It's been said that a Catholic university is an oxymoron. Progressives sling this quip as an attack against the stodgy, narrow-minded Church imposing orthodoxy on that bastion of free thinking, the university. Those with a stronger grip on history understand that the university, as a home of scholars intentionally pursuing Truth, is inherently Catholic. Heck, the Catholic Church invented the university. Catholicism and higher education only became an oxymoron when trendy liberalism took the upper hand, imposing its secular orthodoxy and demanding that Catholic schools retain Catholic "identity" but not Catholic teaching.
In the last week, two young priest-presidents took bold steps toward cleaning up the mess at their colleges. Fr. Brian Shanley, O.P., president of Providence College, and Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, declared that on-campus stage productions of The Vagina Monologues are not appropriate at Catholic schools. Shanley banned the play outright last Wednesday; Jenkins demoted it from stage to classrooms and barred ticket sales. On Monday, Jenkins began a campus dialogue about the play and a Queer Film Festival, apparently headed toward banning both.
The decisions may well represent a sea change in Catholic higher education. Notre Dame and Providence aren't on the super-orthodox (Thomas Aquinas College, Steubenville) or Catholic in Name Only (Georgetown and many other Jesuit institutions) margins -- they're representative of largely faithful, occasionally nutty Catholic schools. I speak from the experience of recently attending Providence and encountering a vibrant spiritual life, a strong clerical presence, and mostly excellent professors in the Catholic education tradition. As for Notre Dame, the campus is home to over 100 Masses each week as well as great scholars like Alasdair MacIntyre, Ralph McInerny, and Gerald Bradley, among many others. The schools are solid if imperfect.
The same couldn't always be said of their leadership. Before Shanley and Jenkins took their respective offices last summer, Fr. A. Philip Smith at Providence and Fr. Edward Malloy at Notre Dame had allowed on-campus productions of The Vagina Monologues since 2002. Malloy never discussed his decision publicly despite drawing criticism from the local bishop. The Providence College administration tried to straddle permission and condemnation, announcing that while it disapproved of the message, as "a prudential decision" it would allow the production.
Admittedly, though Smith and Malloy were wobbly, they could have been worse. At least they didn't defend the Monologues as the Jesuit president of Loyola University of New Orleans did. In his letter defending the production, Fr. Kevin Wildes displayed a strikingly subjective morality: "To exclude the play from a Catholic campus is to say, either that these women are wrong, or that their experience has nothing important to say to us." By these lights, what matters most is not the quality or content of an idea or show, but the depth of liberal outrage fueling it.
But it's a new day for Catholic higher education, at least under the Golden Dome and on Smith Hill. In his address to faculty Monday, Fr. Jenkins argued that certain activities outside the classroom are not acceptable at a Catholic college, such as a play that reduces women to their sexual organs and glorifies homosexuality, masturbation, and an adult woman seducing a girl. If the play were only discussed in a classroom setting, it would be one thing, Fr. Jenkins said. But Notre Dame apparently sponsoring an event "which either is or appears to be in name or content clearly and egregiously contrary to or inconsistent with the fundamental values of a Catholic university' -- that's another thing altogether and "should not be allowed at Notre Dame."
Jenkins hasn't banned the events just yet, but he seems to be leading the campus intellectually and politically into his camp. Students quoted by the South Bend Tribune after Tuesday's forum were generally opposed to the play. And even faculty who disagreed with Jenkins appreciated the discussion. After campus liberals are disarmed of their default criticism ("There was no dialogue!"), Jenkins will make the final decision: "I will not lead by consensus, nor by majority vote, nor in response to the pressures that individuals or groups inside or outside the university may bring to bear."
While Jenkins seemed timid at times, stressing the appearance of a Catholic university hosting The Vagina Monologues and the "problematic" suggestion that the school "endorses certain themes in the play," Providence's Shanley did not hesitate to condemn the play and affirm Catholic theology of the body.
Far from celebrating the complexity and mystery of female sexuality, The Vagina Monologues simplifies and demystifies it by reducing it to the vagina. In contrast, Roman Catholic teaching sees female sexuality as ordered toward a loving giving of self to another in a union of body, mind, and soul that is ordered to the procreation of new life. The deeper complexity and mystery lies in the capacity of human sexuality, both male and female, to sacramentalize the love of God in marriage. Any depiction of female sexuality that neglects its unitive and procreative dimensions diminishes its complexity, its mystery, and its dignity.
Who needs dialogue when students can chew on a letter that reads like a page from Karol Woltyla's Love and Responsibility or Pope Benedict XVI's just-released Deus Caritas Est.
Hopefully both men are leading the way in Catholic higher education, treating Catholic teaching as the Truth through which other claims should be considered, not one truth among many. Now that liberalism's flames are cooled, Catholic colleges face a fundamental question: Will they descend fully into secularism, as Marymount Manhattan did last year, or will they reclaim their Catholic heritage? Fr. Shanley understood that an institution cannot have it both ways, writing, "Any institution which sanctioned works of art that undermined its deepest values would be inauthentic, irresponsible, and ultimately self-destructive." As Notre Dame and Providence College learned, an authentically Catholic college cannot succumb to the secular version of the university. Catholic schools, especially the others permitting the Monologues, have some soul-searching to do.