This developing story is unbelievable. Well, not really.
But, first, the believable: for some time now there has been a strong push by various faculty members and students at Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA) to have an on-campus production of "The Vagina Monologues" (TVM). Fomer president Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., while head of the Jesuit school (1998-2009), twice refused productions of the play; it was also vetoed last year.
But now, it appears, TVM may very well be performed this year on the Gonzaga campus. Dr. Eric Cunningham, a professor of history at the school, wrote the following letter to The Gonzaga Bulletin, published online two days ago, in which he stated:
When fliers advertising auditions for the "Vagina Monologues" began to appear last month, I wondered if "the conversation" about Eve Ensler's play was going to become a permanent part of Gonzaga's annual Rites of Spring. Judging from Academic Vice President Patricia Killen's memo to university employees last Thursday, it appears that we're going to be spared that conversation in favor of a different kind of conversation. We will not be discussing whether the university ban on the production of the VM is valid, and we will not be discussing whether the VM is appropriate cultural fare for a Catholic university. In one gesture the AVP has rendered both the ban and the debate unnecessary. By casting the VM as but a piece of a larger discussion on violence against women, she has deftly defused the controversy — at the possible risk of closing off discussion on a topic of great concern to many people in the Gonzaga community.
He then gets to the part that is most outrageous (as well as manipulative and cynical):
More interesting than the move to sidestep the debate on free speech vs. identity was the AVP's stratagem of invoking Pope John Paul II's "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" to justify an on-campus production of the Vagina Monologues.
Dr. Killen wrote:
"If, as Ex Corde Ecclesiae (‘From the Heart of the Church') states, ‘ . . . by its Catholic character, a University is made more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interest of any kind,' then faculty, staff and students at Gonzaga are called to attend to and reflect on their own assumptions and presuppositions, and to engage in discourse about experiences of sexual violence, controversial art, ideas and events with scholarly charity (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Introduction, Section 7)."
Cunningham makes several excellent points about this bold-faced misuse and abuse of Ex Corde Ecclesiae:
While good scholars will interpret Church documents in various ways, it would seem to be a stretch to reconcile the spirit of Ex Corde with an artifact whose substance and spirit run decidedly counter to formal Catholic teachings on love, sexuality and the "nuptial meaning" of the body — all of which are expressed with great clarity in The Theology of the Body lectures, also promulgated by John Paul II. Nevertheless, I'm grateful to Dr. Killen for bringing Ex Corde into public discussion. It's the first time in my eight years at Gonzaga that I've heard any administrator make reference to it, and I hope we're able to move decisively in the direction of implementing all of its various guidelines and mandates.
I hope there will be fruitful and mutually respectful dialogues on the "monologues" — it would be a welcome change. Thinking back to last year's controversy, it was clear that the pro-VM faction saw this primarily as an issue of free speech, and they felt their rights were being trampled by institutional intolerance. They seemed to ignore the fact that most of the opponents of the play saw this as an issue of institutional identity. The opponents believed that they had a moral obligation to stand with Catholic teachings on sexuality — not to oppress, but to show fidelity to the Church and to Gonzaga's religious tradition. What was at stake for these people was not freedom of speech, which as citizens we all enjoy, but the preservation of specific religious values, which as a Catholic school we have a duty to defend, or at the very least acknowledge. As I recall, many of those supporting the play exhibited little sensitivity toward, or even a full understanding of the values in question — and yet portrayed themselves as victims of a callous and unthinking regime.
He then argues—very effectively, in my opinion—that the core issue at stake is that of real freedom and authentic Catholic identity:
The real question at the core of this controversy is not whether certain Catholics at Gonzaga are trying to censor the media, silence voices, block access to art, or diminish the general awareness of violence against women — nobody wants that and nobody has the power to do that. "Vagina Monologues" has been openly performed since the mid-1990s; it has been read and discussed in classrooms all over the country, including ours. It can be purchased at any bookstore or accessed online by anybody, anytime. Neither Gonzaga nor the Catholic Church has the power to stop free speech in Spokane or anywhere else. From the standpoint of its opponents, the original decision to bar the production of the VM was not an attempt to undermine the rights of free people, but rather an attempt to protect the rights of a free Catholic university.
This, I think, is what was so troubling about last year's conversation. It seemed to go unrecognized by the pro-VM faction, which included students, faculty, staff, and administrators, that in the United States, a Catholic school is as free to be a Catholic school, as a playwright is to publish and produce her work. A critical component of any school's freedom is its right to establish standards of speech and expression that it defines as appropriate to its professed values. The real question then, is what are these values?
What is a Catholic university? As important as the questions of core curriculum, academic freedom, student life, and social justice obviously are, none of them are even answerable until we know what we actually stand for. We reproduce the mantra of "Catholic, Jesuit, and humanistic" in all our literature, but there exists no consensus here as to what these things mean. If you ask people at Gonzaga to define "Catholic," you are certain to get a wide variety of answers, ranging from the all-encompassing "well, Catholic means universal, so I guess everything is Catholic" to more specific definitions based on such things as authoritative Church documents — like "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."