Catholicism: ”Just Another Good Idea”?

My recent columns on the flip-flops by Fr. John Jenkins, the new president of Notre Dame, on the issue of The Vagina Monologues have elicited a number of letters from readers. Jenkins, you will recall, seemed poised to prohibit the production of the play on campus.

He stated that that its “graphic descriptions” of various sexual experiences “stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to” the Church’s teaching “that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of procreation.” But a few weeks later he reversed himself, telling reporters and members of the Notre Dame faculty that “I see no reason to prohibit performances of The Vagina Monologues on campus, and do not intend to do so.”

I had thought this topic needed no further discussion. I was wrong. The letters opened up several new angles worth considering. Only one letter supported Jenkins’s decision. That reader took the position that the Church has nothing to fear from a free discussion of ideas and that it is a sign of progress that productions such as this are now a part of Catholic higher education because “the days of the Index are over.”

This is an intriguing proposition, because it is true that a Catholic college has a duty to inform its students of the major themes of intellectual history, including the work of authors hostile to the Church. We expect Catholic college graduates to be familiar with Voltaire and Rousseau, Marx and Freud, Nietzsche and Darwin. Modern American Catholics should also have an understanding of the criticism of the Church and traditional morality implicit in much of modern feminism.

But there is a difference between a serious-minded presentation of philosophical questions and a coarse dramatization of indecent material. The question is whether The Vagina Monologues is the former or the latter. I can’t help but think that Fr. Jenkins would be uncomfortable making the case in public that it is the former. A comparison is in order: We want modern Catholics to understand what motivates the hatred of white racists and neo-Nazis, but that does not mean that a professor in a Catholic college should assign The Turner Diaries, the novel favored by skinheads and members of various white supremacist groups for its graphic depiction of the killing of blacks and Jews in a future race war. We expect lines to be drawn in these matters.

Maybe every cloud does have a silver lining. Jenkins’s decision has led to a serious discussion among Notre Dame faculty and alumni of what it means when we say that a university is “Catholic.” A reader from Wisconsin forwarded samples of columns and letters to the editor from The Observer, a South Bend daily that calls itself an “independent newspaper serving Notre Dame,” as well as from Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne and South Bend. I don’t know if it is accurate to say that the tide is turning at Notre Dame in favor of the traditional understanding of a Catholic university, but a spotlight is being thrown onto the stakes in Jenkins’s decision. There are still some very serious thinkers loyal to the Church among the faculty at Notre Dame.

For example, Franciscan Father John Coughlin, a professor in the School of Law at Notre Dame, took issue with Jenkins’s contention that performances of The Vagina Monologues could be beneficial as long as the issues it raises are “brought into dialogue with Catholic tradition.” Jenkins’s statement, said Coughlin, “creates the impression that Catholicism is just another ‘good idea’ sometimes at issue and to be batted around in the ongoing intellectual debate at the university. Without the recognition of the primacy of Catholic truth claims at Notre Dame, the university’s own internal dialogue will fail to ensure integration of faith and reason. And in its dialogue with wider culture, Notre Dame will be a weak partner with little of its own to offer.” Then Coughlin took off the gloves: “My impression is that secular speech of all types is alive and well at Notre Dame. Rather, it is the Catholic intellectual life that needs to be fostered and nourished.”

John Cavadini, chair of the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, elaborated on this theme. He also was unwilling to buy into Jenkins’s understanding of the demands of free speech and academic freedom. “There is a missing conversation partner,” in Jenkins's view of this matter, wrote Cavadini: the Catholic Church. “Whether we recognize it or not, this relationship to the Church…is the lifeblood and only guarantee of our identity as a Catholic university. There is no Catholic identity apart from affiliation with the Church.” Cavadini contends that Jenkins’s position blurs that affiliation: “The president’s statement, as a way of going forward, seems to ratify our unspoken declaration of independence from the Church,” to portray “any explicit relationship to the Magisterium of the Church as a ‘seminary model.’”

Cavadini continues, “Without a sense of the university’s close relationship with, and accountability to, the Church, the unique and precious intellectual fabric that we have woven here and which many, including many who are not Catholic, have come to value precisely because of its special character and witness, can never in the long run be sustained.”

Fr. Bill Miscamble, associate professor of history at the university, also hit hard at Jenkins's decision. In an open letter to Jenkins, he wrote, “My fear is that you have been ‘spooked’ by the fear of negative publicity if you were to ‘suppress speech on this campus.’ Here, it seems, you have a special opportunity to rethink your position. Know well that there is much hypocrisy abroad in the American academy on the issue of ‘academic freedom.’ Note that NYU had no difficulty recently in suppressing the ‘free speech’ rights of students who wanted to discuss and display the Danish cartoons. Note that folk at Brown University get by with a ‘speech code’ that bans all ‘verbal behavior’ that may cause ‘feelings of impotence, anger or disenfranchisement.’ In the American academy it is only certain kinds of speech that gets protected” and “a rather narrow range of politically correct views tends to prevail in the faculties of many institutions which influences what that ‘speech’ is. Notre Dame presently has a wider range of perspectives represented than most institutions who are forever prattling on about their diversity. (They are all ‘diverse’ in the same predictable way!)”

Miscamble knows the stakes: “[W]e both know that there are many important matters to which you must attend. But careful readers of works like George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University know that similar decisions to yours, which conformed religious schools to their secular peers, inexorably led them down a dangerous path to the full surrender of their religious mission and identify. Regrettably, places like Georgetown University are well advanced on this course. Don’t let us merely follow them. To do so would be a betrayal of our forebears in Holy Cross. Instead, Notre Dame must lead the way in American Catholic higher education.”

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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