Covenants, monologues & burdens


Fr. John R. Donahue’s thoughtful article “Trouble Ahead?: The Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations” (March 13) lays great stress on an affirmation of the late Pope John Paul II. The pope said: “Just as we take note of the ‘covenant never revoked by God’ so we should consider the intrinsic value of the Old Testament, even if this only acquires its full meaning in the light of the New Testament and contains promises that are fulfilled in Jesus.” Donahue underscores the first part of the statement concerning the covenant never revoked, but the second part demands equal attention and, I would suggest, has implications for Christian prayer and mission. Ought Christians not desire that their Jewish brothers and sisters come to recognize the fulfillment of all God’s promises in Christ Jesus?

In discussing the “covenant texts” in the Letter to the Hebrews, Donahue calls attention to the author’s injunction to keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Heb 12:2). But if one asks why we should do so, is not part of the answer given in the very first verses of the Letter? “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1-2). This confession of fulfillment need not imply either revocation or supersession.

Finally, Donahue quotes appreciatively his fellow exegete, Luke Timothy Johnson, to the effect that Christians need to learn from Jews so that we might appreciate better our own heritage. I certainly concur. But I believe that, in the ongoing dialogue, Christians need also to give reasons for their conviction that (to quote Johnson’s Commentary on Hebrews) Jesus is the one “whose life, death, and Resurrection have fundamentally altered the structures of human existence itself.” If Johnson is correct in his reading of Hebrews, we have here a radical claim concerning Jesus’ uniqueness and universality: a claim that the bishops’ suggested revision to the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults only seeks to echo.

Chestnut Hill, Mass.



Fr. Robert Imbelli’s letter underscores one of the problems I addressed in my reflection: that the covenant texts in the New Testament are complex. If theological reflection proceeds only from the Letter to the Hebrews, then a one-sided picture emerges. Pope John Paul II’s statements on “the covenant never revoked” are ultimately based on a different theology that culminates in Romans 11:25-36. That perspective is also reflected in the 2002 document of the Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (no. 42): “Early Christians were conscious of being in profound continuity with the covenant plan manifested and realized by the God of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel continues to be in a covenant relationship with God, because the covenant-promise is definitive and cannot be abolished.”




It is good to have Cathleen Kaveny’s extended argument for why Catholic universities should encourage production of The Vagina Monologues every year (“Be Not Afraid,” March 13). She is too modest to tell us that she is among the professors there who hold dialogues with the students after the performance. Jacques Maritain, Augustine, John Noonan, Alasdair MacIntyre—the references here marshaled suggest her contribution to the campus dialogue is way more interesting than the play itself.

I am pleased that Kaveny did not use academic freedom as a defense, though that in fact was the argument put forward by members of the Notre Dame faculty, some of whom threatened to resign if the administration blocked its performance. I would have liked more from her on this, because it is hard to imagine even the most ideologically freighted feminist professor giving up tenure over this issue. Academic freedom was also a major reason my grandniece took a role in the play at Notre Dame in 2006—a performance that drew forty students.

Kaveny does not address my own objection to The Vagina Monologues, which is broader than the “Catholic” issue she discusses. I hate to see any school, whether it is Notre Dame (I am an alumnus) or Lake Wobegon Community College, get conned. I would love to have some zealots mount a similar campaign to have my own books read once a year on the grounds that no student should leave campus without that experience. Eve Ensler has a real scam going on her behalf, and, like her, I’d be willing to donate all proceeds to charity just to get my work the same sort of sinecured exposure.

I can see a yearly campus recitation of Ulysses on Bloomsday because Joyce’s work is great art. Kaveny admits The Vagina Monologues is not. What she might have said is that it is a highly didactic performance piece based on heavy-breathing feminist ideology and aimed at moving audiences to political action. Which is to say that it is meant to move the audience the way Soviet “realist” art intended, the way Chairman Mao posters intended, the way Fascist photography in Germany and, more recently, the way many of the pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe intended. Ensler is not interested in the intransitive “pity and fear” of Aristotle’s Poetics. The ideologue never is.

I read Kaveny as arguing chiefly for the play’s social-therapeutic value: “enabling [Catholic students] to reject sexism, violence against women, and an overly romantic view of women’s gender roles.” The same could be said, I suppose, of performing Dickens in order to reform the legal profession, but that is not why we read Dickens now. Once we start to justify any performance as a goad to action, we are no longer talking about art, however “stylized” the performance.

