The Diocese of Davenport has reached an agreement with the Eychaner Foundation about the presentation of a $40, 000 college scholarship to a gay student graduating from a Catholic high school in Clinton, Iowa. News erupted last week about the dispute because Davenport’s Bishop Martin Amos originally would not permit a Foundation representative to present the scholarship to graduate Keaton Fuller at Prince of Peace High School’s commencement exercises because of the organization’s support for marriage equality.
The earlier decision, it had been stated, was based on a diocesan policy does not allow speakers whose views conflict with Catholic teaching to make addresses in Catholic institutions. In a Des Moines Register news story, the diocesan spokesperson offered the following explanation:
“But upon further review, diocesan spokesperson David Montgomery said there has been no alteration of policy and that the issue became what did ‘presenting’ an award really means.
“ ‘We meant to say “speaking”,’ Montgomery said.”
Quite frankly, that explanation is weak.
A statement on the diocesan website, entitled “Agreement Reached Between the Eychaner Foundation and the Diocese of Davenport, “ explained the new arrangement:
“Under the agreement, Dr. Lee Morrison, Diocesan Superintendent of Schools will read a script prepared by the Eychaner Foundation, which was reviewed and approved by the Most Rev. Martin J. Amos, Bishop of Davenport. Mike Simonson, a prominent architect and member of the scholarship committee, will present an eagle statue to Fuller.”
One can’t help but wonder why this new arrangement, which differs only slightly from the original presentation arrangement, is now acceptable to the diocese. The presentation speech written by the Eychaner Foundation, approved by the diocese , to be read by a diocesan official, with an award symbol presented by a foundation representative seems quite a convoluted procedure. How is this so different from the award being simply presented by a Foundation representative?
Furthermore, this complex negotiated procedure makes one wonder why the diocese made such a knee-jerk response of blocking the scholarship presentation in the first place. If the diocese is capable of such a nuanced, subtle, and complex compromise, it shows that church officials can indeed make accommodations and find creative solutions to problems that they previously described as non-negotiable. It’s sad that such a public uproar had to occur first, which no doubt caused stress and strain to many of the persons involved in this controversy, not least of whom are young Keaton Fuller and his family.
While it is good that the diocese has come to such a negotiation, the fact that they did so will surely make people wonder why the decision was altered. Was it because the decision on made headlines across the nation due to the injustice that it signaled? Was it because the first decision was made by a lower diocesan official and that the bishop or someone higher up directed them to make changes? Did the bishop or other officials realize how foolish the original decision made them look? Did public outcry affect their deliberations?
The latest statement from the diocese shows that the bishop is aware that what was important in this case was the affirmation of Keaton Fuller and the recognition that indeed the diocese and the Eychaner Foundation do indeed share some common ground:
“Bishop Amos congratulated Keaton on his graduation and success in receiving a prestigious scholarship, and the Eychaner Foundation for respecting Catholic teaching regarding speakers in Catholic churches. Regardless of the different views held by Mr. Eychaner and the Diocese on same sex marriage, the work of the Foundation for tolerance and respect for all people is commendable, especially regarding the anti-bullying programs they advocate. The Diocese also supports anti-bullying and anti-discrimination as outlined in its 2007 ‘Anti-Bullying/ Harassment Policy.’ ‘Principles of mutual respect and careful listening exhibited by all parties allowed a solution to emerge,’ Bishop Amos explained. ‘We have many things we agree upon, and have also agreed to accept the fact that we also have some things we disagree about. But that shouldn’t prevent all of us from celebrating Keaton Fuller’s success over 13 years in Catholic schools and our mutual hope for his success in college and beyond.’ “
The Des Moines Register story notes that both the Eychaner Foundation and Keaton Fuller were pleased with the new agreement:
Fuller and the Eychaner Foundation’s founder, Rich Eychaner, both thanked Bishop Amos for finding an acceptable resolution. The script to be read on graduation day will say the scholarship ‘is granted to distinguished Iowa high school seniors who are openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender’ and that Fuller ‘gradually shared his story with friends and classmates … and was embraced by the Prince of Peace community.’
“ ‘As I leave Prince of Peace, it’s comforting to know that this experience may make it easier for the next gay student who attends this school,’ Fuller said in a statement issued Friday. ‘Please know that this week has not been about me. Rather, it has been about recognizing that everybody deserves to be treated equally, regardless of any differences we may have.’ ”
The happy ending to this story should not make church officials forget an important lesson to be learned: dialogue with people and organizations with whom Catholicism shares important values is much more productive and constructive than starting from a place of isolationism. Seeking common ground, rather than allowing differences to close off any interaction, is the appropriate method for a church which emphasizes reconciliation. Dialogue should be the first step, not one which is only resorted to as an afterthought. Build bridges, not walls.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry