The Perfect Storm
This past February, the landscape of American Catholic higher education was battered by a perfect storm. It was not a meteorological storm - the winter was uncommonly mild. It was an ideological storm, constituted by clashing winds of academic freedom, sexual expression, feminism, Catholic moral teaching and church authority. It swirled around the question whether The Vagina Monologues, written by the feminist playwright Eve Ensler, ought to be performed on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities as part of V-Day, a national campaign to end violence against women that takes place annually on or around Valentine’s Day.
Now that the storm has subsided, at least for this year, it is possible to consider what it revealed about our cultural and religious climate. The controversy over The Vagina Monologues highlights the continuing power of the two currents on the relationship between Catholicism and culture that have dominated the climate of the church in the United States for the past 30 years or so. The older of these calls for greater openness to the culture; the more recent affirms the importance of preserving a distinctive Catholic identity over against the culture. God willing, however, the storm also may have uncovered something new: the emergence of a third current, which locates Catholic identity not primarily in what separates us from the culture, but in the distinctive way in which we critically but constructively engage it.
What Is This Play?
What is the objection to The Vagina Monologues? The play’s overarching goal of combating violence against women is laudable, and the monologues dedicated to that topic are appropriately harrowing. Nonetheless, the play also features several monologues that seem to endorse sexual activity inconsistent with church teaching. Moreover, while there are no explicit sex scenes, most monologues are sexually explicit, sometimes crude. Finally, the play’s ideological home is secular feminism - not a worldview notable for friendliness to patriarchal institutions such as the church - or a worldview to which some segments of the church have been notably friendly.
The play is not great art - far from it. At the same time, it has an indisputable capacity to speak to the concerns of many young women around the country, including young Catholic women. The V-Day Web site states that in 2005 the play was performed in over 1,100 colleges and communities across the country, including about 40 Catholic colleges. Why is the play so compelling to young audiences? Because it gives raw, eloquent voice to the experiences of actual women. The play consists entirely of short monologues, which Ensler based on her interviews with over 250 women of all ages, races and nationalities; the topics range from first menstruation to consensual sex to rape. Some of them are heartbreaking; some are outrageous; many are quite funny.
As several critics have objected, the play does not present a full range of women’s experience: we hear from a happy lesbian dominatrix, but not from a happy wife and mother. Then again, the point of the monologues is not to showcase women flourishing in accordance with mainstream standards of success. It is rather to spotlight women struggling against and overcoming shame, social isolation and even violence. Ultimately, I believe this is the source of the play’s appeal to college-age women, many of whom grapple with real doubts about whether they will ever measure up to mainstream standards of success. They identify with the struggles of the women in the play, even if they do not identify with their experiences.
Does The Vagina Monologues belong on Catholic campuses? The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization dedicated to monitoring orthodoxy, as it understands it, on Catholic campuses, has been running a campaign against the play for several years. The V-Day organizers, for their part, have waged a counter-offensive, labeling the society a fringe group. This year, the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities were caught in the vortex. Some, like Kevin Wildes, S.J., of Loyola University in New Orleans, have allowed the play to be performed, arguing that it is important for Catholic colleges to listen to these experiences of women. Others, like Brian Shanley, O.P., of Providence College, have banned the play, contending that it is inimical to Catholic teaching on sexuality. The play was staged at both Boston College and Georgetown University without comment by their presidents. John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, inaugurated a vigorous campus-wide discussion about the topic and recently decided not to ban the play from campus. In his closing statement on the controversy, issued April 5, Father Jenkins stated that he still believed that the play’s portrayals of sexuality stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Nonetheless, the panel discussions conducted after each performance convinced him that the creative contextualization of a play like The Vagina Monologues can bring certain perspectives on important issues into a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the Catholic tradition. In his view, this type of deliberate, thorough dialogue is a good model for the future as Notre Dame strives to fulfill its identity as a Catholic university.
Two Familiar Currents on Church and Culture
The most telling aspect of the controversy over whether The Vagina Monologues belongs on a Catholic campus is the way in which the question is framed. The two most prominent frames represent two currents on the relationship of the church to the culture that have, in turn, shaped the American Catholic climate since the initial tumult of the Second Vatican Council subsided around 1975. I call them the current of openness, whose spirit dominated the American church from 1975 until 1990 or so, and the current of identity, whose winds have been prevailing from 1990 to the present. I am trading in gross generalizations, if not caricatures; nonetheless, I hope that my rough portraiture conveys some insight into our situation.
The Current of Openness. Some frame the question about Catholic colleges hosting The Vagina Monologues as a choice to defend academic freedom or to capitulate to ecclesiastical authority. This frame harkens back to the era in which a current of openness to the secular world permeated the American church. The catchword is aggiornamento, or openness to modernity, from Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. To those standing in this current, the church’s restrictive teachings on sex, as reaffirmed in the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), seem too uptight and pessimistic. Its stance on women, which emphasizes their role as mothers, seems too repressive and constricting. Its representative thinkers emphasize the imperative for church authorities to update both its structures and its moral teachings by learning from both experts and ordinary people about the importance of sexual fulfillment and individual freedom. Embracing the secular world and imbibing its values on sexual expression and women’s liberation are seen as a positive step for Catholics and Catholic institutions. The secular world has its dangers, of course. Still, those dangers are considered less threatening than immuring oneself in the isolation and repression of pre-Vatican II Catholic culture.
If you situate yourself within the current of openness, you probably think that The Vagina Monologues should be performed at Catholic institutions in more or less the same way that it is performed at any other college or university. American Catholic women need to stand in solidarity with their sisters of other faiths and cultures, and to protest the violence against women and repression that affects us all. It is true that some of the monologues depict sexual activity inconsistent with Catholic teaching. But Catholic teaching was formulated without taking into account a sufficiently broad range of human experience, especially the experience of women. Consequently, the church needs to listen to human experience, if it hopes to have any credibility in either reaffirming or revising its norms.
No current dominates the cultural climate indefinitely. In my view, the prevailing winds began to shift away from the current of openness around 1990, when its enthusiastic stance toward modernity began to seem utterly disconnected from reality. AIDS, which first appeared on the scene in the early 1980’s, was by 1990 widely understood to be an immense global health crisis. The untrammeled pursuit of sexual fulfillment could no longer be seen as a regrettable but understandable excess; it could literally be death-dealing. Furthermore, secular feminism was increasingly perceived as dismissive of many women’s concerns for the well-being of their families, especially their children. The one-sided emphasis on freedom without responsibility resulted in skyrocketing abortion and divorce rates, causing incalculable harm to the weakest among us: the unborn, children and the elderly. The breakdown of traditional families and neighborhoods left many people without a social safety net. Suddenly the church’s traditional values did not look so stuffy and outdated.
The Current of Identity. Others frame the question about performing the play as a choice between preserving our distinctive Catholic identity on the one hand, and capitulating to the secular culture and its frequently pernicious values on the other. This way of framing the question is at home in the combative stance toward the culture that has dominated American Catholicism from about 1990 until the present. Its catchphrase is the culture of life, from John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995). The current of identity prizes the ways in which Catholic beliefs and institutions differ from their secular counterparts, which are often equated with the culture of death. While categorically condemning all sexual activity outside marriage, the dominant ideology of this current offers a rosy life of wholesome holiness to those who comply with church teaching. Proponents of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body promise great, guilt-free sex to married couples who comply with Humanae Vitae. Complaining that secular feminism ignored the experiences of millions of ordinary mothers, the new papal feminists inspired by John Paul II emphasized the nurturing qualities of women, which find fulfillment in marriage and family and receive unequivocal support from the church.
If you locate yourself within the current of identity, you probably think that The Vagina Monologues does not belong on Catholic campuses. The primary task of Catholic higher education is to model an alternative to secular culture, not to accommodate it, particularly on such key skirmish points in the culture wars as sexuality and feminism. For a Catholic college to permit the staging of this play would be to compromise its mission to witness to the culture of life against the culture of death, which does not value mothers or families. It also fails to recognize that the attractiveness of Catholic higher education lies in the clear and distinct alternative it poses to the increasingly apparent moral vacuousness of secular higher education.
