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The play’s the thing

Darryl Campbell | Monday, March 17, 2008

Judging by the dialog, such as it is, in the Viewpoint section, spring is apparently the time of year to air out perennial grievances over the University’s Catholic mission, whether or not certain dramatic productions (no, this doesn’t refer to Letters to the Editor) fulfill that mission and whether the University is letting that mission erode.

According to the University, Notre Dame’s Catholic identity depends on the “intellectual interchange” between Catholicism and the totality of human scholarship and thought “through free inquiry and open discussion,” a majority of Catholic faculty and the development of “disciplined habits of mind, body and spirit.” The rationale is, of course, that any retreat from this stated mission, however small, will ultimately lead to the secularization of the University and the loss of what makes Notre Dame so unique.

Thus we might imagine that the reasons for the prohibition or sanctioning of the charged events described above would clearly stem from this mission statement. Let’s begin at the beginning, then. Father Jenkins’ 2006 banning of the Vagina Monologues rests on an administrative technicality: The play is “inconsistent with the fundamental values of a Catholic university,” and producing it would be tantamount to the University sponsoring it in some sense – they may as well have had the Board of Trustees putting on the play, according to that line of reasoning. Even the most verbose critics of the decision were more eager to raise the specter of militant political correctness than point out that the administration was sidestepping the issue and instead using a loophole to weasel its way out of a difficult position.

Last Monday, Father Jenkins took a stand in favor of open and free discussion, conducted in dialogue with Catholic thought. “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,” he wrote, and once again okayed the play, simultaneously opening the floodgates of criticism.

Here, once again, is the University’s mission statement. “No genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith.” That seems to me to be a pretty good case against categorical censorship of the Monologues. People might find them distasteful, banal, even inimical to their way of life (and they might not), but in a community whose mission is to look at the world through an intersection of Catholic teachings and the totality of human creativity – artistic, scholarly and otherwise – we should be free to see and judge for ourselves, especially in conjunction with the many points of view of the Notre Dame community.

There is, however, something to be lost by the categorical denial of artistic expression, especially when the administration uses a technicality to weasel out of taking a firm stance. It seems more insulting than anything that the voices clamoring for the banning of the Monologues don’t trust students to make their own judgments for themselves, and instead preempt any dialogue about the play altogether. However provocative the play is, at least with the attached panel discussion we can approach it as an intellectual exercise and judge its merits in the sort of open forum that the mission statement of the University values. It is no more dangerous to the University’s Catholic identity than the discussion of atheistic or irreligious ideas in the classroom. There doesn’t have to be a zero-sum competition between open discussion and Catholic identity. Surely those faculty members who disapprove of the play are doubting neither their own ability to engage students in conversation nor the ability of students to make their own judgments.

The fact that Notre Dame is a university puts us in a unique position. An educational institution doesn’t deal in received morality – there are plenty of places to find that. Instead, it allows its students to actively take part in their personal growth, whether inside or outside the classroom. It’s the difference between a lecture and a seminar: No matter how good a lecture is, isn’t it more fulfilling to be able to take part in a conversation about a topic, and by doing so, engage with it?

Darryl Campbell is a first-year graduate student in history. He can be contacted at dcampbe6@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.