Is Catholic higher education in the U.S. being forced to choose between church and culture on matters of gender and sexuality? Patricia Miller, a contributor for Religion Dispatches, leans towards yes. I’m not so sure.
Miller’s post at Religion Dispatches identified the “distinct (and sometimes distinctly uncomfortable) place within the Catholic Church, part of the Catholic ecosystem, yet also independent of it.” This is no more evident then when questions of Catholic identity, academic freedom, employment benefits, and student support frequently come face-to-face with gender and sexuality matters. This situation has been the case for decades, but Miller thinks that a shift may have to happen. She wrote:
“[T]hat 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. . .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.”
Miller offered three examples to back up her assertion: the University of Notre Dame’s handling of contraceptive coverage for students and employees; efforts at Georgetown University to defund a student group which promotes church teaching on marriage and family; The Catholic University of America’s obstinate refusal to recognize an LGBT student group, CUAllies.
Any reader of this blog’s “Campus Chronicles” series would quickly see many other LGBT-related flash points in Catholic higher education. But, what that series also reveals is the many and varied means by which colleges and universities have successfully enacted LGBT inclusion and support while being faithful to their institution’s Catholic identity. So, is Miller correct that, overall, Catholic schools are being forced to choose between church and culture? Or is there something else at work?
The theologian Vincent Miller is helpful for these considerations. In a book chapter* (see citation below) on ecclesiology and culture, he identified two divergent ways by which the church can engage culture.
The first approach, drawing from Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), understands culture as a good through which humans seek to live their fullest lives in history. The Constitution welcomes a plurality of cultures, engaged by a Church with a universal mission which can therefore bond together diverse groups. The Constitution calls for critical engagement with, and synthesis between, contemporary knowledge and theology. The Constitution, in Vincent Miller’s words, “inspired the demanding project of sympathetic yet critical Christian engagement with the depth and diversity of modern cultures.”
For the second approach, Vincent Miller presented a post-conciliar attitude promoted by Pope John Paul II. In this mode, culture is engaged by contrast (the culture of life versus the culture of death, for instance). The Church’s particular and distinct views are what define engagement with culture, and there are clear delineations concerning boundaries and limits. The effects of this approach have been polarizing for decades, both within the church and outside of it, including in Catholic higher education.
Like many church leaders and some higher education officials, Patricia Miller worked from this second perspective when she sets church and culture against one another. Her argument is that, in a zero-sum scenario, Catholic colleges and universities simply have to pick a contrasting side when it comes to gender and sexuality. But it is a false choice for Catholic education to choose between church and culture, given how intimately related they are.
Catholics have recourse critical synthesis, the first approach Vincent Miller identified of how church and culture can relate. Schools are not forced to pick between church and culture. They can instead, following Gaudium et Spes‘ lead, work to synthesize the best contemporary knowledge with the best theology such that, in collaboration with the universal church, their campuses become places for unity in the church and with culture, all while respecting and welcoming diversity.
Rather than asking whether it is church or culture, there is a better synthesizing question: how can Catholic schools work to be more LGBT-inclusive as an integral part of their work to live out more fully their Catholic identity?
*For further reading, see Vincent Miller, “Ecclesiology, Cultural Change, and the Changing Nature of Culture,” in A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium, edited by Richard R. Gaillardetz and Edward P Hahnenberg (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2015).
This post is part of Bondings 2.0’s “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right-hand corner of this page.
For a listing of LGBT-friendly Catholic colleges and universities, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 12, 2017