Kaveny is much more insightful when she analogizes the Monologues to “victim impact statements.” For that is what Ensler has wrought. And if her play bore that title, not even New Yorkers would have bothered to see it. Taking Kaveny’s hint, I propose that Notre Dame—and all other universities—drop The Vagina Monologues as a piece of dated feminist agitprop. If they really want to address the sexual zeitgeist, they might take up for discussion the “more seductive” Sex in the City, which a lot more students watch anyhow. What has Eve Ensler ever done to earn her work the tenure of a professor?

No college or university should feel obligated or coerced to observe V-Day. Enough already. There was a time when V-E Day (Victory in Europe) was annually observed, but even that worthy tradition ran its course. Ensler’s Energizer Bunny has lost its power to shock.

Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.



Ken Woodward has put his finger on a real injustice: It is simply outrageous that a mediocre work such as Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is performed year after year on university campuses across the country while his own sterling work stands bereft of dramatic presentation. I pledge my best efforts to redress this travesty, by helping to put on a play based on his award-winning book, Making Saints, next year at Notre Dame. In fact, I will even volunteer to play (a superannuated) Joan of Arc mysel—provided, of course, that Woodward is kind enough not to demand too much verisimilitude in the auto-da-fé scene.



Thank you for Cathleen Kaveny’s excellent article “Be Not Afraid.” As a student at Fordham University, for the past three years I have watched my peers struggle to put on Eve Ensler’s provocative play when the Student Affairs Office consistently denies funding for the event. Still, the play continues to sell out every year, succeeding in fostering dialogue among students—even prompting discussion groups to spring up under the auspices of Campus Ministry. Saying no to The Vagina Monologues on Catholic campuses squashes the yeses that Catholic moral theology promotes: namely, the acknowledgment of the equal good of every person, and, in turn, listening to her experience. As a young Catholic woman, I have learned a great deal from Monologues, even though I may find it difficult to identify with some of the characters portrayed. Instead of criticizing individual monologues, we should view the play as a whole—a raw inspiration for reflection, a call to dialogue about women’s issues, and, as Kaveny says, an opportunity for enrichment of the Catholic moral tradition. Why be afraid of that?

Bronx, N.Y.



Cathleen Kaveny’s wonderful article “Be Not Afraid” gave me a pleasant, if fleeting, daydream. Wouldn’t it be something if the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops could put out such a well-reasoned, faith-filled teaching document as this amazing magistra has done?

Unlike certain cowardly and un-Augustinian members of the episcopacy, Kaveny shows courage even in her moderation as she challenges the sectarian impulse behind banning V-Day performances. She is too polite to say what so many of the faithful know: “official” teaching is stuck and unable to view human sexuality except through a comfortable but too-narrow philosophical lens.

Kudos as well to Fr. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, for his courage in standing up to the Cardinal Newman Society and their confused supporters by allowing Monologues to be performed on campus.

Cortlandt Manor, N.Y.



Thank you for eloquently expressing the disappointment of many Catholics over Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to lift the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson—along with other self-inflicted wounds by Vatican officials. Your editorial “Griefs & Anxieties” (February 27) was a masterpiece of restraint, charity, and honesty.

Chester, N.J.


Regarding John Wilkins’s “Why I Became Catholic” (February 27), I would say to the author that I grew up with the Latin Mass before Vatican II, have enjoyed the fresh air let in by John XXIII, and thrived under the leadership of John Paul II. Wilkins should not worry about Pope Benedict XVI. He will preserve the essence of the Nicene Creed formulated at the first church council in the third century. Wilkins’s refusal to dispossess his Anglican baptism is exemplary. No one is denying the deep river of Catholic belief. He is not an orphan!

Wellesley Hills, Mass.



In the everlasting discussion of our moral duties in end-of-life care (“Undue Burden?” by the Consortium of Jesuit Bioethics Programs, February 13), I am puzzled that neither bishops nor ethicists seem to ask the fundamental question “pro cuius bono?”—for whose benefit? A person in a “permanent vegetative state” is, by definition, not aware of his life experiences. No longer being capable of making deliberate, rational choices—such a person is not capable of earning further merits for future life in heaven. So, of what benefit is it to him to have his merely physical life processes kept functioning, when they can no longer contribute to either his present earthly happiness or future heavenly beatitude? It is not a question of whether such a person is still a human or a “vegetable,” whether such a person does or doesn’t have human dignity and the right to be treated with respect, whether the techniques employed are medical or not, artificial or natural, extraordinary or ordinary. The question is simply: Is the intervention of any benefit, be that temporal or eternal, to this person, as a rational human being? Artificial nutrition and hydration in such situations may soothe the emotions and consciences of family and friends; it may make them feel virtuous and noble; it may make the professional caregivers victorious instead of defeated—but to the sick person in question it is of no benefit at all. It seems to be an insult to common sense to make such interventions obligatory, and to label their omissions murder.

Fresno, Calif.



Thank you for recognizing Dave Brubeck in your Spirituality Issue (“‘Great Art Survives,’” by Ian Marcus Corbin, February 27). Most of Brubeck’s works, secular and religious, are both cerebral and accessible. What may be his most beautiful choral work, La Fiesta de la Posada, is a Christmas choral pageant that he wrote with his wife Iola in 1976. She provided the text, most of which was adapted from Scripture.

The Posada is a custom throughout Latin America commemorating Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter before the birth of Jesus. In many villages, the people process through the streets of the town, singing litanies and other prayers, and stopping at each home where “there is no room” until the church or a designated home is reached. The Brubeck Posada was performed on Long Island a few years ago by the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association with the Brubeck Trio accompanying. It was a splendid and moving performance. The piece could be played by high-school or college ensembles; it certainly deserves to be far better known than it is now.

Stony Brook, N.Y.


Thank you for Ian Marcus Corbin’s interview with Dave Brubeck in the February 27 issue. I was particularly pleased you included it in your Spirituality Issue. In the summer of 2004, as a member of the Providence Singers, and through a connection made by his friend Fr. Ron Brossard (who is mentioned in the interview), I had the privilege of performing with Brubeck and his quartet at the opening of the Newport Jazz Festival. The piece was his Gates of Justice, an hour-long cantata for chorus, jazz quartet, brass, including an African-American baritone and tenor cantor.

Commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the University of Cincinnati’s College Music Conservatory in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Gates uses biblical texts, excerpts from King’s speeches, Negro spirituals, and sayings from Hillel—selected and edited by Brubeck’s wife Iola and set to Jazz, Middle Eastern, and African-American musical themes by Brubeck—to explore common ground between the struggles of African Americans and of Jews. The ambitiousness of that amalgam itself marks the era.

When he wrote the piece, Brubeck was well along the spiritual journey that “is still going on,” as he tells Corbin. The effect of that performance—on a hot sweaty night in a Newport high-school auditorium—was transporting for both performers and audience members. As quartet member Bobby Millitello ripped into one improvisation, wielding his sax like a knife, I remember thinking he could be an African-American kid protesting forty years ago or an Iraqi kid on the streets of Baghdad—the sharp-edged demand for justice was the same. When the chorus commanded at fortissimo, “Go through the Gates, clear ye the way for the people,” we were ready to hew that path ourselves. At the end the crowd erupted with applause, demanding and receiving an encore (something Brubeck said he had never done with this piece). We floated off the stage.

In a chorus you get to perform myriad sacred settings from the past six centuries; from full-throttle Verdi requiems to delicate Renaissance motets. Our hundred-voice chorus has its share of churched, templed, and unchurched, and when we sing these pieces our director urges us to explore them and to sing as if we believe it. Some don’t have to pretend. For many, the thrill of performing the Messiah at Christmas is not just the holiday tradition and the great music, but the genuine wonder of singing “Behold—the Glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”

But that night in Newport, nobody was pretending. We were moved. We all believed. That is why “great art survives.”

Rumford, R.I.



I appreciated Christopher Ruddy’s review of Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley (“With Open Ears,” March 27). The book’s essays sound excellent and remarkably applicable. I especially liked Ruddy’s closing paragraph, which calls for “attentiveness to the divine voice, which often prefers to whisper.” That echoes 1 Kings 19:11-12, when Elijah recognizes the presence of God as “a tiny whispering sound.”

Bozeman, Mont.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 
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