Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gonzaga's Catholic identity and the Monologues


Robert Swope, if you look his name up on LinkedIn.com, is doing alright.

Having served eight years as an officer in the Army Reserves—much of it active duty, and about half of that time in Iraq—he’s also worked with the State Department and with government contractors. His resume reads, “Extensive knowledge of stabilization doctrine and best practices for international development in areas ranging from humanitarian aid provision and human rights promotion, to education, infrastructure development, and ministerial capacity-building.” Very impressive.

All that, however, was in the future in 2000, when he was a senior undergraduate student at Georgetown and a columnist for The Hoya. Journalists at student newspapers don’t ordinarily get much notoriety for anything they write that gets published.

Swope, however, got his fifteen minutes of fame for something he wrote that got him fired: He dared to criticize The Vagina Monologues. The column never got published.


At that time, it had been only four years since Eve Ensler first performed TVM off-Broadway. Yet it had become in that short time something of a feminist cultural centerpiece and, as such, beyond criticism by mere mortals.

I say “something” because TVM isn’t without its feminist detractors for its negative portrayal of male-female sexual relationships, and for its treatment of a lesbian statutory rape as a positive, healing experience. (Had the subject been a fourteen-year-old male victim of molestation by his mother who later had been "rescued" by a male teacher—or priest!—a similar monologue would be limited in its performance to NAMBLA meetings.)

Georgetown is a Jesuit university … on paper, at least, and the Jebs still play a role on campus, though the current president (John J. DeGoia) is the first layman to fill the chair. But at the time Swope wrote his own death sentence, the president of the time, Fr. Leo O’Donovan, had already scandalized conservative Catholics by bringing Bill Clinton and Larry Flynt to campus several times, supporting on-campus fetal-tissue research, and giving space to student pro-abortion groups and gay social clubs.

Not to put too fine a point on it, academic liberals owned Georgetown, and showed their tolerance and love for free speech by pushing Swope out of The Hoya. According to Kathryn Jean Lopez, who was writing for the National Review at the time, alumnus William Peter Blatty condemned the firing in a letter to the editor: “With all that the demon says and does in my novel [The Exorcist], never until I read of The Hoya’s and Leo O’Donovan’s support of The Vagina Monologues, and their suppression of Robert Swope’s article, have I truly appreciated the meaning of the word ‘obscenity.’” And Camille Paglia, then writing for Salon.com, fumed, “How striking that at Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, the thought police and bullies are all on the left.”

Now we jump back to the present, where Dr. Eric Cunningham, a history professor at Gonzaga, has written a cri de coeur over academic vice-president Patricia Killen’s decision to bring TVM onto the university campus; the play had not only been forbidden in previous years by the previous president, Fr. Robert Spitzer, but also by the current president, Dr. Thayne McCulloh, in 2010.

Of particular repugnance to Dr. Cunningham is Dr. Killen’s citation of Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990):

“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).”

Not without some acid does Dr. Cunningham note: “… 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.” Nevertheless, he makes the skewering argument that, had TVM’s proponents wanted the play for its own merits, they could access it in many ways without the play ever crossing Gonzaga’s boards.

Doctor Cunningham’s intent is to preserve Gonzaga’s Catholic identity. However, on the same page as his argument I found a link to a “letter to the editor” from a student who works at a nearby Planned Barrenhood. On that page, I found another link to a story about Gonzaga’s gay-positive organization HERO (Helping Educate Regarding Orientation) and their annual “Pink Prom”.

Gonzaga’s Catholic identity is already slipping away.

Doctor Cunningham’s penultimate paragraph merits repeating:

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.

If “Catholic” can mean anything, then it really means nothing. That, I fear, is the true belief of academic liberals such as Dr. Killen, who has shown herself willing to misuse even Church documents to justify bringing TVM onstage. Certainly the play itself isn’t necessary to have a meaningful discussion about violence against women, a topic on which the Church has spoken and whose message bears repeating.

No, there’s another agenda at work here, one that stops at nothing to dominate and control campus thought. Just ask Robert Swope.