SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Kerry Walsh knew there’d be talk when a group of students proposed putting on “The Vagina Monologues” at the University of Notre Dame.
The Eve Ensler play, based on discussions with 200 girls and women about their feelings for their anatomy, includes sections about homosexuality, orgasms and rape.
“I knew from the get-go there was going to be some point where the university or someone would put their foot down and say, ‘We really need to talk about this,'” said Walsh, who was a senior English major when she directed the play.
Four years later, that time has come.
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, announced last month he was scaling back the play this year – limiting it to a classroom setting and barring ticket sales. He is seeking input from students, faculty and alumni on whether it and another controversial event, previously called The Queer Film Festival, should be allowed at all.
It’s a discussion more Catholic universities are having as “The Vagina Monologues” becomes a seemingly unsolvable dilemma for the schools. Allow the performance and they are criticized for going against church teachings. Ban the play and they’re accused of stifling academic freedom.
“When you put Catholic university in your title and your Web site looks like the ‘Bells of St. Mary’s,’ you set up an image that students expect,” said Malcolm A. Kline, executive director of Accuracy in Academia, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. “What I get from parents and students is, ‘I thought I was going to a Catholic school and they’re showing the ‘V Monologues.'”
The play, usually performed around Valentine’s Day, is being put on by students from about 20 Roman Catholic schools this year, including DePaul and Georgetown universities and Boston College. But several schools – including Providence College – have banned it, saying it sends the wrong message.
“A Catholic university that sponsors a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ would be running at odds with its Catholic mission by promoting and providing time, space and money … to a production that is so deeply antithetical to the way Catholics think about sex,” said the Rev. Brian Shanley, Providence College’s president.
Walsh, now a civil rights lawyer in Chicago, said she understands the problem the universities face. “They do have a responsibility to follow the values of the morality of Catholicism,” she said. “That is incredibly important.”
At the same time, she said, Catholic schools are still “100 percent a university. And a university is meant to be a place of learning, a place of ideas, a place where you can say what you want and learn from what others say and what others think.”
Shanley said the play has little redeeming value.
“There’s really not much you can work with in the play from a Catholic point of view,” he said. “All the sex in the play is immoral. It’s same-sex, it’s autoerotic and extramarital. So it’s not like it’s a work of art that has the voice of the Catholic woman and her experience in sexuality.”
Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative group that wants the play removed from Catholic campuses, agreed.
“The question here is, ‘What are the limits?’ At a Catholic institution, when it comes to moral issues, the limits are probably going to be more strict than at another institution that has no understanding of moral truths,” he said.
Regina Bannan, an assistant professor of women studies at Temple University, said the play helps spark important dialogue about women’s sexuality. “It takes a woman from an object position to a subject position, where the woman is actually expressing her own ideas about sexual experiences,” she said.
“If the church hasn’t learned anything the last three years about stifling discussion about sexuality, that’s a shame,” she added, referring to the clerical sex abuse crisis.
Jenkins, who became Notre Dame’s president July 1, said he doesn’t want the university viewed as endorsing a play that goes against its Catholic teachings. He also has ordered the three-year-old Queer Film Festival renamed to clear up any perception that the event is meant to “celebrate and promote homosexual activity.”
Liam Dacey, a co-founder of the event, which takes place this weekend, said the new name – Gay & Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships – makes the film festival appear less academic because “queer” is the term more accepted in academia. His bigger concern, though, is that Jenkins will decide not to allow the event back on campus again.
A newly formed group called United for Free Speech has started a petition drive encouraging Jenkins to allow the two programs to remain at Notre Dame unrestricted. Organizer Kaitlyn Redfield, a senior involved in past performances of the play, said most of the people the group asks to sign the petition do so, estimating they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
“But people who don’t are very adamant about it,” she said.
Walsh thinks the argument over “The Vagina Monologues” helps elevate awareness of violence against women, and she hopes it continues. “I hope the debate goes on forever,” she said. “Will there ever be an answer? I don’t know. Whatever happens, it’s wonderful to see how we get there.”
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