Cross Purposes

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

Allies members have also had trouble getting funding for the same kinds of activities as other student clubs, says Waldner. Her conclusion: Anything the group does is by definition controversial.

Not true, counters Jane Canney, vice president for student affairs. "They've been underfunded, and attendance comes and goes," she says. "But we've worked really hard with them in terms of finding resources. [In April] we brought in Judy Shepherd, mother of Matthew Shepherd."

"There can be open discussion on abortion rights in the classroom," adds Doug Hennes, vice president for governmental and university affairs. "There just needs to be a position presented on the teachings of the Catholic Church. It's a careful line to walk because some people will infer that because someone is speaking on campus, St. Thomas supports their position."

Raoul Benavides

At the second faculty senate meeting of the semester, David Landry introduced two resolutions. One addressed the then-unwritten travel policy and the other asked that the Allies be treated the same as other student clubs. Both were tabled. "At the first meeting, the people opposed to the [travel] resolution said, 'We can't begin to discuss this because we're just hearing about it now for the first time,'" he complains. "Never mind how ubiquitous discussion of this issue has been on campus. It was clear they didn't want to talk about it at all, because they made a motion to table discussion indefinitely." That was followed by a filibuster, he says.

Administrators vehemently deny that there's been a change of direction, formal or informal. Lisa Waldner's not so sure. "This all seems so different from this president's history of standing up for people's right to speech, for research and discourse," she says. "We're being dishonest to students by saying, Come here, you're welcome." Of course St. Thomas, unlike the pope, doesn't have the luxury of seeing its empty pews—or in this case, classrooms—as a sign of doctrinal purity.

The daughter of a United Church of Christ minister, Ashley Sovereign grew up surrounded by discussions of morality and faith. In college, she studied theater arts and women's studies and worked as an advocate for rape victims. After college, she went to work for the Midwest Health Center for Women, a Minneapolis clinic that performs abortions. She had a particular interest in helping women with grief and loss. Eventually she began working toward a doctorate in psychology.

At St. Thomas, Sovereign was something of a star. She had won several prestigious scholarships. She had published her research. And when the time came to begin practicing psychotherapy, she was chosen to work at the university's counseling center—a coveted internship. Soon after she graduated, in May 2003, she was invited to return to teach part-time.

Two years later, the psychology program's dean invited Sovereign to apply for a job teaching and coordinating the program that places students in clinical internships. He offered her a 12-month contract, she says, but told her that the department's hope was to make its temporary hire permanent. The likelihood of a long-term appointment was important to Sovereign: In order to take the post, she would have to leave a job she was happy with counseling prison inmates.

Sovereign started work on August 1, 2005. Three months later, she says, Dean Welch told her she was doing a great job and that he was going to ask the administration to post the permanent job internally so as to avoid "wasting the time" of other applicants.

The posting never went up. A few weeks after Sovereign was told everything was proceeding apace, the e-mail arrived. And a week after that, she adds, the dean told her the administration had received more than one anonymous letter questioning her fitness to work at a Catholic university. As a consequence, he was being asked to justify her retention. Not knowing who was lambasting her, or on what basis, or which administrator had fielded the communications, there was little Sovereign could do. In early January, she wrote a letter for Welch to submit with his own statement.

"I am comfortable with the incorporation of moral discussion into everyday life, including work life," she wrote. "I understand that there are places of moral conflict and dilemma when diverse populations come together, and my honoring those places has long been a part of how I approach the world, including my current appointment as the practicum coordinator of the GSPP. I do not take faith lightly and understand and deeply respect the Catholic identity of St. Thomas."

And because she had been forthright about her past both as a student and a job candidate, she had already had discussions with Welch about how the topic of abortion was to be dealt with at St. Thomas: "I consider it my job as a UST faculty member to assist the university in maintaining guidelines regarding areas of potential conflict. I have no inclination to be challenging to the content."

On February 4, the dean sent another letter to his superiors, once again emphasizing Sovereign's "understanding of and willingness to support Catholic values in her work in our program, and [the] integrity with which she has done this.... I value this staff member and believe that she has honored her commitment to working in such a way that no question can be raised about our Catholic identity and I am hopeful that we can find a way to keep her on our staff."

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