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Gays in Catholic Universities: A Stained-Glass Ceiling? Questions about Marquette and Seton Hall University

Earlier today at my blog Bilgrimage, I wrote about a situation in the archdiocese of Boston in which the Catholic church’s longstanding practice of discriminating against gay and lesbian persons is being put to the test.  And in which there seems to be a discernible shift underway in how some lay Catholics, at least, react to decisions by Catholic leaders to continue anti-gay discrimination.

I’d like to address another situation that provides further evidence of the shift about which I blogged in the Bilgrimage posting to which I have just linked.  This has to do with a case at Jesuit-owned Marquette University in Milwaukee.  Tracy Rusch did a summary of this story at National Catholic Reporter last Friday.

As Rusch notes, Marquette has been searching for a new dean to head its college of arts and sciences.  On 6 May, Marquette’s president Fr. Robert A. Wild, SJ, and its provost John J. Pauly sent a letter to members of the university community announcing the closing of the dean’s search.

Professor Jodi O’Brien

By this point, however, the university had already extended an offer to Jodi O’Brien, chair of Seattle University’s department of anthropology, sociology and social work.  Like Marquette, Seattle University is a Jesuit school.  O’Brien has worked there for 15 years.

The letter of Fr. Wild and Dr. Pauly states that, after further review of the “cumulative published records of the candidates, particularly as they relate to Catholic mission and identity,” Marquette had decided to rescind its offer to Dr. O’Brien.

O’Brien is, as it happens, an out lesbian.  Over the course of her scholarly career, she has authored articles and book chapters on topics including queer Christian identity and queer social movements.  She has also addressed the issue of same-sex marriage in at least one article.  She is not herself Catholic.

The Wild-Pauly letter stresses the need for anyone who serves as a dean in a Catholic university to serve the “mission and identity” of the school: it states, “The person who becomes dean needs, above all, the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity.”

According to Rusch, Nancy Snow, a Marquette philosophy professor who specializes in ethics, speculates that “sources outside the university, such as donors,” placed pressure on Fr. Wild to rescind the offer to Dr. O’Brien.  Milwaukee archbishop Jerome Listecki confirms that he is among those who contacted Fr. Wild to share “concerns” that had been brought to his attention.

Marquette has an anti-discrimination policy that explicitly bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  Marquette’s media person Mary Pat Pfeil has issued a statement claiming that the university abides by its nondiscrimination policy and is seriously committed to upholding human dignity and respecting diversity.

Pfeil states,

As a Catholic, Jesuit university, Marquette recognizes and cherishes the dignity of each individual regardless of age, culture, faith, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability or social class.  These differences help us to promote a culture of learning, appreciation and understanding.

Pfeil also maintains that “there were certain oversights in the search process, and we regret that deeply.”

Marquette faculty and students are perturbed by the decision to rescind Dr. O’Brien’s offer, and are convinced that her sexual orientation and publications dealing with LGBT issues are at the heart of what has happened.  As the Chronicle for Higher Education reports, last week Marquette’s academic senate  passed a resolution condemning Fr. Wild’s decision, and is recommending a vote of no confidence in his leadership when the fall semester begins, if university administrators cannot assure faculty members that their advancement will not be hindered by topics they research and about which they publish.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is concerned about the Marquette decision as a threat to academic freedom.  As an AAUP statement by Carey Nelson notes, “The decision to withdraw the offer has negative ramifications for academic freedom.”  Nelson also points out that by rescinding the offer at this stage, Marquette is avoiding an AAUP hearing, which would likely have occurred if the university had hired and then terminated her because of her research and publications.

Rusch’s article notes that she sought to interview Fr. Wild before she went to press, but he was unavailable for comment.

My introductory paragraph notes that, as with reaction to the recent decision of a Catholic school in the Boston archdiocese to deny admission to a child of a gay couple, there’s a discernible shift underway now in how some Catholic institutions and communities are reacting to events like the decision of Marquette administrators to rescind the offer of a dean’s position to Dr. Jodi O’Brien.  Even a decade ago, if something like this happened in a Catholic university in the United States—and stories like O’Brien’s are frighteningly common in Catholic higher education—there would not likely have been any hue and cry among faculty at the institution making such a decision.

