Before there was Pope Francis, there was a different Francis from Assisi, Italy. Back in the twelfth century, St. Francis heard the call to fix a church falling into ruins. Now it is the twenty-first century, and this Francis ought to hear the call to fix Catholic colleges falling into ruins.
Recent incidents at Notre Dame, Marquette, and Catholic University of America trouble me, because they stir up memories of the muddled theology that corrupted my Catholic youth, led me into terrible confusion, and ultimately led me to leave the Church. Since I am a professor, the prospect of Catholic higher education unraveling is doubly alarming.
“Who am I to judge?”
Five words that bring back lots of difficult memories. It was a quote taken out of context. I get it.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Pope Francis didn’t really say what the Advocate and the Human Rights Campaign thought he said. But I’ve been through this before. The idea emerges from time to time in corners of the Catholic world: greed and economic exploitation are exceptional crimes, while lustful crimes do less harm and ought not to be subject to righteous indignation.
Run a soup kitchen, collect blankets for the homeless, preach about generosity, and don’t give people a hard time about forbidden private acts that bring them pleasure. If you don’t sermonize about what people are doing in the dark on Saturday night, then maybe they will feel more welcome at Sunday mass. More people saved, no harm done.
This medley of sexual anarchy and socialism, festooned with calls to charity and lopsided clippings from Matthew 25, helped my parents rationalize their decisions. My father and mother split up just as I was born. My father would go on to more lovers and wives than I care to count, and my mother would raise me together with another divorced woman who was her lover for almost two decades.
Obligations Economic and Sexual
I loved my mother and her partner deeply. Don’t get me wrong. Much of what they taught me about resisting injustice I internalized and still hold dear. My mother was a diehard radical—and an ardent Catholic. A Latin American devotee of liberation theology, to be specific. The heyday of such iconoclasm was the 1970s, a time when the man who would one day be pope was the “Provincial Superior” of Argentina’s Jesuits.
In the 1970s, the Catholics who acted as my spiritual mentors focused overwhelmingly on the economic and hygienic side of social obligations. All this would have been fine and good, except that both my father and my mother had failed their social obligations to me based on lust, not on greed. Their libidinal adventures and shirking of sexual conventions, as it turned out, were no small matter. The priests and nuns who licensed and looked away from the sexual chaos that surrounded us were not doing the children involved any favors. Quite frankly, they let us down.
Later, in my thirties, I taught at a Jesuit college in Buffalo. I listened as my colleagues debated how to screen out any job applicants who were pro-life, anti-divorce, or anti-gay-marriage. Google worked like a charm. “We don’t want someone who’s applying to us out of Catholic bigotry,” one person said. “Rather, they ought to be drawn to the Jesuit mission of social justice.”
I turned in my resignation the next day. Six months later, I was born again.
Strike One: The University of Notre Dame
I entered the discussion of marriage and parenting as a Southern Baptist in my forties, with my tragic Catholic juvenilia so far in the past, nobody had a clue about it.
As it turns out, there was a group that formed at the University of Notre Dame devoted to children’s rights led by pious Catholic students. They had taken an interest in my work on marriage, adoption, and parenting, so they contacted me and asked if I could speak before the attendees at the group’s inaugural conference on April 3, 2014.
The night before I was to arrive, I received word that there might be protests in South Bend. The LGBT group at Notre Dame was fussing over the event and claiming that it was going to be anti-gay. When I arrived on the campus, there were police patrolling the conference center. I gave my speech without incident. It seems that the protestors did not come to my talk; they heard earlier speeches and left by the time I arrived.
But after I left, the gay student group lobbied to have the Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP) denied official status as an organization. Their reasoning was peculiar: it would be okay to oppose same-sex marriage based on Catholic doctrine, but it was absolutely verboten to criticize same-sex parenting based on children’s rights. The latter, the gay student group asserted, had no basis in Catholic doctrine, simply reproduced anti-gay prejudice, and went against the supposed “consensus” among social scientists. Suddenly they were the voice of Catholic orthodoxy, empowered to excommunicate infidels in their own miniature inquisition.
