Over much of the past decade, a celebrated and notorious play has set off a fierce debate at Catholic colleges and universities. The debate pits the values of Catholic identity against those of academic freedom, and invokes a broader battle for the heart and soul of American culture. Those who, like me, teach at Catholic institutions of higher learning will know that I am talking about a feminist play with the provocative title The Vagina Monologues.

Written by Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues premiered off-Broadway in 1996. In it, women of all ages talk candidly about their experiences as women; the topics range from first menstruation to rape. Ensler based the monologues on interviews she conducted with more than two hundred women. Some are silly—one focuses on what the speakers’ vaginas would wear if they had their own wardrobes. Others are heartbreaking, like the one that explores a woman’s memories of being brutally and repeatedly violated during wartime. Several are obviously designed to shock, like the narrative in which a woman recounts her vocational journey from corporate lawyer to lesbian dominatrix. Most are graphic; many are quite raw; more than a few are funny.

For the past several years, readings of the play across the country have been linked to a consciousness-raising event known as “V-Day.” The name coordinates nationwide performances, many at colleges and universities on or around Valentine’s Day, designed to increase awareness about all forms of violence against women; profits go to local organizations that combat such violence. With its flexible format and basic production requirements, the script lends itself to amateur performance on a limited budget, making it attractive to student groups. But despite the worthiness of its goal, a great deal of controversy has arisen about whether V-Day is appropriate for Catholic colleges and universities. The Vagina Monologues explicitly and enthusiastically recounts a wide range of sexual activity viewed as immoral by the Catholic Church; furthermore, the play resonates with an ideological worldview not known for its sympathy to Catholicism or other patriarchal religions.

At the University of Notre Dame, where I teach, the monologues were first performed in 2002, and have been performed again, in varying formats and settings, almost every year since. In March 2008, the university president, Fr. John Jenkins, approved another campus performance, stating his conviction “that truth will emerge from reasoned consideration of issues in dialogue with faith,” and calling his decision “the action that best serves the distinctive mission of Notre Dame.” But others disagreed vehemently. The Cardinal Newman Society, an activist group focused on ensuring the orthodoxy of Catholic colleges and universities, issued a statement calling the play “lurid” and “offensive.” The local bishop remains a long-time opponent of the monologues, deeming them “offensive to women” and “antithetical to Catholic teaching.” In February 2008, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine moved a theological seminar off campus to a nearby convent. It had been scheduled to be held at the university shortly before the play’s performance, and the move signaled displeasure with the university’s decision to let The Vagina Monologues go on.

It is perhaps too easy to let the play’s role as a point of skirmish in the culture wars cloud one’s view of the play itself and of the issues it presents. It is not a literary masterpiece. Nor is it a profound work of moral, political, or social philosophy. It does, however, raise important issues of sex, gender, and embodiment in ways that strongly resonate with college students, particularly women. And even if The Vagina Monologues is banned from Catholic campuses, its underlying message and concern cannot be banned from the broader culture. In my view, the task of a Catholic institution of higher education is not to insulate our students from the world around them, but rather to give them the tools to address it both critically and constructively. Those of us who teach at Catholic colleges and universities need to engage the play, not obliterate it.

So how should we think about The Vagina Monologues? First and foremost, it is important to remember that they are monologues—a series of stylized statements, each representing a particular woman’s experience of embodiment, or integrating similar experiences expressed by several women. Taken as a whole, the monologues recount in vivid detail some joys, wonders, embarrassments, abuses, and harms associated with being a woman. It is inaccurate to see them as defending a clearly definable set of moral propositions endorsing the behavior of their narrators. It is true, of course, that the play finds its most natural ideological home in the world of secular feminism. Nonetheless, it is a play—a work of art. And it is a mistake to read any play, even one with a political perspective, as if it were simply a philosophical tract.

To address the play, then, means in the first instance addressing the monologues it comprises. What should we do with the intensely personal accounts of experience these monologues present to us? What weight should we give them in forming, applying, and perhaps revising the norms of our community? The church and its institutional representatives are by no means unique in confronting this challenge. Any community that proclaims generally applicable norms of behavior, and demands adherence to those norms from its members, confronts it to some degree.

