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