Some plays just shouldn’t be performed at a Catholic university. Take, for example, a recent production by Fordham University students that included appearances by demonic forces, implied sexual intercourse between unmarried persons, murderous plots, traffic in slaves, blasphemy, implied homosexual attractions, and worship of pagan deities. How dare the Jesuits who run this university allow such a thing! Think of the poor college students being subjected to this insidious propaganda! Thank God for the protesters who showed up every night to boycott performances in the name of decency!
I jest, of course, and there were, as a matter of fact, no protesters, and the play in question was William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was performed last fall at Fordham without much controversy, just as it is performed every year at countless Catholic colleges and universities without a peep of protest. Why? Because reasonable adults, Catholic and otherwise, know that oftentimes the dramatic arts need not slavishly embrace life-affirming themes in order to achieve a life-affirming goal. After all, most of us love Shakespeare, and just because Caliban and friends are no altar boys doesn’t mean we should reject the play out of hand. To be too strictly moralistic about dramatic art is to preclude the performance of everything from the Old Testament (polygamy! seed spilt on ground! fratricide!) to the life of St. Thomas More (dirty jokes!) to Romeo and Juliet, and indeed anything else in the long tradition of Judeo-Christian civilization.
And yet this February brought another round of condemnations and hand-wringing over the performance at a number of Catholic colleges of the Vagina Monologues, the play by Eve Ensler which has become a convenient target for groups in search of evidence of apostasy in Catholic institutions of higher learning. Why? Because it includes immoral material, and characters within it approve of immoral acts, and, well, because it’s got the word “vagina” in the title, for God’s sake! Think of the children! When students of Fordham University put on the play in February in a student residence hall, protesters showed up every night, attempting to turn one’s support or rejection of the performance into a litmus test for Catholicity.
Unlike the vast majority of the protesters, I have actually sat down and read the Vagina Monologues. It ain’t Shakespeare. Truth be told, I didn’t even find it to be very compelling. Then again, I’m a thirty-year-old man with a vow of chastity, and I doubt that Eve Ensler and I fish in the same literary ponds. But its popularity on college campuses quite clearly has nothing to do with its artistic merits; what the staging of the Vagina Monologues is almost always about is a chance for female students to celebrate womanhood and speak out against domestic violence and sexism. The Tuesday night before the play opened at Fordham, I was delighted to see two female students at the Latin mass on campus wearing pink t-shirts that read “This is what a feminist looks like.” Hallelujah! I’d wear one myself, but the other scholastics in my house look at me funny if I dress in pink. But is this not exactly the message we want to send to young Catholics? That the gospel is empowering to women, that their voices are heard in the Church, that the Church is better off if they express themselves and cherish their womanhood?
There are those who think otherwise. Not surprisingly, the loudest complaints come from the ultraconservative fringe. The online news service Catholic World News recently argued in its “Off the Record: Notes from the Newsroom” column that any support given to the Vagina Monologues actually increases violence against women, by denying blue-collar males their customary role as protectors. Yes, you read that right—if you support this play, your sons, brothers and fathers will be so anxious at your assertiveness that they’ll beat their wives, and it’ll be your fault. The publisher of the print affiliate of Catholic World News, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., also wants to outlaw female altar servers, even though the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments stated in 1994 that they were allowed according to “the sensibilities of the faithful,” because Fessio doesn’t think girls are biologically enough like Jesus. While he’s at it, Fessio would just as soon exclude women from being lectors, too, since “the Blessed Mother never read Scripture in the synagogue.” This is Catholic fundamentalism at its worst, and the furthest thing from the sensibilities of the faithful.
Of course, let’s be honest here: the contributors to Catholic World News are hardly representative of American Catholicism in any of its most vital forms. But just because such people are alienated from the larger Church doesn’t mean their anti-woman rhetoric won’t cause real damage to young Catholics who find security and identity in their remnant ideology, including some seminarians and young priests.
And who made up a significant portion of the protestors outside the Vagina Monologues at Fordham University? You guessed it, a gaggle of local Catholic seminarians.
What possesses a young man to take a trip to a school he does not attend, to protest a play he has not seen, to rebuke and intimidate students he does not know? This particular group of seminarians brought with them a crucifix and a reproduction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and set up camp right outside the door to the performance—which was, awkwardly, also right outside the door to a Fordham residence hall. For the length of the protest, every student entering and exiting the dorm came face to face with that crucifix and that painting, used not as signs of hope and charity but instead as instruments of division and intimidation. The typical student response—that it looked like what you might find outside an abortion clinic—is perhaps the most heartbreaking news of all. In the students’ minds, the protestors (some in Roman collars) had equated a real and menacing evil, the slaughter of unborn children and the mutilation of their mothers, with a student-produced play put on to encourage women’s empowerment. And that , in case you’re wondering, is a perfect example of why many young women take official Church teaching on sexual morality with a grain of salt. The line between divinely inspired teachings and misogynist threats is, in such circumstances, tragically blurred.
Not only do I see no value in such a protest, I suspect that the actual consequences will be the opposite of what was intended by the protesters. Students who participated in or supported the play, or were part of the outpouring of support on campus for women’s empowerment, will hardly be drawn closer to the teachings of the Church by clumsy intimidation and the ham-fisted appropriation of Catholic imagery; I fear that instead they will recognize in the sudden zeal of the heretofore unknown protesters a disturbing hostility towards women and a well-orchestrated backlash against their attempts to celebrate their identity. A group of student counter-protesters chanted one night, “Who’s Catholic? I’m Catholic!” And they’re right—being Catholic has little to do with obsessive heresy-hunting and much to do with the joyful celebration of Christian life. The students radiate such joy in abundance. Could the protesters say the same?
I was grateful to the protestors for one thing, however. Their use of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a weapon against young Catholic women of good will led me to reflect on the Marian doctrines of our faith, specifically the Assumption. This doctrine, defined in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, affirms infallibly the long-held Christian belief that the Blessed Mother “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.” It is a beautiful teaching, acknowledging Mary’s exalted role in human history while simultaneously reminding us that our bodies are not ultimately just food for the worms, but inherently good creations which are integral elements in our salvation. No one born of woman ever truly abandons one’s body; we are, scripture and tradition both assure us, resurrected body and soul. The doctrine of the Assumption gives to all the faithful a reminder of our own salvation on the Last Day, when our participation will include our resurrected bodies. A little more than half of the glorious bodies on that happy day will include vaginas, of course, but might we hope that Christ will still allow them to join in the heavenly banquet?
Special thanks to Kira Bindrim and Kathleen McNerney at Fordham University’s newspaper, The Ram.