Report

Being Gay at a Catholic University

By | June 18, 2013

(Getty/The Washington Post)

(Getty/The Washington Post)

When I was a student at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 2005, a group of gay students organized with the aim of convincing the Benedictine monks who ran the school to recognize a club that would serve the needs of the college’s gay community. They met in secret, but if you were attuned to the situation, you heard what was happening. It seemed that some administrators were nervous about the idea of a Catholic school recognizing such a group, which might lead to Catholic tuition dollars supporting a population whose lives are often at odds with official church teaching. The students were more or less stonewalled. Administrators said there wasn’t a need on campus for such a group. Any concerns gay students had could be addressed through campus ministry programs.

In the eight years since, the gay rights movement has gained tremendous momentum. The New York Times reports that in 1996, 70 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Today, a majority supports it. This month, Pew released a survey, which found that 72 percent of Americans see the legalization of same-sex marriage as inevitable. Sixty percent of Americans believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, up from 47 percent who believed that a decade ago. Another rapidly shifting data point: Eleven states in 2004 voted to ban same-sex marriage, but in the nine years since, 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it.

Even Catholics are on board, much to the chagrin of some of their bishops. A 2011 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of American Catholics “believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.” A staggering 71 percent of U.S. Catholics support civil marriages for same-sex couples, a rate that surpasses the general population and is higher than any other Christian denomination.

Though there appears not to be any definitive list, both liberal and conservative Catholic groups report that scores of Catholic colleges and universities now offer some sort of programming, counseling opportunities, or student groups geared specifically for LGBT students. At many institutions, anecdotal evidence suggests that vibrant gay and lesbian communities thrive even if the school prefers to lie low on the issue of LGBT equality. I wanted to see firsthand what had changed since I was a student. During the last academic year, I made cross-country visits to several Catholic colleges and universities, all of which are on different points on the spectrum of Catholic culture. I wanted to see what resources are available on Catholic campuses for LGBT students and how the administration reacts. What do the future lay leaders of the Catholic Church, still one of the most politically potent institutions in the U.S., believe about gay rights? How do their schools shape their views? And how will they shape the Catholic Church?

 

AT THE ENTRANCE OF the student center at DePaul University in Chicago’s leafy Lincoln Park neighborhood stands a nine-and-a-half foot tall bronze likeness of a priest, Monsignor John Egan. The statue encapsulates the archetype of the ideal twentieth-century priest, a man, like Egan, devoted to the cause of social justice. A tireless radical in his quest for social change in 1960s Chicago, he collaborated with the likes of Saul Alinsky and Martin Luther King, Jr., in a bygone time when Catholic leaders in the U.S. were known more for their support for the poor and marginalized than as crusaders against abortion and same-sex marriage.

DePaul is the first Catholic school in the U.S. to offer a LGBTQ Studies minor. It also happens to be the nation’s largest Catholic university, with 22,000 students spread out over five campuses. LGBTQ Studies, according to DePaul’s website, “examines the history, politics, culture, and psychologies of LGBTQ individuals, groups and communities.” DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider, a Catholic priest, explained to me that the school had been offering the courses that would eventually become part of the minor as far back as the early 1990s. At the urging of faculty, a committee surveyed the school’s course offerings and identified those that could form an LGBT studies framework, drafted an intro course, and then approved the minor, which began just as Holtschneider arrived in the president’s office in 2004.

Italian Professor Gary Cestaro, an openly gay Dante scholar, said that offering a space for dialogue and support for LGBT people is “very much in line with the culture and the mission of DePaul, which is social justice and serving the oppressed.” That emphasis is part of Catholicism’s social justice tradition, he added. “And while certainly these issues of sexual identity are complicated by other church teachings, there is also a very strong case to be made for something like this being a natural part of this tradition.”

Part of the reason in creating the minor was to explore challenging subjects in an academic setting, explained the Rev. James Halstead, the chair of DePaul’s religious studies department. A priest for more than 36 years, Halstead said that the president’s office asked that the minor include a religious, philosophical, or ethical component.

Halstead believes that Catholic universities are precisely the places where great moral questions should be debated. “The obligation of a teacher is to maintain a classroom ethos and atmosphere in which all points of views can be respectfully heard,” he said. Students may dismiss the bishops’ teaching on homosexuality as erroneous, but his job as a professor, he said, involves offering an explanation of texts, not indoctrinating his students.

When I asked what he thought about the critics who questioned DePaul’s Catholic identity because of the minor and various LGBT student groups, Halstead lamented that Catholic universities are subjected to charges of being “un-Catholic” or “not Catholic enough” because of issues of sex and sexuality—a charge, he said, that comes from both the left and right. “To measure the Catholic identity of a university by asking if it has a LGBT program or not, Jesus, help us all. Do people really think that’s at the heart of Catholic Christianity? To me, it’s just not.” Instead, he wishes that Catholic schools were judged on how well students answer the “deep questions” such as where they come from and what it means to be human, all in the search for truth. “Truth really is a process of emerging, in goodness and beauty, friendship and love,” he said. “Rational people can figure this stuff out. Reason, enriched by faith, is going to reveal truth.” 

 

WHILE SOME CRITICS POINT to DePaul’s programs for LGBT students as another example of a Catholic university losing its bearings and succumbing to progressive fads, the Catholic bona fides of the Catholic University of America (CUA), in Washington, DC, are rarely questioned.

Ryan Fecteau, a rising CUA senior from Maine, served in a position akin to student body president, and also happens to be active in CUAllies, an unofficial group on campus that supports gay and lesbian students but is not formally recognized by the university. Fecteau started coming out as gay to friends while in high school, and he made a deal with himself: he would attend Catholic University but he would not hide his sexual orientation. He learned of CUAllies when a group of students marched in protest of Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, who was speaking on campus about traditional marriage.

Catholic University has a mixed record on gay rights issues. It had recognized a group for gay students in the 1980s, but then disbanded it when the group began advocacy work. It had included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy until 2006, when then-President David O’Connell, now the bishop of Trenton, NJ, had it removed. (O’Connell’s current bio on the CUA webpage lists his main accomplishments, including that he “strengthened the university’s historic Catholic identity and character.”) Earlier this year, the administration demanded that the Graduate Student Union also remove the sexual orientation protections from its constitution; and late last year, when CUAllies applied for official recognition from the university, its application was denied. I spoke to a few other students who said that while they didn’t feel unsafe being openly gay on campus, there was a need for resources for LGBT students that the school wasn’t providing.

The contrast of resources available to students at DePaul and CUA is exemplary of a polarized U.S. Catholic Church, especially as it grapples with LGBT issues. By some estimations, nearly a quarter of the funding used to campaign against marriage equality efforts in the 2012 election came from official Catholic sources, including various dioceses, Catholic state conferences and lobbying groups, as well as the Knights of Columbus. This figure does not include Catholic lay people who might give privately at the behest of their spiritual leaders. Last fall, after three states approved same-sex marriage laws through ballot questions—an electoral first—and one state rejected a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as exclusively heterosexual, some thought that U.S. Catholic bishops might soften their stance or reconsider their approach on the issue. But at a meeting of all U.S. bishops in Baltimore last November, the archbishop charged with managing the church’s campaign said that no changes, in teaching or tactic, were on the table.

The Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco and chairman of the subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage, said that the results in Maine, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota resulted in “a disappointing day” for the bishops. But he stood by the Catholic Church’s efforts, saying that the defeats were “a call to intensify efforts to strengthen and defend marriage.”

But is the laity heeding these calls? Catholics, especially the young, support same-sex marriage at higher rates than the general population. Five Catholic governors have signed same-sex marriage legislation into law. Christine Gregoire, the governor of Washington who signed marriage equality legislation there, cited her Catholic faith as part of her motivation. And, perhaps not surprisingly, gay Catholics studying at Catholic colleges and universities today are more assertive in their demands for resources and protections on campus. Some prominent Catholic schools such as Georgetown have a relatively lengthy track record of supporting LGBT communities on campus. In 2011 former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, chairman of Georgetown’s board, strengthened the school’s LGBT resources center with a $1 million gift, spurred in part by the work of his openly gay son, Drew. Just like the generational divide in the general population on issues of LGBT rights, the laity and the bishops appear to be separated by an expanding chasm, one that one that seems poised to widen in years to come.

 

A JESUIT SCHOOL IN northern California finds itself grappling with the same issues. Behind a large wooden cross at the entrance of Santa Clara University is a church built in 1777, one of the original 26 missions in California, a series of churches and schools built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Franciscan priests and brothers as centers to convert others to their Catholic faith. This particular church sits at the heart of a Jesuit college that today educates just over 5,000 students.

On campus, I met Max Silva and Amanda Dewey in the Rainbow Resource Room. The room’s mission is to “educate the greater SCU community and empower Santa Clara students, faculty, staff, and alumni who self-identify within the wide spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities.” Fliers abound highlighting upcoming events: Devin’s Rainbow Book Club, Lizzie’s Queer Politics Discussion, Transgender Day of Remembrance, Safe Space Training. Near the door are a variety of pamphlets about various LGBT issues. Copies of gay magazines, including Out and The Advocate, lay on the table.

Silva, a rising junior, came out in high school in Santa Barbara. Raised nominally Catholic, he didn’t dive into his faith until he enrolled at Santa Clara, exploring what it meant to be gay and Catholic. He leads a group called GASPED (Gay and Straight People for the Education of Diversity), which he views as a sort of social justice ministry, offering diversity education to the campus community. Of being out at a Jesuit school, he said, “It really does come down to the school’s Jesuit philosophy and its Jesuit ideals. It focuses on Catholic social teaching, especially the social justice aspect, instead of focusing on the sexual ethics and homosexuality aspect.” The school, he said, approaches these issues from the “very Jesuit idea of educating the whole person, discerning your experience of Catholicism in an educated way.”

Dewey, who graduated in May, brought the Vagina Monologues to campus and chaired GALA, a student group for LGBT students and their allies that hosts social events such as the Queer Prom and Drag Show. When she enrolled at Santa Clara, she discovered a tradition of social justice that supported her eventual decision to come out as a lesbian last year to family and friends. “I had a really negative view of Catholicism until I fell in love with a Jesuit school and had to go here,” she said.

I asked them if they have experienced any blatant homophobia on campus, and they shrugged. Dewey said the Jesuit character of the school actually encourages a safe space for sexual minorities on campus.

Paul Crowley, a Jesuit priest from Berkeley, California, teaches Santa Clara graduate students twice a week. He says he is by no means an activist, but instead a systematic theologian (think dense, difficult to understand, Germanic musings about God) who has tip-toed into the conversation surrounding Catholicism and homosexuality, much to the chagrin of officials in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2004, Crowley published an article in the Catholic journal Theological Studies entitled “Homosexuality and the Counsel of the Cross.” He concluded that being gay isn’t a problem for the church to contend with, but “an invitation to a different way of looking at things, and toward a deeper embrace of the very gospel that threatens to subvert our most cherished notions about the God whose name is Love.” Years later, the Vatican demanded that he issue a clarification that upheld church teaching.

Crowley, like many others I interviewed, said that today’s students have moved past the bishops’ teaching on homosexuality. “Students themselves have changed so much, and there’s a deeper sense of comfort with and openness to LGBT students and diversity in general, where everybody is a little bit different and it’s just fine,” he said. In his experience, they no longer question whether homosexuality is morally acceptable; they scoff at church teaching on the issue when it’s presented in class; and some just can’t wrap their heads around why the church wouldn’t encourage two gay or lesbian individuals to marry, given the stability it offers and the conservative nature of the institution in general. “When I teach my human sexuality course, I give my students the official church documents, first without commentary, to read and then come back to class to discuss. They return and ask, ‘Is this serious? Do they really mean this?’ They just can’t believe it. That’s almost the universal reaction,” he said. But it wasn’t just students pushing for change. “There were students and faculty pushing along this change, sure,” he said, and there was also “encouragement from some of the Jesuits, too.”

 

I DECIDED TO RETURN home to my alma mater, Saint Anselm College. As a student there in the mid-2000s, I listened to how the monks and others on campus talked about issues of sexuality in mixed ways. During a moral theology class, one Benedictine monk railed against homosexuality, relying heavily on the official Vatican language (“disordered” and “intrinsically evil”) for his main arguments, dismissing students who disagreed. On the other hand, I remember a homily during Family Weekend from Father Jonathan DeFelice, the school’s president of 24 years who will retire this summer, in which he specifically named gay and lesbian students as those who are always welcome on campus. This was a memorable inclusion at a time when these issues weren’t generally talked about on campus, much less from the pulpit.

On my visit back last fall, I met the director of campus ministry, Sue Gabert, for lunch in the campus pub. Gabert, an alum whose father taught me biblical theology, explained that the college had conducted a community-wide survey about diversity and discrimination shortly after students organized back in 2005. The students, faculty, and staff who identified as gay reported the campus environment to be unwelcoming and even abusive. So the school hosted a forum to talk about the issues. “There was so much respect and care for people’s stories. It was one of my most graced moments at the college. What we heard most is that people were happy we were talking about these issues. It was something that some people felt was taboo, so the fact that we were talking about the challenges we face as a Catholic institution and welcoming all people in a fair and inclusive way was good,” she said.

Gabert seemed genuinely concerned about creating a welcoming environment for gay and lesbian students, though the examples of programming she described as controversial at Saint Anselm have been realities at places like DePaul and Santa Clara for many years. The school had turned down a student request to create a residential community based on sexual orientation, whereas others based on a shared interest in politics or environmentalism had been approved. “There are things we can do, and things we can’t do. It’s not anything goes,” she said. A few weeks after we spoke, the school’s drama club staged a production of the Laramie Project, a play based on the life of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and killed because of his sexual orientation in 1998. The production was followed by a campus-wide discussion about bullying.

 DeFelice told me that in the time since my graduation in 2007, the college had made gains in recognizing the need for protections for LGBT community members, so it added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy. With unanimous approval of the 25 or so monks living on campus in the monastery, including one retired bishop, it had adopted a governing statement that called for diversity training for new students and residence life staff and created structures for any member of the community to report bullying or harassment. As I was sitting with DeFelice, I asked him if students were pushing for more change, demanding more from their church and college. He was silent for a moment. “I think they’ve mostly moved on,” he said.

That the conversation is happening at all is a remarkable step forward from when I was a student. Back in 2005, gay students stayed more or less closeted. Through my three years of training as a resident assistant, diversity was discussed just once. Sexual orientation was lumped in with other kinds of diversity, and many of my peers snickered and made jokes at its expense. There were at least a few other gay students living in my dorm, and they seemed to accept that they would get along just fine if they stayed quiet.

The future laity of the Catholic Church is still being educated at Catholic colleges and universities. The Catholic laity as a whole is already in favor of same-sex marriage and is accepting of their gay family and friends. It seems this trend will only accelerate further as graduates of Catholic schools mature into adults. Some say that bishops, by leading the fight against same-sex marriage, are widening the gap between themselves and their flock. But on Catholic campuses, gay students are carving out spaces for themselves, and finding allies not only among their peers, but also in professors and priests alike.

Michael O’Loughlin writes about religion and public life from Washington, DC. Read his writing at Religion News Service and follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin

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