hope for this kind of critical thinking when she reports on student efforts to combat the negative affects of the VM production.
The new feminism is still relatively unknown among Catholics, even those studying at Catholic universities. But some Notre Dame undergraduates are working to change that. Earlier this spring, on the same week that university departments sponsored The Vagina Monologues, three young women organized and hosted a two-day conference on the new feminism. With some help from Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and its Right to Life club, the fledgling effort of “The Edith Stein Project” attracted 21 speakers and 300 students from across America to discuss problems confronting women today and ways to promote the dignity and vocation of women in the modern world. Response was so enthusiastic that the students plan to make the conference an annual affair.
So, Father Jenkins, I believe you have your work cut out for you if you are going to uphold your original intent — to make Notre Dame a place where Catholics learn to think, and think with the Church. Now that the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, it’s time to use the situation as a point of fruitful discussion — starting with an affirmation of the truth.