I’ve written so much about the invalidity of the social-science consensus on same-sex parenting, it would take too long to reprise the problems here. In fact, I went to Notre Dame as a scholar to challenge that consensus. That’s what scholars do.
Here we go again. Lots of talk about the “social justice” mission of Catholic education meaning that gay people can’t be critiqued. Once again, the dream of a sex-positive socialist Catholicism based on Marx and liberation theology tells kids to stop complaining when they suffer the consequences of adults’ sexual selfishness. The added garnish here is anti-intellectualism wedded to confused Catholic contradictions: nobody is allowed to disagree with a consensus! Socrates would be rolling in his grave.
I wrote this piece in response. Apparently, the Notre Dame administration later reversed its block on SCOP’s official status. But one step forward comes with a few steps backward: someone at Notre Dame also gave its imprimatur to the conference on “Gender and Children.” Of course, one panel was on “children and gay parents.” The gathering seemed to welcome every possible objection adults might have to the ways children manifest gender roles, while muzzling qualms children might have about losing their parents. By warring against biological parenthood and socialized gender roles without including a strong voice from people with views like those championed by SCOP, the conference leaders sought to silence dissent and suppress half the debate.
By the way, as the son of gay parents who has never been given a fair hearing by the “childhood studies” community that rallied around “Gender and Children,” I am the one they simultaneously claim to defend and yet perennially erase.
Strike Two: Marquette’s Kibosh
Same-sex parenting seems to be the unsolvable riddle for Catholics who yearn for social justice to be wedded with sexual abandon. Catholicism is Christianity, after all, and cannot be coherent without the Old Testament, which includes the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).
How do you do that and let gay couples deprive children of the bonds to their father and mother (since every child is born with one of each)? Rather than discuss such riddles, radicals prefer to embargo the topic altogether. They do this by changing the topic to marriage and sexual prejudice, and how gay parents might feel offended by the wrong concerns being posed. They do this by pretending that no child of any same-sex couple actually came out of the experience feeling aggrieved over having lost a real parent, a pretense that amounts to ignoring the many children who do feel aggrieved. They do this by simply banishing people who pose the question—even if it is at a Catholic university.
Enter Cheryl Abbate, an instructor in philosophy at Marquette University in Wisconsin. When a student in her contemporary social issues class wanted to explore the issue of children’s rights to a mother and father, her answer was just what I’ve come to expect from the liberation theology crowd:
The student argued against gay marriage and gay adoption, and for a while, Abbate made some plausible arguments to the student—pointing out that single people can adopt a child, so why not a gay couple? She even asked the student for research showing that children of gay parents do worse than children of straight, married parents. The student said he would provide it.
Apparently, the student produced the study that gay marriage enthusiasts love to hate, the one by Mark Regnerus published in July 2012. If I were the teacher, I would have pressed the student to explore the question of whether these measurable sociological outcomes really tell us whether it is right to deprive a child of both mother and father. But aspiring philosopher Cheryl Abbate was not terribly interested in philosophizing. She was eager, instead, to rubber-stamp the positivist assumptions behind the mythical “consensus” on same-sex parenting. She felt fully within her rights to tell him to leave her class:
She went on “In this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, will not be tolerated.” She then invited the student to drop the class.
Which the student is doing.
Rebuffed by Cheryl Abbate, the worried student ended up being bounced back and forth among administrators and falling under the purview of department chair Nancy Snow, who responded this way:
In their meeting, Snow pressured the student to divulge which university employee advised him, he said; wanting to protect the employee from retribution, the student declined to tell Snow, saying it did not have anything to do with the class dispute. Snow then opened the door and yelled at him to leave her office.
All of this, because Cheryl Abbate and her allies devoted to LGBT “social justice” did not want an undergraduate to write a paper sympathizing with people like me. Or, for that matter, with the Catholic Church.
