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February 16, 2006

Academic Freedom, Catholic Education, and the Vagina Monologues

Steven Shiffrin: February 16, 2006

Freedom is freedom for truth. Error has no rights. This was the perspective of the Catholic Church for many centuries. It was used to support censorship and persecution in many countries. The same perspective was employed by Protestant countries for the same purposes and by non-religious dictatorships. The freedom was the same; the truth was different.

At least with respect to the actions of government, Vatican II changed the perspective of the Church. Vatican II respects the dignity of the individual and his or her freedom to make religious choices. It respects the right of individuals to choose error, but hopes to lead them toward its conception of truth. Liberal Catholics believe that individuals should enjoy the same freedom with respect to Church teaching. They should, for example, have been free to maintain that religious freedom was demanded by appropriate conceptions of human dignity when Church teaching was to the contrary. Traditional Catholics believe that the freedom publicly to oppose Vatican teachings by Catholics should be restricted, and that freedom of conscience within the Church is freedom for truth.

The question of what it should mean to be a Catholic university gets much discussion in Catholic circles. Among other things, I think such universities should be able to assure a dominant presence of Catholic faculty in relevant subject areas. But I do not think it should be the goal of the administration of such universities to eliminate all error from their campuses, nor do I believe any administration is committed to doing so. Nonetheless, I do think the Church has a bad record in this regard. Charles Curran should be teaching at a Catholic university; so should Hans Kung. The point is not that Curran and Kung were right (on most points I think they are); the point is that their perspectives need to be discussed and debated in a Catholic university. That debate will be sharper if the best advocates of their position are in Catholic universities.

I have two points to make about the Vagina Monologues which has most prominently been restricted at Notre Dame. First, if you want to encourage students and members of the general public to see the Vagina Monologues, tell students they can not have the show on campus or otherwise limit the ability to see the show. Students and other citizens who would never have thought to see such a production will rush to see it.

But, generously understood, I assume the real point of opposing the Vagina Monologues was to send the message that a particular university is a Catholic university. I think the better way to do that is education. The better way is to publicly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Vagina Monologues from a Catholic perspective. A public image of censorial tendencies is not good for Catholic education, and censorial Catholic education is not good education.

Steve Shiffrin
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