As Culture War Rages, What’s the Status of LGBT Rights on Catholic Campuses?

At the beginning of the year, five U.S. bishops, included Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan joined a coterie of evangelical and fundamentalist church leaders in signing the open letter “Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together.” It was latest epistle in the growing canon of hierarchical statements aimed at gaining exemptions from federal and state laws that protect the rights of same-sex couples.

But as the church leaders fortify their culture-war defenses [see here for some of RD’s recent coverage –Eds.], some Catholic universities seem to be taking a decidedly different approach to LGBT issues.  

A four-part series of conferences last fall, entitled “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church,” brought Fordham and Fairfield, two Catholic universities, together with Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary, traditionally Protestant institutions, to explore the challenges experienced by gay and lesbian Catholics in the Church.

Paul Lakeland, Professor of Theology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and one of the conference’s key organizers, explains that the conferences were not intended to attack Church teaching on homosexuality. “All of these conferences addressed issues that are left open by the Church teaching. ‘More than A Monologue’ means that there is so much more to be said.”

Around the time of these conferences, Georgetown University’s three-year-old LGBTQ Resource Center received a $1 million donation from a somewhat surprising source. Paul J. Tagliabue, a Georgetown alumnus and former Commissioner of the NFL, and his wife Chandler allocated one-fifth of their $5 million gift to the university to establish the Tagliabue Initiative for LGBTQ Life

“The Center is inspired by Catholic and Jesuit principles of respect for the dignity of all and education of the whole person, and we are very pleased to support its services that provide a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for LGBTQ students and promote their acceptance in the entire campus community,” Tagliabue said in a statement.

Growing Divide or ‘Different Approach?’

It appears that there is a growing divide between the church hierarchy and Catholic universities on LGBT issues. For Lakeland, however, the divide on LGBT issues, “is not between church and academy, but between the institutional voice of the episcopate and the bulk of the Catholic population.”

The impetus for the “More than a Monologue” conferences was the growing support by U.S. Catholic laity for full LGBT equality. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 49% of white Catholics support gay marriage—up 5% from the previous year’s poll. A 2011 study by the Public Religion Research institute found that “when same-sex marriage is defined explicitly as a civil marriage,” support increases to a staggering 71%.

“What this all means,” Lakeland said, “is that there is something to talk about.” And the university may be the best place to have that conversation.

“Catholic universities are first and foremost universities,” Lakeland insists. “‘University’ is the noun, ‘Catholic’ is the adjective. But both noun and adjective are connected to the search for truth, and that means that no issue is beyond our consideration and no human knowledge is infallible.”

Paul Crowley, SJ, professor of theology at Santa Clara University (a Jesuit school located in the middle of Silicon Valley), sees not so much of a divide between bishops and universities as “a difference of approach.”

“The Catholic university should be a place where there is more room than there is in some other sectors of the Church for free exploration of ideas and questions that people may raise,” said Crowley. “This isn’t to deny a legitimate, normative role for the Church’s teaching in the intellectual life of a Catholic university.”

Campuses are pluralistic places with students and faculty who represent a diversity of religious traditions, races, ethnicities, and sexual expressions. “So, in regard to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, the Catholic university should be a natural place to ask, ‘what are the lived implications of the Church’s teachings?’” Crowley said. “How do you, in a reality-based way, negotiate the Church’s teachings with human lives?”

Frederick Parrella, also a professor of theology at Santa Clara University, has watched this pluralism expand over the three decades he has taught a course entitled “Theology of Marriage.”

“The whole consciousness of students has changed dramatically,” Parrella said. “Since I started teaching the course in 1983, I’ve always had a gay person come in and give a class on same-sex relationships. There are no more or less gays today than there were then, but they were much more closeted then,” Parrella recalled. “Now students raise their hands and come out during that class session.”

Of course, Santa Clara may be an exception to what is typically a stricter rule. The Bishop of San Jose, Patrick McGrath, puts effort into maintaining a collegial relationship to the religious studies faculty. The faculty is equally respectful of McGrath’s position as leader of the diocese.

“It’s not that we’re not going to raise challenging issues,” said Crowley, who previously served as chair of the religious studies department, “but we will have the courtesy to tell him what’s going on in the rare event that it may be called for.” Together, they try to maintain a balance between academic freedom and respect for the bishop’s authority.

Pastoral, not Political

Some universities stay away from arguments about academic freedom, and instead insist that their programs are a logical outcome of the Church’s teaching on the pastoral care of gay and lesbian persons.

DePaul University in Chicago was the first Catholic college to establish an LGBTQ resource center, founded in 2003. In the proposal for the center, the committee cited a passage from Always Our Children, a document on the pastoral care of homosexual persons published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1997:

Respect for the God-given dignity of all persons means the recognition of human rights and responsibilities. The teachings of the Church make it clear that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression, or violence against them. It is not sufficient only to avoid unjust discrimination. Homosexual persons must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.

A request for an interview with the staff of DePaul’s LGBTQ Center was declined, but the university’s Dean of Students, Art Munin, said via email, “The principal function of the office is to provide a safe place for students to meet and engage with each other and to provide educational opportunities for the campus.”

DePaul is run by the Vincentians, a religious community founded by St. Vincent DePaul, who, according to the school’s mission statement, “instilled a love of God by leading his contemporaries in serving urgent human needs.” Those who formed the resource center saw a clear correlation between the university’s mission statement and the exhortations of Always Our Children.

Georgetown created its center as a response to a hate crime perpetrated on a student in 2007. President Jack DiGioia, the first layperson to serve in that capacity at Georgetown, initiated a town hall meeting on LGBTQ student resources, and the following year, the university formed the LGBTQ Resource Center.

By fashioning their centers as programs that serve a pastoral need, DePaul and Georgetown appear to have minimized opposition from bishops. Though these two schools are the only Catholic universities with centers dedicated to LGBTQ issues, according to New Ways Ministries, more than 100 Catholic institutions of higher education have some kind of association dedicated to supporting LGBT students.

Jobs in Jeopardy

Of course, Always Our Children still reasserts the Church’s teaching that the homosexual “inclination” is “intrinsically disordered” and that gays and lesbians must lead a “chaste and virtuous life.” The document also stipulates, “the Church has the right to deny public roles of service and leadership to persons, whether homosexual or heterosexual, whose public behavior openly violates its teachings.”

It is this latter statement that may have cost more than one openly gay university employee her job.

In the summer of 2010, Laine Tadlock, director of an education program at Benedictine University in Springfield, Illinois, was removed from her position and forced to resign after publishing a wedding announcement in Springfield’s State Journal-Register. Tadlock was openly lesbian on campus and Benedictine includes sexual orientation in its equal opportunity statement. School officials said in a statement that, “It was not Tadlock’s orientation, but rather the public disregard for fundamental Catholic beliefs, which was the basis of the University’s decisions.”

That same summer, Marquette University rescinded a job offer made to Jodi O’Brien, a professor of sociology at Seattle University. O’Brien had been invited to serve as dean of Marquette’s Helen Way Klinger College of Arts and Sciences. Hearing about the appointment, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki expressed concerns about O’Brien’s writings. “Her areas of concentration in terms of her studies seemed always to be in the areas of gender sexuality, those type of things,” Listecki later told the Milwaukee Fox News affiliate, “so what was that going to bring to the table in terms of understanding?”

After the job offer was withdrawn, Marquette President Robert A. Wild, SJ, said, “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.” Wild insisted that O’Brien’s sexual orientation did not play a role: “We have a variety of men and women here who are homosexual who work in all sorts of venues in this university,” Wild said. “They do great work, they make a valuable contribution to this institution.”

According to published reports, Marquette and O’Brien reached a confidential settlement. O’Brien’s hardship may have led to some progress for gay and lesbian employees at Marquette. The incident brought attention to Marquette’s policy of not extending health care benefits to the partners of same-sex couples. A year after the O’Brien case was resolved, Marquette decided to offer same-sex benefits. President Wild explained the move in pastoral terms. He told the Associated Press,

“If we are truly pastoral in our application of the Jesuit principle of cura personalis (care for the entire person), I asked myself if I could reconcile that with denying health benefits to a couple who have legally registered their commitment to each other.”

Thirteen Jesuit schools offer such benefits, as do many Catholic colleges across the country. In contrast, Catholic Charities in Washington DC responded to the city’s passage of marriage equality legislation by changing its benefits policy to deny health benefits to spouses of any new employees.

A Fearful Silence

For all the advances on some Catholic campuses, a culture of fear still looms heavily. Though nearly twenty scholars and program directors were contacted for comment on this article, only three were willing to speak on the record.

This silence, whether self-imposed or ecclesiastically-ordered, raises important questions about the future of younger theologians and scholars at Catholic universities. What is the impact on academic integrity when new faculty members fear that they might be denied tenure, or get their university in trouble with a bishop, if they publish ideas or speak to the media about controversial topics?

And how can a university that limits discussion of sexual diversity speak to and remain relevant within the culture that young people inhabit? The Pew Forum’s 2010 study of “Religion Among Millennials,” demonstrated that 72% of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

One professor who asked to remain anonymous told me, “The views of younger people are a sign of hope.”