A pall will hang over commencement at the University of Notre Dame this year — the pall of a great opportunity missed. Temporarily, one must hope.
Notre Dame’s new president, Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., got off to a brilliant start this past fall, with an inaugural address that located Notre Dame solidly within the ancient tradition of Catholic higher learning. Father Jenkins then led a pilgrimage to Rome, an act that embodied a key plank in the reformist platform announced in his inaugural address: to “think with the Church” means both to think and to think “with the Church.” Then, in April, things changed, dramatically and for the worse. After a campus wide debate, Father Jenkins announced 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.” Therefore, Father Jenkins decreed, the V-Monologues could continue to be produced on campus.
It was difficult, bordering on impossible, not to read Father Jenkins’ decision as a surrender to the most corrosive forces eating away at the vitals of Catholic higher education.
That view is shared by numerous Notre Dame faculty, among whom Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., stands tall, literally, intellectually, and spiritually. In a public letter to his brother Holy Cross priest, Father Miscamble told Father Jenkins that “your decision is being portrayed as involving your ‘backing down,’” in part because of an untoward deference to “the convictions of certain senior Arts and Letters faculty that any restriction on this play would damage our academic ‘reputation’ — and especially among those ‘preferred peer schools’ whose regard we crave.” “Indeed,” Miscamble continued, “it is hard to understand [your decision] in any other terms.”
Then Father Miscamble got down to cases: “In your recent…statement you reveal a level of naivete about the process of a Catholic university engaging the broad culture that is striking and deeply harmful to our purpose as a Catholic university. We live at a time, as Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter pointed out some years ago, when the elite culture is programmed to trivialize religion. Further more, much of popular culture is deeply antithetical to religious conviction and practice. It offers a worldview completely at odds with any Catholic vision. It is a worldview from which none of us can be sequestered and, indeed, many of our students arrive here far more influenced by the reigning culture than by faith convictions.
“Amidst this larger context you are to permit the continued production and promotion of a play which, as our colleague Paolo Carozza rightly puts it, ‘seems to reduce the meaning and value of women’s lives to their sexual experiences and organs, reinforcing a perspective on the human person that is itself fundamentally a form of violence.’ Dialogue with this point of view is ridiculous. It should be contested and resisted at Notre Dame but never promoted. Notre Dame must hold to a higher view of the dignity of women and men. Might I ask that if this play does not meet your criteria of an ‘’expression that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of the University,’ then what would?”
Father Miscamble ends by asking his brother priest to “go back to your best self and to your original instincts and position on this matter. Don’t embarrass those of us who want to work with you to build a great Catholic university. Lead us.”
Anyone who cares about the flagship university of Catholic higher education in America must pray that Father Miscamble’s plea is heard by Father Jenkins, a man who has shown courage in the past. The V-Monologues is trashy, pornographic nonsense, like a lot of other stuff available in the movies and on cable-TV. A great university can’t monitor what its students watch on TV or in theaters. But it can teach them about stupidity. The V-Monologues are stupid, and one of the things a great Catholic university ought to teach its students is to avoid the stupid. It can’t do that by the “creative contextualization” of stupidity.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.