Strike Three: Catholic University’s Students against “Christian fascists”
On November 20, 2014, Stella Morabito and I gave a speech at Catholic University on the occasion of the International Day of the Child. There was nothing particularly anti-gay in the lecture—it was all very kid-focused. I explained multiple times that divorce and abandonment, not gay adoption, are by far the most common ways that children are deprived of a mom and a dad. I had expressed the same caveats earlier at Notre Dame.
Students from an unofficial LGBT group showed up with badgering questions and slanderous accusations.
There were a couple of priests in the audience, but it fell to the courageous undergraduates in the Catholic University Anscombe Society to try to hold back a small mob from terrorizing two people who came to defend a child’s right to a mother and a father. The pro-LGBT ringleader shouted that I was “anti-Catholic” and said that Pope Francis would have never allowed me to come speak there. I am assuming that this student, in the inglorious tradition going back to the 1970s, wants his anti-capitalism pope without having to deal with the Pope Francis who said every child has a right to a father and a mother.
The main weapon against me was a roster of out-of-context and largely out-of-date quotations compiled by GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project. Since GLAAD’s list was not enough to shut me up, the pro-LGBT spokesman then tried slander: accusing me of working with neo-Nazis in France (a complete lie out of nowhere), accusing me of equating gay men with pedophilia (in fact, I said pedophilia is not a part of gay culture here), saying I called the Human Rights Campaign “worse than the Khmer Rouge” (I actually said that the Human Rights Campaign was nowhere near as bad as the Khmer Rouge), and accusing me of having supported surrogacy for straight people (even though I publicly denounce surrogacy in all forms every chance I get).
Following a tiresome dance of repeating “I didn’t say that” and the ringleader saying, “Yes, you did!” finally the pro-LGBT students took to chanting, “Racist, sexist, antigay! Christian fascists, go away!” I took them up on the offer and left.
Three Strikes. Who’s Out?
In The Colorful Conservative, I discuss the dilemma of additive and subtractive humanism:
In a terrorized world increasingly suspicious of cultural relativism, calls for a return to humanistic principles and the anchor they promise are bound to resurface. But humanism is like cholesterol; there are good and bad kinds, and our health depends on knowing the difference. Good humanism defines the human experience by relentlessly adding new things to read. It evolves and expands, out to infinity, the scope of what and whom we study. Bad humanism defines the human experience by subtracting, excluding cultural products that the bad humanist deems below the dignity of human civilization.
Notre Dame, Marquette, and Catholic University attained their current prestige because they believed in Catholic higher education at its best: an openness to things outside the church’s doctrines and an additive humanism willing to entertain new ideas.
But sexual radicalism and extreme LGBT advocacy have no positive role to play in Catholic higher education. They can never add anything to scholarship; they can only subtract, because their reason for coming to a Catholic setting is to suppress its Catholicism and turn it into something else, something not recognizably Christian. Their appetite is for erasure, not enhancement. In all three cases detailed here, they fought for the censorship of those with whom they disagree. They are not open to rational discussion, and that will not change.
Why does so-called “sex-positive” discourse always seem to harm the Catholic nature of colleges? The core of Catholic education is the commitment to human dignity. Part of that commitment is a call to be sexually ethical, to respect others who are affected by the choices we make about our sex lives. First and foremost, children come into the world based on the sexual choices of adults. Any ideology that tells adults to follow their urges, no matter the impact on children, is profoundly anti-Catholic and anti-Christian.
Only at his church’s peril can Pope Francis ignore the implosion of Catholic higher education. Just as St. Francis of Assisi and countless other saints were called to purify Catholic institutions, Pope Francis needs to be aware that purification is sometimes necessary, and that it is not always accomplished by tolerance or forgiveness. Sometimes it means telling people to choose: leave people free to express and defend Catholic teaching, or go take over student activities boards and faculty senates somewhere else. If Notre Dame, Marquette, or Catholic University are any indication of what is to come, then the future is quite stark. Either the church gives gender studies departments and pro-gay student groups that choice—and enforces the consequences—or else Catholic colleges go to ruin.
I know what my choice would be.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared December 15, 2014 on Public Discourse: The online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission.