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  • Vagina Dialogues

    by Mike Coffey

    I realize this isn’t sports related, but disingenuity in all its forms makes my brain itch. There is nothing that makes me more crazy than people who participate in a negotiation claiming a desire to see all parties satisfied when in reality what they want is 100 percent of their own wishes fulfilled.

    Which is why the aftermath of Fr. John Jenkins’ closing statement on the Vagina Monologues controversy is contributing to my already deep sense of cynicism towards my fellow human space travellers.

    While Fr. Jenkins’ prose is engaging and well thought out, to expedite my sharing of ideas, I’ll give you a quick summary. After watching the play and talking to people associated with it, he sees no reason to ban the VM’s from campus. However, he would expect (as with any performance on campus) the performance to have the Catholic view represented, as it was this year through post-play diologues. The goals of the play — an incorporation of a positive self-image by women and the elimination of violence against them — must be supported, and it is possible to do so via other means such as the Loyal Daughters alternative put together by the VM’s Notre Dame organizers.

    (One quick interjection here — kudos to those organizers. While everyone else was getting wound up by the propriety or lack thereof of yelling the word “cunt” at total strangers, these people knew that the end was much more important than the means and put together an alternative they felt would accomplish the same goals while removing ammunition from the critics’ arsenal and ensuring the message, not the profanity, became the story. That’s what I call setting aside ego and having the right priorities. Well done.)

    A Catholic university, Fr. Jenkins says, must remain true to its spiritual mission, but running away from controversial topics does not further that mission. Rather, the context of Catholicism and its relationship to those topics must be explored so both sides can understand the Church’s position. That understanding is done via dialogue, not prohibition.

    To be clear, I have no dog in this particular hunt. I’m far from the world’s most conservative Catholic, but my faith has never been fragile enough to warrant fear of exposure to ideas such as the VM’s. On the other hand, I have a very positive image of most of the women in my life, am not inclined to raise a hand against any of them, and am not in posession of a vagina, external or otherwise. Therefore, I doubt I’ll be making time to see it.

    I compare it to the furor over The Last Temptation of Christ — a marginally compelling artistic expression exploded into hysteria by uninformed protesters focused on minor aspects of the work. I also think Notre Dame, as a private, Catholic institution, has the right to exhibit or prohibit anything it wants, and it’s not like they’d lock the doors of the dorms to prevent anyone from going over to IUSB to see it. The whole thing is stupid and overblown.

    (Interjection #2 — for those of you who haven’t read it, NDNation’s resident satirist, Bacchus, did his own take on the VM controversey, which, if you’re like me and think the whole thing is ridiculous, you’ll probably enjoy)

    As a relatively dispassionate observer, I found Fr. Jenkins’ statement wonderful. He has many constituencies to honor, and while Jesus said one cannot serve two masters, I think Fr. Jenkins gave everyone what they really wanted. He’s not going to run away from icky things and hide behind censorship, but he’s not going to allow those things to run roughshod over campus without the Church being able to have its say. Both sides get the opportunity to present their argument where there’s disagreement, and each will bolster the other where they agree.

    Solomon and the baby, Alexander and the Gordian Knot, Jenkins and the VM’s. Well-handled and time to move on, right?

    Ah, but now we have the outside protagonists in this little debate, who are more than enough to draw my attention and derision. Both claim to have the best interests of all at heart, but both really can’t see past the ends of their own hang-ups. They are the ones making this story go and my stomach churn.

    In the red corner, the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, who, obviously unclear on the concept of what a university is supposed to do, wanted nothing less than the unceremonious catapulting of the VM’s from the Notre Dame campus. Bishop John D’Arcy, praetor of the Ft. Wayne diocese that includes Notre Dame, was quoted as being “very disappointed” that Fr. Jenkins did not act in the “All right, Devious, don’t move”-esque manner he had expected. Given Fr. Jenkins’ higher level of conservatism and attention to Ex Cordae Ecclesia than the man who preceded him in his office, Bishop D’Arcy no doubt expected a more draconian response than he received.

    In the blue corner, the intellectual libertarian movement, for whom any slight incursion on their right to share every random synapse with the universe at large results in a debilitating case of diaper rash. Under the administration of the aforementioned precedessor to Fr. Jenkins, these folks were given carte blanche. Events that didn’t exactly toe the Catholicism line such as the VM’s were allowed expression as they saw fit, and if anyone was going to try to apply a filter of appropriateness and decorum to their philosophy, well, that just wasn’t going to do.

    But in this fight, both sides hit the canvas.

    The previous policy was not a good solution. If a school is going to be Catholic, it must remain true to its Catholic roots, which means it cannot endorse or otherwise promote events that go against Catholic teaching without any sort of caveat or clarification of their position. If the intelligensia expected this new administration was going to sit on its hands and not accomodate the Church’s needs in all this, they were painfully naive. Freedom of speech is not an absolute, since we’re not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, and the right for someone to express himself via throwing a punch ends at the tip of my nose. A private entity like Notre Dame has every right to exercise some level of control over the things that happen on its campus. Excessive previous indulgence obviously blinded these people to the appropriate levels of response, because complaining about this level of control is ridiculous.

    But if the previous policy was wrong, a campus closed to non-Catholic ideas is just as much so. If a school is going to be a school, it must remain true to the exploration of ideas. Unchallenged faith becomes a function of inertia rather than a vital part of the lives of Catholics. If Notre Dame is not equipping its students with the intellectual and spiritual wherewithal to explain the place of the Catholic Church in a world of Vagina Monologues and Queer Film Festivals, then those students are being shortchanged. And they’re not going to attain that knowledge or ability if they’re walled off from anythin
    g remotely controversial.

    My fondest wish in all this is for all the participants to going back to what they should be doing. Bishop D’Arcy should show up at Graduation to remind us all he’s there, and otherwise keep his nose out of the day-to-day operations of the school. The intellectual ministers without portfolio should get back to the message and purpose behind the VM and stop getting the giggles from yelling profanities in public venues.

    And Fr. Jenkins should get back to running Notre Dame as he sees fit. Because from what I’ve seen so far, that fit is pretty damn good.

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