Catholic Colleges Struggle to Balance Religious Values, Academic Freedom

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By Tom Coyne
Associated Press
Saturday, February 18, 2006

Kerry Walsh knew there'd be talk when a group of students proposed putting on "The Vagina Monologues" at the University of Notre Dame.

The Eve Ensler play, based on discussions with 200 girls and women about their feelings for their anatomy, includes sections about homosexuality, orgasms and rape.

"I knew from the get-go there was going to be some point where the university or someone would put their foot down and say, 'We really need to talk about this,' " said Walsh, who was a senior English major when she directed the play.

Four years later, that time has come.

The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, announced last month that he was scaling back the play this year -- limiting it to a classroom setting and barring ticket sales. He is seeking input from students, faculty and alumni on whether it and another controversial event, previously called the Queer Film Festival, should be allowed at all.

It's a discussion more Catholic universities are having as "The Vagina Monologues" becomes a kind of unsolvable riddle for the schools. Allow the performance and they are criticized for going against church teachings. Ban the play and they're accused of stifling academic freedom.

"When you put 'Catholic university' in your title and your Web site looks like the 'Bells of St. Mary's,' you set up an image that students expect," said Malcolm A. Kline, executive director of Accuracy in Academia, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington. "What I get from parents and students is, 'I thought I was going to a Catholic school, and they're showing the 'V Monologues.' "

The play, usually performed around Valentine's Day, was put on by students from about 20 Roman Catholic schools this year, including DePaul and Georgetown universities and Boston College. But several schools -- including Providence College -- have banned it, saying it sends the wrong message.

"A Catholic university that sponsors a production of 'The Vagina Monologues' would be running at odds with its Catholic mission by promoting and providing time, space and money . . . to a production that is so deeply antithetical to the way Catholics think about sex," said the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, Providence College's president.

Walsh, a civil rights lawyer in Chicago, said she understands the dilemma the universities face. "They do have a responsibility to follow the values of the morality of Catholicism," she said. "That is incredibly important."

At the same time, she said, Catholic schools are still "100 percent a university. And a university is meant to be a place of learning, a place of ideas, a place where you can say what you want and learn from what others say and what others think."

Shanley said the play has little redeeming value.

"There's really not much you can work with in the play from a Catholic point of view," he said. "All the sex in the play is immoral. It's same-sex, it's autoerotic and extramarital. So it's not like it's a work of art that has the voice of the Catholic woman and her experience in sexuality."

Regina Bannan, an assistant professor of women's studies at Temple University who has researched Catholic women, said the play helps spark important dialogue about women's sexuality. "It takes a woman from an object position to a subject position, where the woman is actually expressing her own ideas about sexual experiences," she said.

Jenkins, who became Notre Dame's president July 1, said he doesn't want the university viewed as endorsing a play that goes against its Catholic teachings. He also has ordered the three-year-old Queer Film Festival renamed to clear up any perception that the event is meant to "celebrate and promote homosexual activity."

Liam Dacey, a co-founder of the event, which took place last weekend, said the new name -- Gay & Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships -- makes the event appear less academic because "queer" is the term more accepted in academia. His bigger concern, though, is that Jenkins may decide not to allow the event back on campus again.

A newly formed group called United for Free Speech has started a petition drive encouraging Jenkins to allow the programs to remain at Notre Dame unrestricted. Organizer Kaitlyn Redfield, a senior involved in past performances of the play, said most of the people the group asks to sign the petition do so and estimated that they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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