By Emily Stimpson
Like the poltergeist that came for little Carol Anne or the hockey-mask-wearing slasher who refuses to die, performances of "The Vagina Monologues" have returned.
This year, Eve Ensler's play -- a play that celebrates women's sexual liberation by lauding masturbation, lesbian rape and one-night stands as women's "salvation," and does so in sexually explicit language -- will again grace the campuses of 19 Catholic colleges and universities, including the University of Notre Dame.
Due in part to a campaign by the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit organization committed to strengthening Catholic identity on Catholic college and university campuses, that's 13 fewer campuses than five years ago. But as far as the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine is concerned, that's still 19 campuses too many.
Last month, when Notre Dame's president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, approved the staging of the play, the bishops voiced their objections by moving a U.S. bishops-sponsored seminar scheduled to take place at the university to another location off campus.
Earlier this month, Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., followed up with a public statement of his own. In it, he denounced "The Vagina Monologues" as "little more than a propaganda piece for the sexual revolution and secular feminism."
The bishop also likened Notre Dame staging the play to a Catholic university sponsoring a viewing of a Nazi propaganda film in 1938 and dismissed the panel discussion scheduled to follow the play as "deficient."
Father Jenkins himself, Bishop D'Arcy pointed out, thinks "this play is a bad play." Which begs the question: Why is Father Jenkins -- not to mention the presidents of 18 other Catholic colleges -- so committed to allowing performances of "The Vagina Monologues"?
Although Father Jenkins declined to speak with Our Sunday Visitor, a statement of his own, released on March 10, gives some answers.
"It is part of the role of a university to foster free and open discussion of controversial issues," he wrote. "[We] will educate Catholic leaders not by insulating our students from controversial issues, but by engaging these views energetically, in light of Catholic teachings."
John Deely, a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, sympathizes with Father Jenkins and schools that have made similar decisions, noting it ultimately comes down to the question of academic freedom.
"We're supposed to teach students how to think, not what to think," he said.
But does staging a play that features a masturbation workshop really teach students how to think? And does refusing to stage a play whose text centers almost exclusively on graphic verbal depictions of copulation violate faculty members' academic freedom?
Only if you're going by contemporary culture's definition of academic freedom, said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.
"Too many Catholic universities have accepted the definition of academic freedom most secular American institutions have taken on -- that you can say and do anything you want, with no limits whatsoever," he explained.
But the Church's definition of academic freedom, said Lisa Everett, co-director of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend's Office of Family Life, is a little different.
"In the Catholic understanding, freedom is never an end in itself," she said. "It's always in the service of truth and love."
And staging "The Vagina Monologues," continued Everett, who will speak on the panel scheduled to follow each of the three performances at Notre Dame, serves neither.
It doesn't serve truth, she explained, because the play glorifies a "twisted vision of sexuality," a vision that reduces sexuality to the selfish pursuit of pleasure and denigrates traditional Christian conceptions of femininity and marriage.
"Sex is not meant to be a monologue," she added. "It's meant to be a dialogue between a man and a woman who've given themselves to each other in marriage and remain open to God in that dialogue."
And as for love?
"The students watching the play are real people with real lives making real decisions," Everett explained. "This play tears down mystery, modesty, moral standards. All those things that would cause them to reverence the gift of sexuality are debunked in a powerful and emotionally charged way. That can't help but make the casual sex already so rampant even more rampant."
According to William Dempsey, that disregard for truth and love is "a symptom, not the cause" of the real problem: A secularization of university faculty that undermines the distinctive nature of Catholic education.
Dempsey, who is president of Project Sycamore, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about the school's Catholic identity, explained, "With Catholics having plummeted from 85 percent of the faculty at Notre Dame to barely 50 percent today, far too many people don't see the difference between a Catholic education and a secular education.
"What makes a Catholic university different is that we don't start the search for truth from scratch," added Everett. "We're not groping in the dark, providing as many platforms for as many as ideas as possible, in the hopes that we'll stumble upon truth. We start with revealed truth."
Everett does agree with Father Jenkins that "The Vagina Monologues" have become a cultural phenomenon Catholic universities must engage . . . but not in the way Notre Dame and other schools have chosen to do so -- staging the play with all its visceral impact, then having a panel discussion where the Catholic viewpoint is only one of several viewpoints included.
"Catholic universities should be using their gifts to explore the nerve this play touches, and help the women who've been wounded," concluded Everett. "Instead, we have this capitulation to the culture under the pretense of engaging it. People forget we're called to evangelize the culture, not simply engage it."
The following 19 Catholic colleges and universities staged productions of "The Vagina Monologues" in the spring of 2008:
College of the Holy Cross
College of Mount St. Vincent
College of St. Rose
Dominican University of California
John Carroll University
Le Moyne College
Loyola Marymount College
Loyola University Chicago
Loyola University New Orleans
St. Mary's College of California
University of Detroit Mercy
University of Notre Dame
University of San Francisco
Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.