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Bishop conference relocation a bad idea

Staff Editorial | Friday, February 15, 2008

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) relocated its two-day “The Eloquence of Teaching” seminar because it didn’t want to be associated with an anticipated March performance of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus.

Given that the conference was not open to the public, theology department chair and seminar organizer John Cavadini said the USCCB did not intend to make a public statement by moving the seminar off campus, but that’s exactly what they did.

While neither Cavadini nor the Conference may have intended the relocation as a public statement, it nonetheless delivers an implicit message that Notre Dame’s campus has somehow become tainted or rendered unfit for the conference because it allows students to perform “The Vagina Monologues” on campus.

To equate the USCCB’s holding a conference on Notre Dame’s campus with endorsing the “Monologues” seems as far-fetched and irrational as suggesting that the University is endorsing the show by simply allowing its performance. We see an important distinction between the two.

Regardless of one’s opinion of the “Monologues” themselves, there can be no denying that the show represents one end of the deliberative spectrum on faith and sexuality, however strong. How can the University and its students even begin to discuss issues of sexuality and Catholicism at Notre Dame if we don’t allow all voices to be heard in the conversation?

It should be noted that allowing for a presentation of the show on campus entails no involuntary participation on behalf of any student or faculty. The performance is part of no curriculum and no student is required to watch the performance. Those who do participate as both actors and audience do so out of their own free will.

If nothing else, “The Vagina Monologues” continues to incite deliberation and debate. Every year around this time our Viewpoint section is flooded with Letters to the Editor flashing back and forth, espousing different opinions on the matter. To our minds, that discourse alone is a good thing in and of itself.

As both a premier academic university and a premier Catholic university, Notre Dame has always had the complex dynamic of trying to maintain the University’s Catholic character while still allowing for academic freedom. The two forces exist in creative tension and nowhere is this more evident than in the annual controversy surrounding “The Vagina Monologues.” However complicated this dynamic may be, we see no reason to view the Catholic character-academic freedom debate as a zero sum game, where gains on one side entail loss on the other. There can and should be some give and take between the two.

Notre Dame can be Catholic and still host “The Vagina Monologues.” If the USCCB could appreciate that, relocation might not have been an issue.