Friday, August 27, 2010

Catholics and gays: Another public row about the classroom

You know it is a very special day when an Archbishop chooses to write a public letter complaining about a specific course being taught at a local Catholic university. Or perhaps it represents an ongoing tension with a specific gay instructor teaching the class... one who wrote a letter to the editor five years ago challenging the Catholic stance on homosexuality. A letter that, in fact, was signed with his title and academic affiliation and that ultimately cost the faculty member his administrative position (but not his job) at said Catholic institution. Ah, the perqs of tenure.

I find this ongoing tension between religiously affiliated schools and the denominations of which they are a part, especially Catholic schools, to be very interesting. As someone who has always attended and worked at large publics, the challenges of the private religious school are intriguing and, at times, revealing of the struggles within major religious groups in our larger culture.

The issue of signing your affiliation to a critical letter is an issue for any academic, regardless of whether you work at a public or a private institution. I understand Mott's (stated) motivation. As he notes:
Dr. Mott, who received his doctorate in political theory from Louisiana State University and who has been at Seton Hall since 1997, said that using his title when he submitted the letter was necessary to add weight to his statements. He added that he was not speaking for the university, but as an academic and as an openly gay man. ''I was not speaking as a representative of the university,'' he said, ''and they know that. If it was the president of the university who wrote the letter, that would be a different thing. I was just a dean, I have no authority to speak for the university.''
There is something to relying on our academic titles to gain legitimacy and respect. I have struggled with this issue myself, from time to time, when I want to comment on an issue that is related to my experience as an instructor or my research. I have been exceptionally careful of what I say when I was being quoted in my role at my university, and I would not use my title if I was going to be critical of my university or public officials in my state. Of course, Mott is being deliberately disingenuous in ignoring how incendiary his letter would be when written by the Dean of a Catholic university.

But this newest hullabaloo is over a course, appropriately titled, "The politics of gay marriage." As an issue, same-sex marriage is constantly in the news, especially in New Jersey, where the argument about domestic partnerships versus same-sex marriage has waged for several years. Further, the topic is sure to draw interested students, and it provides an useful entree for investigating American political and social systems. Though the Archbishop argues that the course "seeks to promote as legitimate a train of thought that is contrary to what the Church teaches," there is nothing to show that this is true. In fact, while the Star Ledger identifies one of the textbooks (among several) that is being used, "What’s Love Got To Do With It?: The Case for Same-Sex Marriage," a book by state Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a closer look at all the textbooks reveals a more balanced and academic approach to the topic.

The other books being used in class are:
  • Just Marriage, by Mary Lyndon Shanley, is a collection of perspectives from historians, political theorists, and legal scholars, including (according to Amazon,com) Nancy F. Cott, William N. Eskridge, Jr., Amitai Etzioni, Martha Albertson Fineman, and Cass R. Sunstein.
  • Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy Cott, a very thorough discussion of the changing role of marriage in the  culture, policy, and polity of the United States.
  • Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today's Debate over Gay Equality, by gay historian George Chauncy, provides a good discussion over why the fight for gay equality has focused on marriage as a primary political issue.
The other obvious issue here is that few of these students will misunderstand the Catholic Church's perspective on this topic, though perhaps a more nuanced understanding could be a piece of the course. But the Archbishop is disingenuous himself when he ignores the disagreement within the Catholic laity and clergy about the issue of same-sex marriage, especially as it relates to civil versus religious marriage. In fact, recent surveys have found that only a minority of Catholics in California (23% of white Catholics and 44% of Latino Catholics) and Rhode Island (32% of Catholics) oppose civil recognition of same-sex relationships. Of course, perhaps this is part of the real problem here.

A recent study using data from the Higher Education Research Institute's national surveys of student attitudes found that Catholic students tend to graduate from Catholic, secular, and other religiously-affiliated colleges supporting gay people's right to marry.

Regarding same-sex marriage, the study said there is no other issue on which Catholic students -- regardless of where they attended school -- moved further away from the church. Only one in three Catholics on Catholic campuses disagreed "somewhat or "strongly" that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Catholics on non-Catholic campuses were slightly less likely to disagree.

Once again, I have to ask about the appropriate role of critical thinking in a religiously-affiliated university. Seton Hall's mission states that its "students are prepared to be leaders in their professional and community lives in a global society." In fact, it sees itself as "a diverse and collaborative environment" that "focuses on academic and ethical development." Further, in its policy barring racial and ethnic discrimination, the university states, "Seton Hall University abides by values that proclaim the dignity and rights of all people. In keeping with this fundamental principle, we affirm the value of racial and ethnic diversity and welcome persons of all groups, cultures and religious traditions to Seton Hall." Its guidelines for investigating complaints of discrimination, harassment, or whistleblowing include protections based on sexual orientation, with the caveat  "(in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the proscriptions of the law)."

While one part of the university's mission is to provide a religious perspective and support for religious and moral (read: ethical) development, another major component has to be supportive of critical thinking, enhancing the life of the mind, and encouraging students to engage in civil debate about controversial topics. If these schools are not going to be fundamentalist bastions of closed minds, they have to be able to accommodate instructors and students with diverse religious, social, cultural, and political affiliations and beliefs. Otherwise, what is the difference between these schools and Sunday School?

This course is being offered as a political science class, engaging a politically volatile topic that touches on major components of American social thought, history, and policy. I am pleased that Seton Hall is going ahead with the course. It must, to maintain its integrity as an institution of higher learning and to fulfill its own mission statement.

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