Cross Purposes

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

On one hand, the university president has repeatedly voiced concern for the campus climate, emphatically stating St. Thomas is better because of its gay and lesbian population. On the other, he expects homosexuals and unmarried straights to keep their most intimate relationships under wraps.

On one hand, St. Thomas pledges not to discriminate, not even on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or marital status. On the other, its administration defends controversial policies by noting that as a religious institution, the university engages in "legal discrimination." Similarly, although the university is dependent on government research grants, student aid, and other tax dollars, it holds that this same private religious status exempts it from anti-discrimination laws.

Founded in 1885 by Archbishop John Ireland, St. Thomas was, until 1977, a small, all-male, undergraduate liberal arts college. Over the next quarter-century, women were admitted, graduate programs were initiated, and enrollment swelled from 2,500 to more than 11,000. Today it is the state's largest independent university. Fifty-one percent of students are women; 10 percent are racial or ethnic minorities. Diversity might be a moral imperative, as university literature repeatedly states, but it's also a matter of keeping those capacious new classrooms full: Less than half the students are Catholic.

By all accounts, the contradictions have been kept in check for years by an unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" approach. But the quiet compromise began unraveling last May, when one or more unidentified students in the liturgical choir complained to an administrator in the Campus Ministry department about the choir director's plan to bring her son and female partner on a pilgrimage to France that was slated to leave in just five days. The administrator told the choir director, Ann Shrooten, that her partner's presence presented a "moral dilemma" for students. Accordingly, St. Thomas expected Shrooten to change her family's travel plans.

Shrooten thought about it overnight and then refused. Instead, she filed a grievance alleging that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation. Six months later, on November 1, the faculty grievance panel rejected her petition. It did, however, find that the university's written policies "are ambiguous about, if not silent on, whether the conduct of staff and faculty members who have responsibility for students must model the Catholic values of the institution."

In the past, faculty had traveled with same-sex partners and no one had said anything. But Shrooten's case arose at a time when the university's Catholic identity was under heightened scrutiny from outsiders, wealthy patrons, and conservative church factions. Homosexuality is a particular hot button.

While most Catholic colleges and universities are run by orders of nuns or priests, St. Thomas is a diocesan university, meaning that it has a formal relationship with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It is financially independent, but Archbishop Harry Flynn is the ex officio head of the board of trustees.

The board itself is heavy with some of Minnesota's richest business people: Some (including Best Buy founder Richard Schulze, attorney Michael Ciresi, and Business Incentives founder Guy Schoenecker) are wealthy alums or parents of St. Thomas grads. Others (including Opus Corp. founder Gerald Rauenhorst, former Graco CEO David Koch, broadcasting mogul Stanley Hubbard, Central Bank Group chair John Morrison, and former Waldorf Corp. owner Eugene Frey) have histories of conservative religious philanthropy or political activism.

Their largesse is evident throughout St. Thomas's campuses, particularly in downtown Minneapolis, where seemingly every square foot is named after a booster. The building housing the business and psychology programs is adorned with Italianate "frescoes" of donors and their families. The new law school, which opened in September 2001, is an architectural Who's Who. Spurred by the promise that the faculty would boast religious conservatives, the law school had amassed a remarkable endowment of $82 million by the time it opened, fueled in part by some of the university's most fervently religious patrons. That sum matches the endowment of the University of Minnesota's own law school, and it's higher than Notre Dame's. Rauenhorst, in particular, is reported to have pressed for an institution that would mix law and religion.

Indeed, if St. Thomas had long been home to a number of hard-line religious scholars, particularly in the departments of Catholic studies and philosophy, the law school faculty has introduced religious politics into the mix. Professor Theresa Collett, for example, has written in favor of the role of religion in the judiciary, school vouchers, fetal pain laws, same-sex marriage bans, and matters pertaining to "the homosexual agenda." She has testified before Congress and the Minnesota Legislature and written amicus briefs in cases on assisted suicide and partial-birth abortion, and she was the principal author of last year's California referendum on parental notification of abortions.

As the law school opened, the Catholic Church as a whole was being rocked by a series of high-profile scandals. Throughout the country, hundreds of lawsuits were underway against priests alleged to have engaged in sexual abuse as well as the dioceses accused of covering up for them. The church hierarchy has largely blamed the scandals on a "gay subculture" in the priesthood and has undertaken a review of U.S. seminaries that, among other things, would look for evidence of homosexuality.

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