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Academic ‘Monologues’ belong at ND

Observer Editorial Board | Friday, February 17, 2006

Let’s hope he saw what we saw.

A blunt, vulgar, shocking production that without hesitation portrays masturbation, extramarital sex and lesbian seduction onstage. And a production that absolutely belongs at the nation’s top Catholic university.

University President Father John Jenkins said he attended “The Vagina Monologues” Wednesday – Notre Dame students’ third and final performance of the Eve Ensler play this year – to “listen and learn.” That is exactly what he needed to do before deciding whether academic departments can continue to sponsor the play at the University, and he should be commended for his attendance. Now – with the V-Day campaign’s demonstrative peak finished for another year – comes the waiting game, as the Notre Dame community anticipates the president’s verdict.

And now that Jenkins has seen the play in the academic setting he required, he should choose to allow the “Monologues” to remain – a choice he should make not only in favor of academic freedom, but in favor of the University’s Catholic character, as well.

Not that he wasn’t right to be concerned. “The Vagina Monologues” contains plenty of crude, disturbing and arguably immature content that even the most liberal viewers often find offensive, as well as some seemingly pointless skits – including lists of what a vagina would wear or say – that are not particularly enlightening. Questioning the appropriateness of Ensler’s approach was clearly within the president’s bounds. Though Jenkins should allow the play’s performance to continue, criticism of the “Monologues” is certainly valid.

However, Notre Dame, to quote its 15th president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, strives to graduate “some of the most intelligent Catholics in America.” It’s a lofty and unique goal, one the University recognizes can’t be accomplished by simply reinforcing Church teaching. In and out of the classroom, students already are encouraged to critically examine their faith in light of contemporary challenges. Confronting and engaging Church teaching while at Notre Dame – Masses-in-residence-halls Notre Dame, crucifixes-in-lecture-halls Notre Dame, “God, Country, Notre Dame” Notre Dame – allows students to strengthen and deepen their understanding of Catholicism in a pervasively Catholic context.

Intelligent young Catholics who will lead the Church for decades to come must understand how their beliefs apply to American society in 2006, a society that includes masturbation, extramarital sex and lesbian seduction – not to mention rape, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation and other atrocities the “Monologues” brings to light. Exposing Notre Dame students to aspects of contemporary culture through a production like “The Vagina Monologues” – performed by their talented peers, in a classroom, followed by an open discussion of Catholic teaching versus the play’s content – is a positive educational force to open their eyes and put their professed Catholic beliefs into practice.

This academic context is essential, however. If academic freedom is cited to justify “The Vagina Monologues”‘ presence at Notre Dame in future years, then the play must retain the academic character it showed in the past week. The “Monologues” should continue to be held in a large classroom, an environment that plays an important part in setting the audience’s expectations and the event’s academic tone. Other campus academic events don’t charge money for attendance, so the “Monologues” shouldn’t either – the funds the play raises for charities fighting violence against women can be raised through other means, just as campus clubs are attempting to do this spring. Stopping sexual violence, as Jenkins said in his academic freedom and Catholic character addresses last month, is an undoubtedly worthy cause, and the Notre Dame community should show its support by pledging its dollars to the fundraising alternative the groups conceive.

Also crucial to preserving the academic character of the “Monologues” is the continuation of the panel discussions that followed this year’s performances. The discussions provided valuable insight into the themes of the play, as well as a wider context for its content that enhanced the audience’s understanding of the play’s purpose. Future panels should maintain those goals, while also ensuring a range of viewpoints are represented by seeking out both supporters and detractors of “The Vagina Monologues” to speak on behalf of its merits and faults. And students and faculty must make speakers’ educational effort worthwhile by listening to the panelists respectfully, questioning them intensely and seeking in the discussion implications for Notre Dame – all of which audiences did successfully this week.

Retaining these academic components for future Notre Dame productions of the “Monologues” should leave no question about whether the production belongs underneath the University’s academic freedom umbrella. Academic departments should be able to decide to sponsor the play on the grounds of sponsoring learning, not on the grounds of endorsing the content of the “Monologues.” If the University administration is squeamish about the play attracting publicity and prompting questions about Notre Dame’s Catholicism, it can simply make a public statement that while Notre Dame does not endorse the play’s content and values due to the University’s Catholic character, some of its departments have chosen to sponsor the play as an academic exercise.

“The Vagina Monologues” has been performed at Notre Dame for five years now, and the play has yet to cause the drastic shift in Catholic character that some continue to predict. There has been no upsurge in pro-choice, or pro-war, or anti-charity, or otherwise Catholicism-conflicting events on campus. Notre Dame is still widely recognized as the best Catholic university in the country. Its president is still greeted fondly by the pope. And to retain that character and that status, as associate professor of theology Father Paulinus Ozodor said at Tuesday’s panel, events like the “Monologues” that conflict with Catholic teaching “cannot go unchallenged in a Catholic university.”

Indeed, Father Jenkins, they cannot. So challenge them – not by banning the “Monologues,” not by silencing students’ voices, but by fighting speech with speech: holding panels, sparking discussions and pushing intelligent Catholics to graduate from Notre Dame having challenged, utilized and strengthened their faith, not having hidden behind it.