Cross Purposes

The Catholic Church's right turn touches off battles over dogma and diversity at the University of St. Thomas

She has a doctorate in psychology; a string of prestigious clinical internships, academic publications, and presentations; and a seven-page resume detailing her work as a therapist in some challenging settings—with sex offenders, in state prisons, a domestic abuse program, and an abortion clinic.

But she has that age-old problem: What do you say when you're asked why you're leaving your current job? Sovereign loves the post she's leaving this week, as visiting faculty at the University of St. Thomas, her alma mater. And by all reports, the students and faculty love her. It had been her understanding that if things worked out, her temporary appointment would be made permanent. So how is it going to sound when she tries to explain to a potential employer why she wasn't kept on?

The truth, as Sovereign understands it, is that sometime between October, when she was assured that she was on track to be hired permanently, and March, when the university announced it would conduct a national search to fill her job, her past work counseling women who were planning abortions became an insurmountable issue. It wasn't that the Catholic institution she worked for suddenly realized that she'd once been an abortion counselor, she believes; faculty and administrators alike had long known that, and it had never been a problem. Moreover, she hadn't done the work in years, and didn't talk about it on campus.

Sovereign is convinced her past became a problem only after a handful of nasty letters from outsiders threatened to make it one. She got one herself, by e-mail, the afternoon of December 16. "I am investigating an accusation someone made regarding your involvement with Planned Parenthood and abortion rights groups and an apparent contradiction with the mission of the University of St. Thomas, your present employer," it read. "Do you in any way hold any allegiance to these groups and/or confirm or deny present or past involvement. I appreciate your clarification."

Sovereign had never heard of the man who sent the e-mail, Matt Weilgos, a pro-life activist and producer of a broadcast on a Catholic radio network, Relevant Radio. (The afternoon drive- time program in question, the Drew Mariani Show, is broadcast locally on 1330 AM.) As a courtesy, she forwarded the message to her dean.

Ignore it, was his reply: "I don't know if you remember but I had a conversation with the VP about this early on," David Welch wrote back. "I regret that this is causing you some stressful time—you know you have my full support." Sovereign expected that if she heard more on the topic, it would be from the stranger, not from St. Thomas's bureaucracy. Over the next four months, however, the matter took on a life of its own.

The student newspaper, the Aquin, was overflowing with stories about students, staff, and faculty who were rubbing up against the university's commitment to Catholic teachings. Most notoriously, there were ugly controversies involving first a lesbian who was told not to travel with her same-sex partner on student trips, and then two unmarried straight professors who were told the same thing.

The Allies, a student gay-straight alliance, were complaining that they were treated differently than other student clubs. A Vatican delegation was looking for evidence of homosexuality at the university's two seminaries. Racist graffiti had appeared on campus. The Aquin overflowed with letters, including one signed by 132 faculty members about the travel controversy. Relevant Radio in turn contacted many signatories.

Sovereign went to some of the public meetings, but mostly kept quiet in the hope of working something out. In March, however, she was told that a national search would be conducted to fill her job. Officially, she was welcome to apply. Privately, she says she was told her application would not be considered. "It appears there is no room for negotiation at the higher levels," Sovereign's dean wrote to her. "I wish there were a softer way to say this but it seems that I have played out any sources I can think of. Let's talk about how I can be of help as you look outside St. Thomas.

"I believe I know how much this position means to you and there is little consolation in knowing you did a terrific job. I wanted to affirm that with you in any case."

Not only is there little consolation in knowing that her performance was lauded, Sovereign says—if St. Thomas won't acknowledge the events that prefaced her departure, how is she expected to convince anyone she did a terrific job? She's left, in the end, hunting both for a way to support her family and to explain what happened.

Can a Catholic university simultaneously dedicate itself to diversity and to church doctrine? On one hand, St. Thomas has grown explosively, dotting both Minneapolis and St. Paul with its trademark yellow Kasota limestone buildings, opening satellite campuses in Owatonna and Rome, and offering 46 graduate degrees in such secular arenas as entrepreneurship, engineering, and software design. On the other, it requires undergraduates to complete three Catholic theology classes and operates two seminaries.

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