Nor would there have been the kind of widespread national discussion we’re now seeing of the O’Brien case.  Last week, USA Today published an article by Scott Jaschik entitled “Do Gays Face ‘Stained Glass Ceiling’ at Catholic Colleges?”  This article in a popular, widely circulated journal indicates how mainstream the discussion of LGBT lives and issues and of continued discrimination against gays and lesbians by some communities of faith is becoming.

Jaschik notes that the Marquette controversy links to another widely publicized ongoing controversy at Catholic Seton Hall University.  There, the dispute has to do with a course on marriage to be offered in the fall semester, which will touch on gay marriage among other issues.

This course has been approved through all usual university protocols, but is now under fire after Newark archbishop John J. Myers has denounced the course as a covert way of legitimizing gay marriage and rejecting Catholic teaching on the subject.  Myers is insisting that the course be reviewed by the mission and identity committee of Seton Hall’s board of regents.

Professor W. King Mott

The course is being offered by W. King Mott, associate professor of political science and gender studies.  Mott, as it happens, is openly gay.  In 2005, the day after he wrote a letter to the editor of a New Jersey newspaper questioning Catholic leaders’ anti-gay stance given what we now know of these leaders’ behavior re: clerical abuse of minors, Mott was demoted from his position of associate dean and returned to his faculty position.

On the basis of his experiences as an openly gay scholar-teacher, Mott concludes,

There is no way the current hierarchy will allow a gay person to hold a position of authority unless they are closeted and self-loathing. They will never permit a scholar who publishes a point of view promoting gay equity to hold a position of real authority.

In Mott’s view, Catholic institutions of higher learning are perfectly willing to make use of the talents of gay faculty provided those faculty remain deeply closeted—provided, in Mott’s phrase, that gay and lesbian faculty “don’t exist” for administrators of Catholic colleges and universities.  As Mott notes, this leaves gay and lesbian students on many Catholic college campuses out in the cold, with no role models as they seek “reassurance and safety” in a hostile environment.

And so the glass-ceiling discussion, which is now becoming open and mainstream in American culture: as Jaschick concludes,

The controversy over O’Brien’s rescinded appointment and Mott’s demotion five years ago (and controversy today over his planned course) have some faculty members fearful about a new glass ceiling at Catholic institutions. Gay scholars may win tenure and say what they wish, but they fear that they can’t rise too high. And if Catholic colleges are defined as places that limit those who are gay or who speak out about gay scholarship, the institutions risk being risked branded as intolerant, they say.

Are faculty at Catholic colleges and universities right to fear that there’s a stained-glass ceiling for gays and lesbians?  In my view, yes.  Absolutely so.  Discrimination against gay and lesbian faculty (and staff and students) has been and remains common on Catholic college campuses—even when those campuses have policies forbidding such discrimination, as Marquette does.

Does that discrimination undercut the assertion of Catholic colleges and universities to value human rights and respect diversity?  Absolutely so.  It makes mincemeat of such statements.

And it makes it impossible for these colleges and universities to teach values like support for human rights and respect for diversity with any credibility.  Students are quick to note the discrepancy between what professors and institutions proclaim about such values, and how they actually behave when these values are at stake.  Students recognize—and rightly so—that the real values of an institution, the values it’s really teaching to students, are those it lives.  Not those it professes.

Why has it taken so long for the longstanding discrimination against gay and lesbian faculty on Catholic campuses to come to light and be discussed openly?  Because, as Margery Eagan notes in the Boston Herald article to which I linked in my previous posting, until recently, lay Catholics—including faculty of Catholic universities—have been very unwilling to challenge church leaders re: anti-gay discrimination.

And the Catholic media, including liberal Catholic publications, have been part of the problem.  It has been very difficult for those of us who have experienced open and destructive anti-gay discrimination while teaching and working in Catholic institutions of higher learning to obtain any hearing at all in the Catholic media.

