Seton Hall University’s former director of campus ministry, removed from his position recently after publicly supporting the NOH8 campaign, has come out as gay. Father Warren Hall, who is also a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, which owns Seton Hall, has begun to speak publicly about the employment incident which led to his removal.
These incidents are raising important questions about Newark Archbishop John Myer’s decision to remove Hall and the broader issue of openly gay priests in the age of Pope Francis.
Fr. Hall’s Coming Out
Fr. Warren Hall came out as gay in an interview with Outsports, a gay sports news website. He said that a year ago a student directly asked the priest if he was gay. This question was a first for the campus minister while at Seton Hall, Outsports reported. Hall, who often encouraged students to be honest with themselves and others about their identity, said it was his own moment to be open and authentic:
” ‘That student was right…I have to be myself. I can’t worry what other people think.’ “
Until his recent removal, Hall remained out to only a small circle of friends at the University. His removal from his job prompted him to come out more publicly. Hall said:
” ‘The best way to live is to live honestly. Honesty with oneself is the most important thing, but you have to be honest with other people…I’m not afraid of those questions [like the student’s] anymore.’ “
For the first time, Hall also provided an account of his removal from Seton Hall. The priest claimed that his firing was based on the NOH8 Campaign graphic he posted on his Facebook page as a way oppose racism and bullying. According to the National Catholic Reporter, another priest saw the graphic and reported Hall to church officials. The article further described the chain of events:
“Hall said he was called in to explain the post, first by the university and then by the archdiocese…He agreed to delete the post and his explanation of its intent seemed to put the matter to rest, he said…Then, on May 11, as he was giving an exam to his sports and spirituality class, Hall was told to call Myers.
” ‘None of us want bullying,’ he said Myers told him, ‘but you have a further agenda here, and I can’t have you at Seton Hall because of that.’ “
The Archdiocese of Newark, through spokesperson James Goodness, continues to deny that Hall’s support for LGBT people caused his removal, though he now acknowledges that the social media post did trigger an assessment of Hall. A statement from the Archdiocese released after Hall’s coming out emphasized that “Catholic priests were required to live in “chaste celibacy” and to “respect and obey the authority of the Church,'” reports the New York Times
Seton Hall’s Response to LGBT Issues
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, suggested in the Times report that the Seton Hall community would likely be largely supportive of a gay priest, as would be the case at the majority of Catholic higher education schools in the U.S. DeBernardo added that Hall’s ability to influence young adults towards LGBT support would be quite limited because young people are overwhelmingly supportive already. DeBernardo stated:
“Young people — even young Catholic people — are already on board with L.G.B.T. issues…So even as the director of campus ministry, what could Father Hall have done or said that could have influenced them any more positively than they already are?”
Seton Hall denies recognition for an LGBT student group, which most U.S. Catholic colleges provide, though an informal gruop called Allies exists at the school. A former gay student, Anthony Romeo, who suffered a hate crime while at the University and later sued the school, wrote in The Huffington Post about the dissonance between Seton Hall administrators and its students:
“While Catholics everywhere are embracing a more tolerant and, imagine this, a more loving attitude towards GLBT persons, Seton Hall refuses to do so. So it should surprise no one that Reverend Warren Hall alleges that he was fired for posting a message of solidarity with the GLBT student community. Seton Hall can dress it up in any way they’d like, but it’s hard not to feel that at Seton Hall, you can only support certain students, and the gay ones don’t count.”
Are Seton Hall University administrators intent on limiting LGBT community members’ full recognition and participation? The Setonian, a student newspaper, mentioned the case of another employee discriminated against for advocating for LGBT civil rights. Additionally, Professor King Mott was removed as an associate dean and forced to take a leave of absence after writing in a New Jersey newspaper in 2005 about the church’s discrimination against LGBT people.
Still, the wider community of students seems quite supportive of LGBT people. College basketball star Derrick Gordon, an openly gay athlete who is transferring to Seton Hall from the University of Massachusetts, said Seton Hall was among those schools where he did not experience homophobia from potential coaches and teammates, reported USA Today.
Gay Priests in the Age of Francis
Outside the University, Hall’s coming out is a test case for how Archbishop Myers and other religious superiors will handle openly gay priests in the era of Pope Francis, whose famous “Who am I to judge?” quote was specifically about gay priests.
Fr. James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College, says attitudes on the topic are evolving and there is a “greater openness” from this pope, reported NJ.com.
Fr. Donald Cozzens of John Carroll University, Cleveland, said gay priests are “some of the most gifted” in the church, but are forced to stay closeted because of pressures from church leaders. For people in the pews, a priest’s sexual orientation is of much less concern. Cozzens stat4ed:
“Catholics want good pastors, men who are compassionate and generous with their time and energy. They want ‘ministers of mercy’ who make God’s word come alive…I don’t think they really care about their priest’s sexual orientation. This is especially true of Catholics on our college campuses.”
Archbishop Myers’ decision to remove Hall is under increasing criticism given the emerging reality of LGBT issues. In an editorial, The Star-Ledger, which recently described Myers’ mandatory retirement in 2016 as “a moment that should be celebrated with singing and dancing in the streets,” asked:
“So where is that respect, compassion and dignity [called for in Catholic teaching]? Why remove Hall from his post, against the will of his parishioners? Who really has the agenda here?
“Remember…[Myers] was the one who said gay parents are bad for children, and gay marriage is a threat to religious freedom; that all Catholics must embrace his views, and those who refuse should not take Holy Communion…
“So why remove this priest from his position? Myers is the one who should go.”
As much as Myers and the Archdiocese of Newark claim “This isn’t a big thing,” (in the words of spokesperson James Goodness), the removal of Fr. Hall is having a great impact. It appears he was removed for merely supporting LGBT people; what happens next, now that the priest has come out as gay, will be critical not only for Hall but for all priests. Fr. Hall has asked for a six month sabbatical. As of yet, there is no word from the Archdiocese on his next assignment.
Here is one suggestion for the archdiocese: Fr. Hall’s decision to come out is courageous and, in being open and authentic, he is a model for students. For this very reason, the best re-assignment for him would be right back to the classrooms and Campus Ministry of Seton Hall University.
This post is part of our “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right hand corner of this page.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry