If it’s May, it is time for commencement ceremony controversies in Catholic higher education. Recently, these flaps have often been tied to speakers’ more permissive views on LGBT issues, which bishops and conservative Catholics publicly criticize. This year, however, it is the speaker’s anti-LGBT record which has instigated controversy at the University of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has invited Vice President Mike Pence to speak at its main graduation ceremony, reported the National Catholic Reporter. His record on LGBT issues is poor. In 2000, he sought federal funding for conversion therapy by diverting funds from HIV/AIDS research. In 2015, he signed “license to discriminate” legislation into law as the governor of Indiana, which caused so much uproar from the business community that it was quickly amended to protect LGBT people.
Pence’s record is leading many “Fighting Irish” to defend their campus against an anti-LGBT voice. NCR explained further:
“[U]ndergraduates and alumni from the Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College LGBT community were also busy preparing for commencement. In the third week of April, they distributed almost 500 rainbow flags representing gay pride around campus and asked for community support in displaying them as a protest against the Pence visit. The flags were soon hanging from dorm windows at Notre Dame. They were also seen hanging in Nieuwland Science Hall and Geddes Hall, where many theology faculty members have offices. Flags were also flapping from windows in the 13-story Hesburgh Library.”
Senior Bryan Ricketts said the flags and other actions around campus were an initial show of support for LGBT members of the Notre Dame community. In the same week as the flags were hung, GALA Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College, an LGBT alumni association, gave its Thomas A. Dooley Award to alumna Kristen Matha for her involvement in LGBT outreach at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), one of the business organizations that strongly protested Indiana’s original religious freedom law mentioned above.
Additionally, GALA joined with the gender studies department to host a panel discussion, “Reconciling Religious Freedom and Civil Rights.” Panelist Mary Celeste Kearney, who heads that department, told attendees:
“We are in a precarious position at a conservative Catholic institution like Notre Dame [because gender studies] defines gender as a social formation that impacts all of our various identities, relationships, opportunities, employment and points of agency — for everyone. [But the church says] gender is biologically determined or ordained by God.”
Ricketts, an openly gay student, acknowledged the problems at Notre Dame and threats facing LGBT people today, but also affirmed the progress happening on campus:
“I see that many people want to live out their Catholic faith by allowing everyone to feel welcomed. . .And there are plenty of LGBT people here who are also faithful to Catholicism and who continue to be practicing Catholics. I don’t think there’s necessarily any conflict between the two. Notre Dame is a place where all that is being sorted out.”
Progress has been slow. It was only in 2012 that the University released the LGBT pastoral plan, “Beloved Friends and Allies.” Implementing that plan has been mixed; the University has hired staff to support LGBTQ students, but it was also reported that safe housing was denied to a transgender student. This mixed record has left students pondering about whether Notre Dame was really a hospitable environment for sexual and gender minorities.
Campus newspaper The Observer reported that during this most recent show of support, there has been pushback from University staff. At least five students were asked to remove their flags, though few have complied. Additionally, a theology professor has been complaining about the presence of rainbow flags in some campus buildings. Jessica Baron of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values commented:
“That this is a problem is disturbing to me — a symbol of love and acceptance is offensive and misleading?”
A few weeks ago, to mark the passing Gilbert Baker who designed the rainbow flag, I wrote about how important it was for this symbol of inclusion and pride to be present in Catholic spaces. Visibility is essential for youth and young adults, and especially so when the University chooses to host someone who has so fervently sought to deny LGBT people equal rights.
This incident is not the University of Notre Dame’s first controversy over its graduation speaker. In the past, right-wing figures including the local bishop and other bishops across the country criticized the school for hosting former President Barack Obama at commencement in 2009. Administrators were criticized from the left when Kevin Hasson, who founded the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty which has spearheaded lawsuits against LGBT rights, received an honorary degree in 2012.
While it is important that a university allow all views to be aired and discussed, it is also important that the human dignity of university students, faculty, and students be protected. Given Pence’s strong anti-LGBT record, the University of Notre Dame needs to express its commitment to LGBT equality by making a statement of support during this controversial time. Such a statement would balance academic freedom with a recommitment to the school’s Catholic social justice principles. It would show clearly that the University does not support anti-LGBT policies.
Thankfully, students and staff are not letting administrators’ choice be the last word on this issue. Their supportive non-violent actions are showing that they have imbibed strong Catholic values in their time at Notre Dame.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 12, 2017