Nor have many Catholic academic associations, including the Catholic Theology Society of America, paid any attention at all to this ongoing discrimination.  As I’ve noted previously on my Bilgrimage blog, to all intents and purposes, those who are gay and lesbian remain as invisible for the Catholic Theology Society of America as they do on most Catholic college campuses.  I’ve sat through session after session at CTSA in which speakers argue passionately against oppression of anyone on grounds of race, socioeconomic status, gender, ethnic background—but never mention sexual orientation.  Not at all.

As a result, the valuable testimony of faculty at Catholic institutions, including theologians, who happen to be gay or lesbian, re: issues of human rights, marginalization, discrimination, and diversity-inclusion, goes unheard.  And the testimony of those who have lived with and suffered from the dichotomy between what Catholic institutions proclaim and what they actually practice in these areas goes overlooked.  This testimony could do a great deal to help heal serious wounds in the American Catholic church, but neither our theological societies nor our media have sought to provide a place for it to be heard, until very recently.

Nor have watchdog organizations including AAUP been conspicuously concerned to advocate for faculty fired or mistreated because of their sexual orientation on Catholic college campuses—not until recently, that is.  Similarly, some of the major accrediting bodies that oversee institutions of higher learning and seek to assure integrity and respect for academic freedom in these institutions have been totally tone-deaf to issues of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

In fact, some academic accrediting bodies—notably the Southern Association of Colleges—have been part of the problem and have given cover to faith-based colleges and universities that actively discriminate against those who are gay and lesbian.  Right up to the present, SACS, many of whose member institutions are church-affiliated, talks grandiosely about integrity as its leitmotiv for accreditation, while completely ignoring grievous lapses of integrity in SACS-affiliated institutions that openly discriminate against faculty, staff, and students on grounds of sexual orientation.

Things are, however, changing—at least in parts of the U.S.  As this posting and my previous one both note, there are promising signs at present that, in some areas and among some Catholic layfolks, there’s a willingness to call the church to accountability when it preaches respect for human rights while it continues to trample on the rights of a targeted minority.

This discussion is now going mainstream.  And that is, on the whole, all to the good for the Catholic church and its future.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 17 May 2010.

P.S. The picture of Professor W. King Mott appears in a thread following a posting by John Ritchie at Free Republic calling for protests by Seton Hall students against Mott’s marriage course.  This posting links to the website of the right-wing Catholic group the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property.  TFP has been condemned by some Latin American bishops as a cult that misrepresents Catholic teaching.  The blogger, VeniVidiVici, who posted Professor Mott’s picture in this thread has labeled it “Queen Mott.”

I wonder if readers of sites like Open Tabernacle find such labels helpful or harmful, as the Catholic community discusses issues of sexual orientation.  Any thoughts?

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4 Responses

  1. I don’t think any Jesuit colleges or universities in the United States are “Jesuit-owned” any longer. Since the late 60’s those schools (indeed nearly all Catholic colleges and universities) are incorporated separately from any part of the Society of Jesus and the Roman Catholic Church. They are run by boards of directors (by whatever name) that have majority lay membership, and usually are chaired by lay people.

    • Perhaps you’re technically correct, Mark. But this is a distinction that would probably be lost on most people who visit the Marquette website and see that it’s described as “Catholic and Jesuit.”

      Or, for that matter, it would probably be lost on those who go to the website of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, where they’d find Marquette listed as a member institution–along with my alma mater Loyola University in New Orleans and other Jesuit universities in the U.S.

  2. Exceedingly good posting! The story of how gay and lesbian faculty members are [mis-] treated at Catholic institutions is truly sad, and unChristian. But then the story of slavery, segregation, the Jews, women, and so on are also good “Catholic” stories, stories of institutional and structural sin and shame of which we as an institution have had to and must continue to repent: maybe one day we will be brought to our Catholic knees on how we have treated gay and lesbian persons–may God make it happen soon!

    • Thank you, Steve. I especially appreciate the historical references which help us to put this particular form of oppression in historical perspective.

      As Fr. David Tracy once said–something to this effect–“Anyone who denies the historical penchant for sinfulness in the church is in total denial.”

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