On LGBT Issues, Does Catholic Education Have to Choose Between Church and Culture?

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.

Patricia Miller

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?

Vincent Miller

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

4 replies
  1. Kris
    Kris says:

    What a convoluted and high-falutin article!

    I’m not surprised there are ideological divisions between the institutional Church and contemporary culture: they are speaking different languages to each other.

    Cut the theological pretension and keep it simple. ‘Simple’ doesn’t have to mean ‘unintelligent’.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Kris, I need to say that I respectfully disagree. In terms of contemporary theology, the quotations are thoughtful and meaningful. The language is somewhat analogical, sometimes a bit poetic, and certainly not phrased in the street idiom of “daily newspaper pulp”! But anybody with some university experience in reading theological texts should be able to follow the exposition, and the basic insight of the writer. Personally, I found it rather invigorating, and even inspiring. I’d be very curious to know how some of our other readers related to it.

  2. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    I read Patricia Miller to be saying that at some point in making policy, on some issues, a Church institution like a university has to say either “our teaching will not change” and suffer the cultural consequences or say “our teaching has been shown to be wrong by cultural developments in science and philosophy.” The Church can validly question and resist change until the reasoning is clear, but there comes a time when it is clear, and then it is time to change. The official Church doctrine of reception of laws could be developed to allow the Church to grow through cultural change. That would avoid the culture wars, the inconsistency, and the hypocrisy. The doctrine of reception of laws depends on the belief that the Holy Spirit is working throughout human culture. Bottom line.

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Regarding your list of LGBT friendly institutions, I must challenge your inclusion of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The LGBT student group can only meet on university space when they are doing official organizing and must support the elements of the hateful 1986 Ratzinger letter which found homosexual relationships to be sinful. No LGBT student events can have a social characteristic. The university continues to refuse any relationship with or acknowledgement of the LGBT alumni group, Gay and Lesbian Alumni Notre Dame-St. Mary’s College. Yes there are brave students, staff and faculty who are supportive of LGBT rights, but they do so in fear of their continued standing at the school. I am a 1970 graduate of Notre Dame and regret what has become of a place that once placed human rights as among its highest callings.


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