Theologian’s Writing on Queer Jesus Are “Highly Offensive and Blasphemous,” Says Bishop

Tat siong Benny Liew

A bishop has described a theologian’s decade-old, LGBT-informed writings on the New Testament as “highly offensive and blasphemous,” igniting a controversy that has made sensational headlines.

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts, criticized the work of theologian Tat-siong Benny Liew this past Good Friday. In a statement, the bishop said of Liew, who chairs New Testament studies at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school:

“[Liew] cast doubts on the male sexuality of Jesus Christ based on Professor Liew’s seriously flawed analysis of some texts of the Gospel of St. John. I am deeply troubled and concerned to hear that someone who holds an endowed chair in New Testament studies at the College of the Holy Cross has authored such highly offensive and blasphemous notions.  Such positions have no place in the biblical scholarship of a professor who teaches at a Catholic college and who, as such, should be supportive of the college’s Catholic identity and mission. . .Clearly the biblical conclusions that Professor Liew has reached in his writings are both false and perverse.”

McManus said Holy Cross is duty-bound to ask Liew to reject his decade-old work. He also said that while academic freedom is “critical” in Catholic higher education, it should not “provide cover for blatantly unorthodox teaching.” The bishop appealed to the Vatican’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae document on the role of Catholic colleges and the relationship between Catholic higher education and local bishops.  The document has been heavily criticized for attempting to curtail academic freedom.

The Telegram & Gazette reported that the present controversy was ignited after Holy Cross senior Elinor Reilly resurfaced Liew’s older work for The Fenwick Review, a student publication funded by the right-wing Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which was first led by William F. Buckley, Jr. and aims to “counter the progressive ideology taking over American colleges.”

Reilly accused Liew of having “an unconventional approach to gender, sexuality, and race in the biblical texts.” In various writings, Liew raised the possibility that the Roman centurion in Matthew 8 sought healing for his lover rather than servant and has explored the ways by which Gospel authors portray Jesus in non-traditional gender roles.

Liew also wrote in one article that Jesus in the Gospel of John appears “as a drag-kingly bride in his passion,” and elsewhere that the washing of the disciples’ feet in chapter 12 of that Gospel is a “suggestive, even seductive” moment. Reilly included several more examples of writings she considered unconventional.

Holy Cross has defended Liew, reported The Telegram & Gazette , even while expressing some disagreement with him. One statement from president Fr. Philip Boroughs, S.J., said:

“I know Professor Liew to be a dedicated teacher and an engaged scholar. . .He is a man of faith, and he and his family are active members of a church community. Academic freedom is one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Scholars in all disciplines are free to inquire, critique, comment, and push boundaries on widely accepted thought.

“However, I strongly disagree with the interpretation of John’s Gospel, as described in the Fenwick Review, and I find it especially offensive in this most sacred of all weeks in the liturgical calendar.”

Spokesperson John Hill added that the “intentionally provocative” writings were “not intended for an undergraduate classroom,” but rather were “meant to foster discussion among a small group of Biblical scholars exploring marginalization.” Hill affirmed that Liew has never faced a complaint since he began at Holy Cross.

It is unfortunate that the bishop became involved in this situation.  Liew’s writing are not outrageous when viewed in light of the fact that much contemporary theology pushes boundaries and challenges existing ideas, especially in regard to sexuality and gender. Good theology is open to scrutiny and evolves in conversation with the scholarly community. If Liew’s writings seem overly sensational in moments, there should be and is room to criticize these ideas in the context of scholarly discourse. But cherry-picking sentences from long articles and books as Reilly has done is neither responsible academic engagement nor honest journalism. A serious and qualified academic like Liew deserves better than what Reilly, McManus, and other critics have offered.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 9, 2018

6 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    This spat between McManus and the Holy Cross faculty has been going on for years, and I’ve referenced it several times before. The basic facts:

    McManus is far-right-wing . He was known to show up unbidden at churches in his diocese, remove the pastor from the pulpit, and deliver a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon to the startled congregation. And he was once busted for DUI and spent a night in jail, until his own mother came and bailed him out!

    I’m not here to mock the guy’s personal problems, but he is very clearly driven by some private demons. New York’s Cardinal Dolan is a theological conservative, but a genuinely cheerful and good-humored one. I wish Rome would get a clue about his crazed antics, and ask him to step down voluntarily, or else remove him involuntarily. Also, for the record: Fr Phil Boroughs is a down-to-earth and very decent guy — one of the most popular Holy Cross Presidents in recent history, among students and alumni alike. Apparently Rome doesn’t understand that this McManus guy has “gone rogue” — or else it just doesn’t care. But something clearly needs to be done about him. You would have thought that having his own mother bail him out of jail after he was arrested for drunk driving would have sent a message to his hierarchical superiors. But apparently they’re turning a blind eye.

    –Dave Richards, (Holy Cross ’68, Yale ’72MA — FWIW)

  2. DeaconTom Smith
    DeaconTom Smith says:

    Reminds me of the controversies around Terrance McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” or Scorcese’s film “Last Temptation..” Artistic/academic interpretation and Nuance (and therefore broader understanding) of the core messages of scripture remain hidden for those with fearful hearts.

  3. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    WHY, why, why, do virtually all of the “outrageous and offensive” (according to the conservative right) texts written by any variety of theologians ONLY seem to revolve around sex, sexuality, sexual identity or sexual actions, etc.? The conservative voices in the Church just harp on that one area of human experience, (always negatively), and ignore almost all other areas. It’s more than a pity, it’s a travesty…and “gives away” an inner, psychological/spiritual conflict over their discomfort with open and honest discussion on this most basic of human realities. Humans who hold sex (and all implied by that word) “at a distance” speak more of themselves than to the truth being explored by those who do not fear a free exchange. How else will we grow and progress into the “fully human” person/s God intends us to be(come)?

  4. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    “The Telegram & Gazette reported that the present controversy was ignited after Holy Cross senior Elinor Reilly resurfaced Liew’s older work for The Fenwick Review, a student publication funded by the right-wing Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which was first led by William F. Buckley, Jr. and aims to ‘counter the progressive ideology taking over American colleges.’”

    I think that says it all. Apparently nothing he had been teaching or writing recently has caused any disturbance. So this student did some digging, and unearthed something this theologian wrote a decade ago for discussion by “a small group of Biblical scholars exploring marginalization.” There will always be some self-appointed guardians of their view of “sexual orthodoxy” in the Church. And for some, any hint or suggestion that Jesus may not have been a fully heterosexual man, is something that cannot countenanced.

  5. Christine
    Christine says:

    Dr. Liew was my Intro to New Testament professor at Pacific School of Religion (before he went to Holy Cross). That was one of my favorite classes, and I still draw on what I learned from him every day. He’s a brilliant man, a faithful person and caring professor. I am so sad he’s going through this. The idea that a professor could find his job threatened because of an article that he wrote years ago— long before he had a Catholic employer— is absurd and wrong.

    Also, while I haven’t read the article in question, I have read a lot of Dr. Liew’s other work and I suspect that the descriptions of this article don’t do justice to his argument, and perhaps lack appreciation for the ways in which incarnation (God taking on the “clothes” of humanity) is inherently drag.


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