A millstone around the neck of ‘academic freedom’

When Pope Benedict XVI visits The Catholic University of America (CUA) in two weeks and gives an address to the assembled presidents of the Catholic colleges and universities of the United States, he could be given no more fitting welcome than for these leaders to sponsor a performance, in his honor, of the “Vagina Monologues.” In this way we could display to the pope how well we understand academic freedom.

A slight difficulty is that CUA’s president, Father David O’Connell, has banned performances on campus. But perhaps Father O’Connell could be persuaded to lift the ban for the moment, in deference to his colleagues, the presidents of Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Holy Cross, who will join him in greeting the pope. These esteemed Catholic leaders regard the performance of the “Vagina Monologues” as the very proof of academic freedom at their institutions.

“The Vagina Monologues?” you are probably wondering, “Is someone still performing that outdated work?” Yes, it’s true. You won’t anytime soon find your theatre down the street showing the work. But some Catholic universities will likely host performances for as long as Catholic parishes hold ‘60s style folk Masses.

Professors at Notre Dame argued that if the play were banned, the university would be saying that “the world stops at the boundary of Edison and Juniper roads,” which limn the institution. But the irony, as I can tell you from living on the other side of that boundary, is that the “Vagina Monologues” plays no part in “the world” of any sensible person I know. It’s a special offering, found largely on college campuses, and especially some prominent Catholic ones, designed specifically for the corruption...err, edification ... of your college-age daughters.

“But, even so, why risk offending the pope when he is here? Surely these Catholic leaders think it’s enough to perform the play at some other time. No need to show it precisely when the pope visits.”

Sorry, a principle is a principle. The bishop of Fort Wayne remonstrated with the president of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, at least to ban “Vagina Monologues” during Easter Week. But Father Jenkins stood firm on his principle. You can see why, since there’s a dangerous slippery slope: Why should Easter Week be a special case, when Christ is always present in the tabernacles of the university?

Yet if “Vagina Monologues” shouldn’t be banned when Christ is present, how then when Christ’s representative visits?

“But it’s one thing not to ban, another to promote. We show academic freedom merely by the absence of any ban, not by obnoxious actions that would be an affront to the Holy Father.”

Not so. According to Father Jenkins, in the official position of the president’s office, academic freedom carries with it an obligation to foster performances such as “Vagina Monologues”: “Faculty and departments must explore controversial issues.... It is understood that certain presentations are intended to be provocative, and are so with good reason.” Thus, apparently, if it just so happened that no student groups wished to show “Vagina Monologues” some year, the university “must” promote something like it nonetheless.

But what “must” be done when the pope is absent, surely “must” be done also when the pope is present. Hence my argument: if academic freedom requires that we foster provocative controversies, what could be a better proof or display than to host “Vagina Monologues” precisely when the pope visits? Anything else looks to be hypocrisy, pretense, and a double-standard.

The objection that such a performance would be an “affront” to the Holy Father is surely very weak, since already President Jenkins of Notre Dame insists that the play be performed, even though he knows it gives affront to his bishop.

“Permitting performances of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is not consistent with the identity of a Catholic University,” writes Bishop John D’Arcy, in his letter of March 2008, “The play is little more than a propaganda piece for the sexual revolution and secular feminism.... The overriding issue here is moral. The play is an affront to human dignity. ... I believe its performance to be pornographic and spiritually harmful.”

But when announcing on March 10 that Notre Dame would once again this year host the play, Father Jenkins said, “I am well aware that the performance of this play will upset many. It is particularly painful for me that Bishop John D’Arcy -- for whom I have great respect and affection -- disapproves of my decision.”

Clearly if his bishop’s “disapproval” (to put it mildly) is no obstacle, then why should the “disapproval” of the pope be so?

The point could be made more strongly. St. Ignatius wrote in the second century, “By your obedience to your bishop I see your love of Christ, because obedience to your bishop is obedience to Christ.” Isn’t an affront to one’s bishop, by this logic, an affront to Christ? But then why worry about an affront to a mere pope?

This is to say nothing of the affront to those idealistic students at Notre Dame who have what is no doubt a very simple understanding of a Catholic university, and who this time of year flood the president’s office with complaints about the propriety of the “Vagina Monologues.”

The play goes on, despite what these “little ones” say, and regardless of whether the “Vagina Monologues” serves as a proverbial “stumbling block,” causing some of them to stumble (see Lk 17:2).

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.