As noted above, no current dominates the climate indefinitely. My own belief, obviously controversial, is that the winds began to shift decisively against the current of identity in 2005, around the time of the transition in the papacy. By this point, the tendency to equate the culture of life with the church and the culture of death with secular society had begun to seem increasingly naïve and self-righteous.
The crisis of sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic clergy, and the response of some bishops to this crisis, demonstrated that membership in the church cannot be equated with virtue. Nor can membership in its conservative wing. Cardinal Bernard Law, the most prominent defender of the culture of life in the American hierarchy, resigned in disgrace after his callous attitude toward victims of abuse became a public scandal. Moreover, despite the fact that papal feminism presented itself as speaking for ordinary women, it was unable to account for the anger with which ordinary women reacted to the abuse crisis. Good mothers are not undifferentiated bundles of nurturing affirmation, as many papal feminists tend to portray them. They will fight to the death to protect their offspring against anyone who would harm them, including the duly ordained representatives of their own churches.
In my view, the current of identity also suffers from a more deadly problem: it is self-defeating. It has become increasingly apparent that the strategy of its representative thinkers to preserve distinctive Catholic character may actually involve abandoning itabandoning the universal concern, scope and appeal characteristic of Catholic thought and life in order to pursue a purity from all taint of sin that is characteristic of some Protestant sects. But an overriding concern for purity does not define the Roman Catholic tradition. In fact St. Augustine, when faced with that very question in his battle with the Donatists, argued that charity, not purity, was the true mark of the Catholic Church. He was no moral relativist. He also recognized that a Catholic bubble is an oxymoron.
Engagement - A New Current?
I am cautiously optimistic that a new current of thought on the relationship of the church and culture has just begun to sweep through the Catholic Church in the United States, which may help us move beyond the shortcomings of the two old, familiar currents. I call it the current of engagement. Its catchphrase, I suggest, should be charityfrom Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Its hallmark, in my view, should be compassionate, unsentimental and appropriately humble Augustinian realism. This current ought to be fully capable of recognizing the presence of sin in the secular world. But it should not suppose that it is either necessary or possible to escape sin by treating the church as a morally pure and distinct culture of life. Most important, this current should insist that constructive, critical engagement with the culture is ultimately more consistent with a Catholic vision of reality than uncritical embrace of it on the one hand, or moralistic rejection of it on the other.
Such engagement is based on two Augustinian insights. First, people who sin still love and pursue the good, although in a distorted way. This is particularly the case in matters of sexual ethics. We can find some common ground in the good, and call into question the distortions, without demonizing our conversation partners as denizens of the culture of death. Second, we should not think of ourselves as constituting an earthly community of saints, which knows itself to be clearly set apart from the community of sinners. As Augustine tells us, saints and sinners will coexist, even in the church itself, until the end of time. Catholic sensibilities ought to blend humility with confidence. We can both learn from and teach secular feminism about what it means to value women’s well-being. The emerging current of engagement, I hope, will be both catholic and Catholic. It will emphasize that nothing human is incomprehensible to a Catholic worldview; everything can be fruitfully engaged from its broad-minded perspective of creation, fall and God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.
What stance on The Vagina Monologues would be most consonant with the current of engagement? Ideally, a Catholic college would permit the play to be staged, if there is strong student interest in staging it. But it would also take the occasion to initiate an interdisciplinary discussion of sexuality and embodiment, in which the wisdom of the Catholic theological tradition is articulately represented. A Catholic moralist, for example, might begin by asking the students if they thought the pursuit of sexual pleasure apart from love, commitment or even intimacy was likely to be fulfilling in the long run. The Catholic tradition has the resources to understand both the profundity and the pain of human eros. We owe it to our students to demonstrate the power of those resources to engage human experience in all its raw potential, and to point the way toward its ultimate meaning and fulfillment.
The path suggested by the current of engagement is more demanding than those associated with either the current of openness or the current of identity. It takes faculty members who are educated in the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition and committed to passing it on to the next generation. It takes students who are willing to do the hard intellectual and existential work of bringing their faith into conversation with other aspects of their lives. Most important, it takes Catholic colleges and universities that are dedicated to facilitating constructive and critical engagement with the culture, rather than assimilation on the one hand, or isolation on the other.