The question of how to deal with the rawness of the experiences represented in The Vagina Monologues reminds me of the controversy in legal circles over “victim-impact statements.” Many states allow such statements as part of the criminal sentencing process. The victims of a violent crime—or in the case of murder, the victim’s relatives—stand up in court, before perpetrator, judge, and (symbolically) the community. Frequently, their statements are emotionally raw. Some time ago, the New York Times ran a story about the sentencing of a New Jersey woman found guilty of beating and starving her four adopted children. The children had the opportunity to speak to the court, and their statements conveyed rage, hurt, and an assertion of personal dignity. “You yelled at us, cursed at us, hit us with brooms, rulers, sticks, shoes, and belt buckles,” said one of the children. “I still have the marks to prove it.” Another, asked what he considered the right sentence, asserted that “she should have gotten jail for life or the electric chair because she starved us and almost killed us. And she can’t repay us.”

Victim statements allow people who have suffered tremendous harm to speak publicly and, in so doing, to regain their voice, their sense of agency. At the same time, they assist the community in formulating and appropriately enforcing its legal and moral norms. Most of us tend to think of crime in the abstract. But murder, rape, and assault are horribly concrete in the destruction they inflict. As the Supreme Court noted in Payne v. Tennessee, the 1991 case that affirmed the admissibility of victim-impact statements during sentencing, such crimes are particular acts, ones which forever alter the lives of particular victims. Those charged with making decisions about such crimes need to realize this. Naïveté is not an acceptable option. Victims’ statements testify to the human cost of crime. They not only make the perpetrator face that cost; they also make the community face it.

At the same time, no matter how powerful such statements are, we cannot simply translate them directly into recommendations for law or public policy. Consider, for a moment, the boy’s statement that his abusive adoptive mother ought to get “jail for life or the electric chair.” The words express his rage and sense of betrayal, but they do not constitute a serious and considered recommendation for punishment. To allow the intensity with which a victim articulates his or her suffering to determine criminal sentencing is ultimately too arbitrary. One person’s raw experience, no matter how honestly and powerfully expressed, remains just that—one person’s raw experience. It needs to be brought into conversation with the experience of others, to be probed for the distortions mixed in with the truth and corrected for those distortions, before being made a basis for general norms. We recognize, for instance, that while great trauma or suffering can be a source of wisdom and moral sensitivity, it can also distort one’s personality and capacity for moral insight (thus children who are abused sometimes grow up to abuse others).

In law, as in moral theology, the formulation of general behavioral norms is done with a view to the common good. And what is the “common good”? The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain asserted that it is no “mere collection of private goods” but rather “the good human life of the multitude.” Our commitment to the equal dignity of each person as made in the image and likeness of God means that the common good must encompass the good of each person, as well as that of the whole. In my view, this means that everyone’s experience deserves to be heard, but that no one person’s experience can be decisive. It also means that the experience of the majority cannot be decisive. We don’t determine moral norms by popular vote. The goal, rather, is to move reflectively toward a conception of communal human flourishing that continually tests, and is tested by, human experience, both collective and individual.

Of course, the Catholic community isn’t the American political community, and the question of how and why our legal system deals with a particularly raw form of human experience in criminal sentencing cannot track, point for point, a cultural controversy impacting the values of faith. Each community’s way of treating human experience is different. And yet I believe there is room for Catholics—even Catholic moralists—to find points of dialogue even with something as outrageous as The Vagina Monologues.

To begin with, educated Catholics ought to feel a faint tug of familiarity in the monologues’ intense and searing accounts of deeply personal experiences. Indeed, you might say that Catholic Christianity invented this format, or at least put a distinctive new spin on it. St. Augustine begins Book III of his Confessions in the following manner:

I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it.... I had no liking for the safe path without pitfalls, for although my real need was for you, my God, who are the food of this soul, I was not aware of this hunger.

Augustine relates how his intense experience of human eros led him, over time, to a deeper (and chaste) love of God. His personal story invokes the broader Neoplatonic framework of the ordo amoris, a progressive order of love leading from natural love to Christian charity. And here is a natural point to begin engaging Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Like Augustine, many of the play’s monologists found themselves “in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust” (both their own and that of others) and experienced “no liking for the safe path without pitfalls.” Augustine insists, however, that God meets us in the most intimate events of our life. Even when we seem—to ourselves or to others—to be far from the divine, God is pursuing us, both in and through our disordered loves, inviting us not to reject them entirely, but to reconsider and reorder them.

In this regard, the theological and anthropological foundations of Catholic thought equip us well to engage the monologues constructively. Like all Christians, Catholics believe that the God who created us and the God who redeemed us are one and the same. Yet our tradition is particularly attentive to the continuities between human experience in general and Christian experience as seen in the light of the gospel. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World reminds us that the “joy and hope, grief and anguish” of modern life are familiar to Christians, that “nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo” in the hearts of the followers of Christ.

I can certainly imagine someone asking whether The Vagina Monologues deserves our attention. Should it sound an echo in our hearts? Does it articulate a “genuinely human” aspect of human experience? In my judgment, yes. In countless performances at universities across the country, the monologues have raised issues about sexuality, gender relations, and violence that grasp the attention of people both inside and outside the church. Our students at Notre Dame have repeatedly told us that the monologues help them find their own voices by showing them a raw, brutal eloquence that reflects their own experiences, wishes, and fears. In fact, some students have now produced their own version of the monologues, Loyal Daughters and Sons.

One may well ask, might not a less provocative, even less offensive piece accomplish this? Why not have our students read an academic article on the issues treated in the monologues? Ultimately, in my view, it is impossible to detach the manner in which those issues are raised—stylized first-person narratives—from the issues themselves. As with victim-impact statements, the first-person, confessional form of the monologues is inseparable from their message. In a sense, the person is the message—and this inseparability resonates with the Catholic tradition, which does not deny, derogate, or ignore the experiences of any human being, but rather claims to offer a fuller and more life-giving way of interpreting them. Each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. The same God who relentlessly pursued Augustine through his experiences pursues each and every one of us through our experiences. We know that God is patient, kind, and merciful; we know also, as the Spanish proverb says, that God writes straight with crooked lines.

Typically, the debate over The Vagina Monologues tends to be framed as a somewhat abstract battle between Catholic values and academic freedom. I would like to explore how to engage the play in more concrete and specific terms.

The Christian moral tradition teaches that people do not choose evil per se; rather, they make wrongful choices in their attemps to choose the good. In other words, we believe that evildoers are in fact pursuing the good—but in a disordered way, with ill-chosen priorities. Seeing those engaged in morally objectionable practices in this light can help us engage them in a way that is at once respectful and challenging. As we consider the narratives of The Vagina Monologues, we need to pay attention not merely to the disorder that may hamper or vitiate the narrators’ pursuit of good, but also to the goods they are pursuing in the first place. The mere fact that their pursuit is in some way disordered does not mean they cannot help us deepen, extend, or revise our own understanding of a rightly ordered pursuit of the good. I see four ways in which Catholics might profitably engage the monologues within the play.

First, if we see the narrators as pursuing good, albeit sometimes in a distorted way, we will be quicker to recognize common ground. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes that rape “does injury to justice and charity.” Yet such a phrase remains an abstraction—and in matters that involve grave harm to human beings, abstractions can function as deceptive euphemisms. The play’s depiction of the still-raw wounds experienced by Japanese “comfort women”—government-conscripted sex slaves for the Japanese troops in World War II—gives that phrase a specificity that is both agonizing and morally true. Here, moral teaching and artistic representation enhance and reinforce each other.

Second, if we interpret the narrators in The Vagina Monologues as pursuing some good, we will be able to see more clearly and compassionately how sin operates in human life. Take a monologue that has generated particularly vehement criticism, “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could,” whose narrator recounts her own sexually pleasurable seduction, as a teenager, by a twenty-four-year-old woman. Bundled together in this narrative are at least five sexual practices prohibited by Catholic teaching: masturbation; sexual relations deliberately closed to procreation; sex outside of marriage; sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and sexual seduction of a minor. Shouldn’t Catholics simply repudiate such an apparently total dismissal of Catholic sexual morality? We certainly could—and many critics have. Yet our tradition asks and enables us to do so much more. What struck me about most conservative Catholic accounts of “The Little Coochi Snorcher” is that they do not begin at the beginning. They leave out key details of this particular narrator’s life, which reveal that from the time she was a child, she associated her vagina with dirt, shame, pain, and even death. Most significantly, they leave out the fact that as a nine-year-old, she was raped in the basement of her house by one of her father’s friends, then watched as her father killed the rapist with a shotgun.

It seems to me that anyone adopting a broadly Augustinian account of morality would be saddened—but not surprised—by “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could.” Original sin, according to Augustine, means that human beings, broken and bruised, almost always break and bruise others. It ought not be surprising that after enduring a lifetime of brutality and pain, a young person would view pleasure, kindness, and tenderness as welcome blessings, no matter what their source. To make this observation does not require repudiating one iota of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. It does, however, require putting that teaching back where it belongs: in the context of fundamental Catholic doctrine on sin and redemption.

Third, if we interpret the narrators in The Vagina Monologues as pursuing a disordered good, we will be more inclined to be vigilant about disorder and deficiency in our own lives—including the life of the institutional church. Several of the monologues deal with the horror of rape. This is a horror Catholic theology is fully capable of acknowledging and combating; and yet the church and its representatives, unfortunately, have not always responded appropriately to assaults on the dignity and bodily integrity of women.

A couple of years ago, I listened to an address to Notre Dame undergraduates given by a curial cardinal. In the course of urging the young women in the audience to preserve their sexual purity, he recounted the story of St. Maria Goretti (1890–1902), a young Italian girl who died while resisting rape. If Maria could die to preserve her chastity, argued the cardinal, then today’s young women could at least refrain from voluntarily relinquishing theirs.

I found myself wondering, what does this argument say to women who have been raped and lived to tell about it? That they are damaged goods? That they would be better off dead? I had a hard time seeing how such sentiments could be consistent with fundamental Catholic doctrine, which teaches that one’s purity cannot be lost through violent assault. In The City of God, Augustine flatly rejects the claim that a virgin who has been raped has lost her purity: “In the case of violent rape and of an unshaken intention not to yield unchaste consent, the crime is attributable only to the ravisher and not at all to the ravished.” Indeed, such women “bear within them the glory of chastity, in the testimony of their conscience, and this they have in the eyes of their God.” In this instance, The Vagina Monologues can help Catholics hold one another accountable to the best in the tradition that claims our hearts and minds.

Finally, seeing the narrators in The Vagina Monologues as pursuing good, although sometimes in a distorted way, will help us better fulfill our ongoing responsibility to our own theological and moral tradition. Catholic teaching on matters of sexuality, embodiment, and the relationship between men and women is still developing. The eminent historian John T. Noonan has reminded us of alterations in Catholic teaching that have occurred over the centuries vis-à-vis such phenomena as usury, slavery, heresy, and capital punishment. None of these changes came easily. And we cannot rule out similar developments in the church’s teaching on sexual ethics.

Until very recently, the Christian tradition has not paid the same degree of critical, reflective attention to the experience of women as it has to the experience of men, especially concerning matters of sexuality. Augustine’s explicit reflections on male sexual arousal, including the sense of shame it can provoke, have shaped the connection between sex, sin, and shame in the Christian tradition for fifteen hundred years. As I listened to the monologue presenting an elderly woman’s still-vivid shame at a youthful experience of sexual arousal, I felt certain that the tradition could only benefit by paying attention to her reflections as well as Augustine’s. I also think that the mix of humor and shame The Vagina Monologues evokes in addressing issues of sexuality would be deepened and enriched by conversation with a Catholic Christian anthropology, which has long recognized that human beings tend to see embodiment with both gratitude and chagrin, and sexuality as a matter for both serious reflection and levity.

As important as the particular monologues are, the play is more than the sum of its parts. And there is no denying that The Vagina Monologues constitutes a work of art with a distinctive moral and political point of view—one significantly in conflict with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium.

Argument itself is not bad for a tradition; in fact, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contends that “a living tradition” by its very nature conducts “an argument precisely about the goods which constitute that tradition.” The University of Notre Dame’s dialogue with The Vagina Monologues has facilitated healthy argument about the role of feminism, sex, and embodiment within two overlapping traditions that claim the loyalty of many students: the American democratic tradition and the Catholic one. Moreover, campus dialogue about the play forced into sharp relief a question no American Catholic woman can long avoid: How to negotiate the incongruities involved in simultaneously belonging to a civil community that increasingly treats her as fundamentally equal to men, and a religious community that views her sex as an absolute bar from many positions of leadership and responsibility?

But have the debates over feminism, sex, and embodiment within Catholic Christianity gone beyond ordinary, run-of-the-mill challenges and evolved into a full-blown epistemological crisis for our intellectual and moral tradition? Polls today show sharp divisions between traditional and liberal Catholics on these and related issues. Amid the polarization and bitterness, some say we need to batten down the hatches and forcibly eject the foreign elements that are causing the crisis in the first place. In this view, the best way to quash the threat posed by a secular worldview is to refuse to engage it: The Vagina Monologues cannot threaten a Catholic view of sexuality, women, and embodiment if it is banned, ignored, mocked—or simply replaced with an event that addresses these questions solely from a Catholic perspective that mirrors the current teaching of the magisterium.

That approach is doomed to failure. First, it isn’t practicable to create a world in which Catholic young people are insulated from the values animating The Vagina Monologues. Those values routinely surface all around them, often far more seductively than in the play. (Take, for instance, two enormously popular series, Entourage and Sex in the City, in which sexual promiscuity is presumed to be normal for any happy young adult.) More important, any attempt to insulate a Catholic tradition in crisis is not likely to be an effective way to solve that crisis. Quite the opposite. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, what is required is the kind of disciplined creativity that involves borrowing—and adapting—elements from competing traditions whose way of viewing the nature and purpose of human flourishing might initially be seen as a mortal threat. Ultimately, if secular feminism has indeed provoked an epistemological crisis in the Catholic Church, solving that crisis will likely require deep familiarity with secular feminism.

