New Article Highlights Tensions in LGBTQ+ Pastoral Ministry at Catholic Colleges

Sacred Heart University community members at the “As You Are” LGBTQ celebration in 2021

As a campus minister and chaplain, I regularly encountered students wrestling with the disconnect between their own burgeoning beliefs and what it meant to be a “good Catholic” growing up in the church. For many of these young adults, my office was the first space where they spoke aloud that they were both Catholic and gay, as one example, and began to work out the tension between their two identities in a space that was pastorally affirming and welcoming, yet also authentically Catholic.

A recent piece in the National Catholic Reporter suggests that both Catholic and Protestant colleges are often serving as this liminal space where queer students experience acceptance, as well as the contradiction of anti-LGBTQ+ theological underpinnings.

Over 200 institutions are part of the Association of Catholic Colleges & Universities, representing over 900,000 students, and, according to its president, Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, nearly all of them have made efforts to welcome LGBTQ+ students.

“Catholic colleges and universities..are the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the church in the United States,” New Ways Ministry executive director Francis DeBernardo told NCR. Along with the resource list of parishes found welcoming by LGBTQ+ Catholics, New Ways also maintains a similar list of LGBTQ-friendly Catholic colleges.

Yet, even with this welcome, the article noted that across Catholic and some Protestant institutions alike, attempts to welcome and affirm LGBTQ+ students sometimes run into queer-negative doctrines, resulting in discrimination lawsuits or complaints from conservative donors and families that more-affirming colleges are betraying their Catholic or Christian identity.

“We have to learn to live with this tension,” noted Fr. Donal Godfrey, SJ, chaplain at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school located in an historically gay-friendly city within a currently-conservative archdiocese.

John Scarano, the director of campus ministry at John Carroll University, Cleveland, agreed with Godfrey’s assessment. “It’s kind of a tightrope,” he explained.

Even a more conservative Catholic school, Franciscan University at Steubenville, navigates this tension in its own way, noted Fr. Jonathan St. Andre, an administrator. “We don’t move away from the truth of the human person as discovered in Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the teaching authority of the Church,” he maintained, but added that harassment of people who disagree is also not tolerated.

Sean Fisher, a senior at St. John’s University in Minnesota, acknowledged the school has made positive efforts that include official recognition of queer student groups, such as QPLUS at St. John’s and its sister school, the College of St. Benedict. Fisher, however, also described a tension that sometimes manifests as “ambivalence toward genuine care.” Fisher, who is a leader in QPLUS and identifies as nonbinary, explained that sometimes “‘Love your neighbor’ has an asterisk.”

St. John’s and St. Benedict, both traditionally single-sex institutions, now admit applicants based on their gender identity and consider transfers for those who transition. For Mary Geller, the associate provost, this admission policy is an issue of student safety. Yet, she has sometimes encountered rage from some parents “that we have students with male body parts in a female dorm.” Recalling a particular incident, Geller remembered, “I just said, ‘Sir, I don’t check body parts.’”

Last year, LGBTQ+ students and alumni from federally-funded Christian schools filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education claiming that religious exemptions allowed schools to unconstitutionally discriminate against queer students. And in May, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced a separate investigation into alleged violations of LGBTQ+ students’ rights at six Christian universities.

My own ministry took place at three different universities, none of them religiously-affiliated and all considered LGBTQ+ friendly, two of them extremely so. Even without a religious identity guiding the chaplaincy, the Catholic community sometimes seemed of two minds: what had to be said when teaching officially on behalf of the church and the pastoral conversation centered on student experience.

What is needed to resolve this tension is less cognitive dissonance between the two mindsets and more genuine acceptance of students as created in the image of God, as they are.

Angela Howard McParland (she/her), New Ways Ministry, January 14, 2023

3 replies
  1. Deacon Thomas Smith
    Deacon Thomas Smith says:

    Even with residual resistance still present, we’ve come a long way. I remember the first tenuous meetings of the Student Homophile League at Rutgers in 1970, when we were sequestered for meetings in a dark basement, and fear of exposure kept many from participation.

  2. Scott Hill, omi
    Scott Hill, omi says:

    I’m reminded that humanity is complex and not easily defined; humanity. oftentimes, seems to be is ill at ease with what cannot be clearly defined. Ms. McParkland’s article reminds me that being human is complex, even paradoxical. Schools of Higher learning, the welcoming of Queer students, is part of the educational experience and the learned lessons of life’s complexity; learning to live with tension, as it is manifested on a diverse campus. I lift up three cheers to College Administration’s and student body’s as they make room for LGBTQ+ students and associations. I believe these and other University’s and College’s offer a rich educational opportunity, learning how to live in a complex, and diverse world. Whether secular or religious, schools of Higher education have at their fingertips, lessons for living in a complex world. Creating a safe space for interaction between a diverse community of students regardless sexual orientation, or gender identity, holds the power to be transformative, as long as one has the courage to hold in tension all that is human. Schools of Hight Education offer space for discovery and an adventure into the wonder of what it means to be human.

  3. James Pawlowicz
    James Pawlowicz says:

    One of your concluding lines really struck me: “Catholic community sometimes seemed of two minds: what had to be said when teaching officially on behalf of the church and the pastoral conversation centered on student experience.”
    I agree that this is a dissonance (still) felt among a lot of Catholic communities, whether that be family, school, or parish. As Scott says, there is a lot of complexity to be lived with! Every year we get better at it.


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