Cross Purposes

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

In the end, Lawton and Kennedy withdrew from leading the trip. "Some of the faculty have said to us, 'Why make a big deal out of this, it's just a trip?' But it's not just a trip," says Kennedy. "The university is very public about avowing its commitment to diversity and clearly this was not in keeping with that public face.

"If the administration would create a policy that would affect unmarried people, what was next? The broader human rights issue is very important to us," she continues. "For us to go on our trip knowing that Ann Shrooten had not gone on hers, we couldn't countenance going on ours. There was no question. She and her partner were never given the option."

Lawton concurs. "If you don't want people like that, then say so in the hiring process. Don't put 'equal opportunity' on your statement," he says. "There are a couple of areas in which religious doctrine comes into conflict with the idea of diversity, and it's critical that the university come to grips with how it's going to be resolved."

It's not just St. Thomas that's struggling to come to grips with the chasm between Catholic doctrine and the way that most people live. For a while in the 1960s and '70s, in the wake of Vatican II, it seemed as if a new era of openness was being ushered in, one in which Catholics would be able to decide for themselves how hard and fast certain church teachings were. Dissidents, including faculty at some Catholic universities, were questioning traditional interpretations of church teachings on sexuality.

That kind of talk found a ready audience. More than 80 percent of U.S. Catholics disagree with the birth control ban, says David Landry, a St. Thomas associate professor of theology. "And that's not the only one," he says. "To varying degrees of popularity, American Catholics are opposed to priestly celibacy, to the all-male priesthood, to the church's teachings on homosexuality. And this just drives conservative Catholics nuts, that so many Catholics disagree. And they want that to stop."

Catholic schools are often blamed for the dissent, he adds: "It's not that the students make up their own minds, they were taught badly. So they decided to try to reign in these renegade teachers and theologians." The Vatican began requiring priests teaching in Catholic institutions to have a license, called a mandatum, from their bishop. At least one prominent professor who dissented on doctrine about sexuality had his license rescinded by Joseph Ratzinger, the man who last year became Pope Benedict XVI.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict authored an infamous 1986 letter describing homosexuality as "a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." He also has made no secret of his indifference to the possibility that his harder line might alienate liberal Catholics. A smaller church, he has indicated, will only be purer, more zealous in its evangelism.

It's been no surprise to liberal Catholics, then, that church hierarchy has blamed a "gay subculture" for the sex abuse scandals of recent years.

In late February, a few weeks after the pope barred most gay men from the priesthood, St. Thomas got a visit from seven church officials dispatched by the Vatican to evaluate the university's two seminaries, undergraduate St. John Vianney and its graduate counterpart, the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Faculty, students, and recent graduates were questioned individually. The investigators allegedly asked whether there was evidence of homosexuality in the seminary.

In October, St. Thomas's student gay-straight alliance club, the Allies, complained it was having problems scheduling and advertising events. The group had had some trouble the previous year with outsiders videotaping people attending its meetings. This year, they were finding their flyers ripped down almost as soon as they went up.

Earlier in the school year, the Allies organized a National Coming Out Day event. The university refused to advertise it in its daily bulletin, according to the club's faculty adviser. The group's president was called into an administrator's office for trying to advertise the event by chalking campus sidewalks, common practice at St. Thomas. A campus life committee told the group it found the phrase coming out "too exclusive."

"The event was very appropriate for St. Thomas," says Sociology Professor Lisa Waldner, the Allies' adviser. "All of the speakers were Catholic or raised Catholic and were talking about coming out with a Catholic background. I thought it went well, but the next time we tried to organize an event, I got a call from the administration."

The Allies had asked a St. Thomas alumnus from the Human Rights Campaign to talk to their September 30 meeting about job discrimination. Administrators initially said that the event would cross the line because it was advocacy and not education, says Waldner. They eventually allowed the speaker to come, but insisted that a representative of Catholic Studies, Theology, or Campus Ministry be allowed to present a Catholic viewpoint.

But according to Waldner, she was also informed that the group's charter was under review because it hadn't followed a university policy that requires controversial speakers to be cleared with administrators in advance. The Allies asked for a list of written rules, she says, but the Campus Life official in question declined, saying, "having unwritten rules gives me the flexibility to protect these students."

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