In the past decade, whenever people ask me where I see the most hopeful situations for LGBT people in the Catholic Church, I have consistently answered, “Catholic colleges and universities.” More than any other sector in the Catholic world, these institutions have established solid practices, programs, and policies which recognize the equality of LGBT students, faculty and staff. New Ways Ministry has tried to document the growth of this pro-LGBT movement on Catholic campuses by maintaining a list of gay-friendly Catholic schools. We also try to update our supporters by the posts we run on this blog entitled “Campus Chronicles.” Throughout the year, we are frequently in touch with personnel from Catholic campuses, offering them advice, resources, and information.
The movement for gay-friendly Catholic colleges and universities received a major boost this week with the publication of an article entitled “Being Gay at a Catholic University” on ReligionandPolitics.org. Authored by Michael O’Loughlin, himself a graduate of a Catholic college which wrestled with how to welcome LGBT people, the essay is a wonderful snapshot of the diversity of approaches that schools are taking to respond to the new needs.
The essay is a wonderful read, and I recommend viewing the entire text. Below I will provide some germane excerpts with commentary.
O’Loughlin’s essay is more than just a survey of representative Catholic schools. He delves into some of the more important questions that the presence of gay-friendly schools implies for the future of Catholicism. In his introduction he lays out several:
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?”
One of the school’s he visited was DePaul University, Chicago, the largest Catholic university in the nation, and the only one that has an LGBTQ Studies minor, in addition to many other supportive programs. DePaul, like other gay-friendly schools, sometimes gets criticized for not being truly Catholic. Religious Studies Professor and Chair James Halstead offered a pertinent answer:
“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.’”
Indeed, when O’Loughlin visited the Jesuit-run Santa Clara University, California, he discovered that far from diluting Catholic identity, being LGBT-friendly was an enhancement to the faith life of students. He describes a conversation with Max Silva, a student:
“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.’ ”
At St. Anselm College, New Hampshire, creating a welcoming environment for LGBT students provided an opportunity for religious renewal for the campus, as described by Sue Gabert, the director of campus ministry:
Gabert. . .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.
At New Ways Ministry, we have heard similar things from parishes who welcome LGBT people. The experience turns out to be a re-evangelization of the entire parish community, not just an outreach to LGBT people.
Not all the Catholic schools O’Loughlin visited were gay-friendly. One notable exception was Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, for which O’Loughlin lists a series of repealed gay-friendly policies over the past three decades, and which this year, once again, rejected a student proposal to establish a gay-straight alliance. The juxtaposition of Catholic University’s retrograde policies with other campuses’ more progressive experiences offers an important example:
“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. . . .
“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.”
In other words, what is happening on campuses mirrors the experience of the entire American church generally.
For those who strive for equality and justice for LGBT people in the Catholic Church, the concluding paragraph of the essay offers amazing hope:
“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.”
O’Loughlin, who blogs at Religion News Service, added a post on the day his article was published which contains the entire text of his interview with Systematic Theology Professor Paul Crowley, SJ. It’s definitely worth a read, too. Both the essay and the extended interview are wonderful contributions to the ever-growing conversation on LGBT issues and the Catholic Church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry