When the Rev. John Jenkins announced last week that he would allow the continued sponsorship and performance of The Vagina Monologues at the University Notre Dame, he contradicted his earlier statement that the play stands “in opposition to” Catholic values with its “graphic descriptions of homosexual, extra-marital heterosexual, and auto-erotic experiences,” including its positive portrayal of lesbian statutory rape.
His about-face revealed more than his lack of courage in the face of faculty pressure and his willingness to subordinate Notre Dame’s Catholic identity to political correctness. Jenkins’ decision exposed the divide between the problems facing contemporary American women and the solutions proposed by an authentic Christian humanism–solutions too many women never discover because Catholic leaders like Jenkins have failed to appreciate the riches of their own intellectual tradition.
In explaining his decision to allow The Vagina Monologues, Jenkins cited the play’s “laudable goals,” including its celebration of the female body and women’s sexuality, its encouragement of women to be proud of their sexual identity, and its aim of stopping violence against women. Monologues playwright Eve Ensler has frequently cited these goals when explaining her play’s fixation on the female sexual organ (which is mentioned more than 100 times in the play) and her vulgar and explicit references to the sexual experiences of women and young girls.
Sadly, the play undermines its own stated goals and imitates the very degradation it purports to fight. By explicitly equating themselves with their sexual organs (“My vagina is a shell, a tulip, and a destiny. . . . My vagina, my vagina, me,” “my clitoris . . . was me, the essence of me”), the play’s characters parrot the premises of pornography: That women are objects, not subjects; that women are the sum of their sexual organs; that feminine sexuality and identity can be reduced to feminine body parts. By encouraging audiences to chant vulgar slang words for a woman’s sexual organs, the play dispels any sense of mystery and reverence about feminine sexuality and contributes to the desensitization of a culture already drowning in obscenity. By presenting the lesbian seduction of a minor as a “salvation” experience in contrast to the many heterosexual encounters that portray men as perverts and predators, the play perpetuates the pessimistic view that men and women are doomed to use and abuse each other.
The Monologues defines healthy sexuality as the selfish pursuit of sexual pleasure and encourages audiences to become connoisseurs and voyeurs of all manner of sexual experience. In doing so, the play champions the very commodification of sex that endangers women–including those trapped in a sex trade driven by our culture’s insatiable appetite for unlimited and instant sexual gratification. Ensler may have intended to extol the best virtues of women, but she wound up imitating the worse vices of men.
There is an antidote to the dehumanizing vision of The Vagina Monologues, and it is found in the very intellectual tradition that so many Catholic universities have abandoned. Based on Scripture, the thought of Jewish feminist and martyred Catholic saint Edith Stein, and the Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II, the “new feminism” promoted by the late pope recognizes the beauty of sexuality, the goodness of the body, and the distinctiveness of women. It also celebrates the complementarity of the sexes and insists that true sexual fulfillment is found only in the context of committed, selfless, life-giving love–the kind of love God has for each human person created in His image.
The new feminism invites us to view body and soul as a unified whole and to reflect on the deep truths about the human person revealed in our male and female bodies. The physical receptivity of a woman’s body and of her womb, for instance, mirrors her exceptional openness to the human person, her innate ability to nurture and protect life, and her natural gift for intuitively grasping the whole truth of a person rather than reducing him to his parts. This “feminine genius,” as Pope John Paul called it, is urgently needed in a culture that constantly urges us to objectify persons and use them to satisfy our own desires for power and pleasure.
The new feminism is still relatively unknown among Catholics, even those studying at Catholic universities. But some Notre Dame undergraduates are working to change that. Earlier this spring, on the same week that university departments sponsored The Vagina Monologues, three young women organized and hosted a two-day conference on the new feminism. With some help from Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and its Right to Life club, the fledgling effort of “The Edith Stein Project” attracted 21 speakers and 300 students from across America to discuss problems confronting women today and ways to promote the dignity and vocation of women in the modern world. Response was so enthusiastic that the students plan to make the conference an annual affair.
Jenkins made no mention of their success in his remarks last week. Instead, he highlighted Loyal Daughters, a play being written by Notre Dame students about their personal experiences of sex, abortion, and other issues. Though he had initially criticized the play’s premise of presenting these experiences “in a morally neutral way” while using an “offensive” title that positions the confessional characters as daughters of the Virgin Mary, Jenkins said last week that he would “do all I can to support this effort.”
If he cannot find the courage to stop The Vagina Monologues or student plans to produce a homegrown version of it, Jenkins should at least consider giving equal support and publicity to “The Edith Stein Project.” The leader of a university as sophisticated and secular as Notre Dame surely believes that academic freedom demands a hearing for all points of view–even, on occasion, those of the Catholic Church.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell, an NRO contributor, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.