Constructive, creative engagement with an alien tradition is not easy; it requires, according to MacIntyre, a certain type of bilingual fluency. Only by acquiring fluency in an alien tradition, he argues, can one hope to adopt some constructive, critical distance from the problems afflicting one’s own. To gain such an intimate familiarity with an alien tradition, it is not enough to read the philosophical texts; one must also encounter its characteristic forms of art and literature, which attempt to communicate its truths in a nondiscursive manner. As I noted before, The Vagina Monologues is not great art. Nonetheless, it does capture something raw and true about American women’s sensibilities at the turn of the third millennium. Consequently, it is important for any Catholic trying to learn the language of contemporary secular feminism to think seriously and sympathetically about why it has touched so many people. In my view, the performance of the play by Notre Dame students has helped immensely in this task. Needless to say, it is only one step toward fluency. But it is an important step.

The most passionate objection I have heard to The Vagina Monologues does not concern the content of the monologues, or even the ideology of the play. Instead, it addresses the perceived place of the play in the culture wars. The argument runs like this. As secular feminists, the proponents of The Vagina Monologues are hostile to the religious mission of a Catholic college or university; indeed, they view the Catholic faith as deeply harmful to the well-being of women. Why, then, invite them on our campus to voice their disrespect for us on our own turf? At best, doing so entails a naively optimistic assessment of the motives of our opponents; at worst, it is a mark of our own lack of self-respect.

There are several problems with that line of argument. First, it strikes me as highly doubtful that everyone involved in the play, especially when staged by Catholic students at a Catholic college, is fundamentally opposed to everything the Catholic Christian tradition stands for. Matters are likely to be more complicated than that. Catholic students might see the play as enabling them to reject sexism, violence against women, and an overly romantic conception of women’s gender roles, without requiring them to repudiate Catholic Christianity—or even its sexual teachings—in toto.

More generally, I’m skeptical about the “culture war” mindset. This mindset insists on the importance of preserving Catholic distinctiveness, frequently defined as the ways in which Catholic teaching sets us apart from the broader culture. The trouble with that approach is that it interprets Catholic distinctiveness in ways that are too indebted to the very currents (largely American Protestant) against which it seeks to define itself. More specifically, it tends toward the creation of a Catholic sect—something which the great center of the Catholic tradition would view as an oxymoron. The heart and soul of Catholicism is universality; our distinctiveness is found not primarily in what sets us apart from other people, but rather in the particular way in which we interpret what we have in common with them.

Yet even if the proponents of The Vagina Monologues are in fact hostile to Catholic values and institutions, Catholic colleges and universities are not absolved from the responsibility of grappling with the play’s insights and arguments. As MacIntyre reminds us, development in church doctrine frequently takes place by engagement with systems of ideas actively hostile to Catholic Christianity. The universal church has learned much about the importance of religious freedom, human rights, and democratic politics from thinkers who opposed both the Catholic faith and the institutions that embodied it. In order to learn these lessons, Catholic moralists and political theorists needed to distinguish between the sometimes virulent anti-religious (and, often, specifically anti-Catholic) impetus of those advancing the cause of freedom and democracy and the real merit of their political and practical claims. The church broke through to the insights embodied in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty only because some of its sons and daughters engaged the outrageous.

The key, of course, is to engage the outrageous actively—not to ignore it, on the one hand, or to capitulate to it, on the other. Catholic colleges and universities have aspirations to train the Catholic intellectuals of the next generation. Given these aspirations, banning a play such as The Vagina Monologues not only presupposes a far too simplistic analysis of the play, but also a far too pessimistic assessment of the resources of the Catholic tradition to deal with criticism and challenge. On the contrary, I think the occasion should be used to delve ever more deeply into the questions raised by the monologues, the play, and its performance. The Catholic intellectual and moral tradition will be richer for the encounter, as will the students who have a sustained opportunity to examine the conflicting currents of thought that shape their everyday lives.

At its best, the Catholic intellectual tradition attempts to claim a nuanced and complex middle ground with respect to the broader culture. We do not uncritically affirm it. But neither do we reject it, wholesale, as unredeemed and irredeemable. As the controversy over The Vagina Monologues demonstrates, claiming this middle ground is frequently difficult and controversial. But if Catholics are to be true to the riches of our heritage, we have no other choice.

Read more: Letters, April 10, 2009

Related: The Right Questions, by Cathleen Kaveny

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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Published in the 2009-03-13 issue: View Contents
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