At the risk of boasting, I have to admit that it is a sweet feeling when The New York Times catches up to a message that New Ways Ministry has been saying for over a decade now: many Catholic colleges and universities are places where LGBT students, faculty, and staff are extremely welcome.
The Times recently profiled Georgetown University, Washington, DC, the oldest Catholic college in the country, and how it has put out a welcome mat to LGBT people, though this welcome has not come without some controversy. The school, which boasts probably the largest LGBT Resource Center on any Catholic campus, has a wide-range of activities and events celebrating the LGBT experience:
“ ‘Every month is a good month to be gay at Georgetown,’ said Thomas Lloyd, president of the campus pride group. Indeed, there’s a Gender Liberation Week, Gay Pride Month, a popular drag ball called Genderfunk and a Lavender graduation ceremony attended by the university president.”
But this open campus atmosphere did not come easy:
“Not so long ago, relations between the university and its gay students were strained. In 1980, the students had to sue for equal privileges for their organizations. In 2007, they stormed the steps of Healy Hall, protesting what they saw as an inadequate response to antigay incidents. And a 2008 survey found that 61 percent of students thought homophobia was an issue. That year, the administration began to address the problem, opening an L.G.B.T.Q. resource center with a full-time staff.”
And despite the current advances, such as electing its first openly gay student body president, Nate Tisa, there are still challenges to be overcome:
“Shortly after Mr. Tisa’s victory, William Peter Blatty, the octogenarian author of ‘The Exorcist,’ and Manuel A. Miranda, a fellow alumnus, circulated a petition and 198-page memorandum condemning Georgetown for promoting a culture of ‘moral relativism’ and an ideology of ‘radical autonomy.’ More than 2,000 alumni have signed the petition, which was sent in May to Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. The petition calls on the archbishop to better regulate the university or strip it of its Catholic identity, an unlikely but technically possible outcome.”
Wisely, Cardinal Wuerl chose not to respond to the petition, and a Georgetown spokesperson defended the school’s Catholic identity:
“Cardinal Wuerl declined to comment, but Rachel Pugh, a Georgetown spokeswoman, pointed to the university’s two required theology classes and up to seven Sunday Masses at the main chapel as evidence that it is deeply connected to its Catholic identity. The university also organizes church retreats and regular Eucharistic adoration ceremonies. Dozens of priests live on campus and serve as spiritual mentors.
” ‘Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger,’ Ms. Pugh said. ‘Academically, we remain committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition.’ ”
The students seem undaunted by the criticism. Student president Tisa, in fact, is advancing a bold agenda:
“During his sophomore year as vice speaker of the student senate and his junior year as speaker, Mr. Tisa helped produce a report on the challenges that incoming gay students face when they arrive. While students found a welcoming environment in the L.G.B.T.Q. Resource Center, with its beanbags, Diet Cokes and lots of students to share thoughts with, Georgetown was still a scary place to come out. Some complained of intolerant, sometimes verbally abusive roommates, and resident assistants unskilled at addressing altercations.
“The report proposed several initiatives — a gender-neutral dorm and a Safe Spaces program that would designate rooms on every dorm floor where gay and minority students could retreat if needed. Last spring, Mr. Tisa began vigorously pushing for both.”
And Tisa’s activism for LGBT equality is based in his Catholic faith:
“He attended a Jesuit high school, where, tall and broad-shouldered, he played football. Early on, he began to suspect he was gay. It was as tortuous internally as it was externally. Would he have to choose between God and a happy life?
“His faith had brought him strength as a child dealing with his parents’ divorce. Once again, he found solace in prayer, and in conversations with other Catholics. The first person he shared his story with was a layperson he had grown close to during weekend youth retreats. ‘She said, “I love you. God loves you. And I’m here for you,” ‘ he recalled. ‘Then we cried.’ That encounter, he said, reminded him that Catholic teachings were ‘based on love, not condemnation.’
“ ‘I really wanted to be part of that,’ he said.”
Catholic faith and identity are indeed at the heart of the work that those on campus are doing for LGBT students:
“Mr. Lloyd, the pride group president, says he is often tempted to join the more tolerant Episcopal Church. But for many young Catholics, particularly of Irish or Italian descent, Catholicism is interchangeable with identity. ‘You stay Catholic because you have a love of the institution and you want to change it,’ he said.
“It has taken Mr. Tisa years of reflection to work through how his sexual orientation and his Catholic faith can coexist. He refuses to accept that his relationship with another man is ‘intrinsically disordered,’ as described in church catechism. And he is quite sure of this: ‘God is not a child in a sandbox, making sculptures and throwing them away.’
“It is a message he is intent on spreading across campus with evangelical verve. As he often tells students: ‘We need to bring the Catholic identity into the 21st century.’ “
To learn about other gay-friendly Catholic colleges and universities, check out New Ways Ministry’s list of such places on its website. A good recent examination of the Catholic gay-friendly college experience was written by Michael O’Loughlin and can be read here. You can also search Bondings 2.0′s series “CAMPUS CHRONICLES.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry