Catholic Universities Facing a Fork in the Road on Gender & Sexuality: The Church or the Culture

Catholic universities and colleges in the United States have long occupied a distinct (and sometimes distinctly uncomfortable) position within the Catholic Church, part of the Catholic ecosystem, yet also independent of it. But now, that delicate balancing act may be undone as the weight of cultural pressures create a fissure between what the Catholic Church teaches and what Catholic universities practice.

The most recent example of these pressures was the surprise decision by the University of Notre Dame to restore contraceptive coverage in its employee and student health plans just days after announcing it would end such coverage under new rules issued by the Trump administration. Finally freed to duck the hated “contraceptive mandate,” the university realized that ending access to contraception for thousands of woman—many of whom aren’t even Catholic—was an epic PR blunder, which it admitted didn’t recognize “the plurality of religious and other convictions among its employees.”

A similar moment of cultural reckoning recently occurred at Georgetown University when two students accused a pro-“traditional” marriage group called Love Saxa of discriminating against LGBT students and asked the university to defund the organization. The students asserted that Love Saxa’s promotion of marriage as “a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman” ran afoul of the university’s rules for official student groups, which say that such groups can’t “foster hatred or intolerance of others because of their race, nationality, gender, religion or sexual preference.”

Amelia Irvine, the president of Love Saxa, had published a pro-abstinence before marriage op-ed in The Hoya, the Georgetown student newspaper, in which she asserted:

Love Saxa’s definition of marriage does not include same-sex couples, as we believe that marriage is a conjugal union on every level – emotional, spiritual, physical and mental – directed toward caring for biological children. To us, marriage is much more than commitment of love between two consenting adults.

An editorial in The Hoya said Irvine’s stance “fostered intolerance,” noting:

Marriage rights are vital to the LGBTQ community not only to enshrine equal rights, but also because of the tangible legal and financial benefits marriage allows in the United States, including tax benefits. Love Saxa’s advocacy of denying individuals’ rights on the basis of their sexual orientations is inherently intolerant. … Love Saxa’s constitution also identifies it as ‘a space [for students] to discuss their experiences of the harmful effects of a distorted view of human sexuality and the human person.’ By characterizing the LGBTQ experience as “a distorted view of human sexuality and the human person,” Love Saxa has codified a mission that is fundamentally intolerant and hateful.

The problem for Georgetown is that such intolerance of same-sex marriage is the official Catholic Church position, so it seems hard to see how they could discipline an organization for promoting what the Catholic Church teaches. As Love Saxa noted in a statement: “Our definition of ‘healthy relationships’ and ‘sexual integrity’ is synonymous with those of the Catholic Church, and therefore those of Georgetown University.”

When faced with the opposite conundrum by H*ya’s for Choice, a pro-choice student group that supports abortion rights in defiance of the Catholic Church’s position, the university responded by refusing to grant it official recognition, or any of the modest amount of university funding that such groups are allotted (about $250).

Love Saxa was defended by traditionalists such as Princeton’s Robert George, who said “there is something approaching absurdity in the idea that at a Catholic university a group ought to be defunded for upholding and teaching the idea of marriage and the principles of sexual morality upheld and taught by the Catholic Church.”

But it was also supported by Father James Martin, who has recently come under fire for his book supporting Catholic outreach to LGBT individuals, who told the Catholic News Agency:

Why should a student group that espouses Catholic teaching respectfully be defunded by a Catholic university? As long as Love Saxa treats LGBT people (both on campus and off campus) with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity,’ as the Catechism requires, then they should be able to have their say on campus.

In the end, the Georgetown University Student Activities Committee voted 8-4 not to defund Love Saxa, which seems like the only decision the university could realistically make. Even if members of the committee believed that Love Saxa was intolerant, and by logical extension its position would lead to the suppression of homosexuality and homosexuals, it seems impossible that Georgetown could sanction an organization for supporting official church teaching.

Other high-profile Catholic universities have also come down on the side of Catholic teaching. Catholic University, which is the only officially Vatican-affiliated Catholic university in the United States, has repeatedly denied certification to CUAllies, an LGBT-rights student organization. When pressed for a reason, Catholic University President John Garvey told Teen Vogue that the university was committed to a “twofold approach” that both upheld the church’s teaching on “marriage and sexuality,” and its teaching “to treat gay and lesbian persons with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

But with Catholics strongly supporting both contraceptive access and same-sex marriage, increasingly Catholic universities may find that this two-step is insufficient to paper over the fundamental contradictions between Catholic teaching and accepted public morality and that a reckoning may be due.