Objects of the Inquisition, Or the Trials of Religion Scholars at Catholic Institutions Who Engage with Sexuality Studies

What happens when academic freedom runs up against religious orthodoxy?
By Richard W. McCarty

Never talk about politics, religion, sex, or money. That is the advice of Miss Manners for social discourse, as it is for business etiquette. In higher education, it is tantamount to heresy.

The college or university is a place for robust discourse on any subject, and it would be peculiar to find an academic institution that discourages scholarship because it expands horizons. But such restrictions are in place at many colleges and universities associated with religious institutions. Application of academic freedom sometimes narrows when scholarship intersects with religious orthodoxies. For example, in 1990, Pope John Paul II sought to clarify the relationship between the Catholic Church and colleges and universities with Catholic identities. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), he affirmed the pursuit of truth through academic freedom. Yet Ex Corde Ecclesiae situated the intellectual pursuit of truth within the context of commitments to religious truth and the hierarchical church body as the guardian of that truth: “Every Catholic University, as a university, is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities. It possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.” The last line raises a serious question: who gets to define “truth” and “the common good”?

Ex Corde Ecclesiae is concerned primarily with the teaching of religion and Catholic theology. It cites and affirms church canon law 812: “Anyone teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic institution needs some form of ecclesiastical approval, a ‘mandate’ to teach that comes from the ‘competent ecclesiastical authority.’”

In 1996, the US bishops drafted an application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for Catholic colleges and universities. They did so, however, without introducing the mandate that canon law 812 demands because, according to former Loyola University president John Piderit, “the presidents of Catholic universities reacted very negatively to it.” Piderit went on, “The presidents considered the mandate to be part of a juridical approach, which they eschewed, preferring the language of ‘communio,’ i.e., being in communion with the Church, locally, nationally, and internationally, rather than being subject to the Church.”

The Vatican did not accept the draft, because of its lack of a required mandate. A second proposal included the mandate while still “accenting” the spirit of communio that the presidents desired. Piderit explained, “The bishops esteem Catholic universities and want them to flourish as universities, with freedom to advance our knowledge. But they also want them to flourish as centers of Catholic thought and belief.”

The debate is ongoing; at its center is the issue of academic freedom. The argument is of special importance today because of the reapplication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 2011. During the reapplication process, presidents of Catholic colleges and universities were to have met with their local bishops to review the document’s implementation and to reassure the hierarchy about promotion of each institution’s “Catholic identity,” something hardly uniform. Some schools were founded by a diocese and function under the administrative authority of a bishop. Others were founded by religious orders, many of which have moved to inaugurate lay presidents and to establish independent boards of trustees on which a bishop does not sit.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae is also complicated by divisions of academic discipline. Many Catholic colleges and universities have departments of religious studies rather than departments of theology. While professors of religious studies do teach Catholic theology, we do so either as a matter of descriptive analysis or by examining Catholic theology in light of contrasting points of view.

The distinction between disciplines has largely resulted in professors of religious studies being spared the need for formal approval from the local bishop (called a mandatum), although it has been necessary for some Catholic theologians to sign a mandatum as a condition of employment. Because both disciplines examine Catholic theology, bishops have been mindful of how faculty in theology and religious studies departments have talked about Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching in and outside the classroom.

Where disputes have arisen between a bishop and members of the faculty, the college administration has usually interceded. But such intercession varies depending on the relationship between the administration and the local bishop. Administrators wrestle with having to balance academic freedom and Catholic doctrine under the eye of the local bishop—at least when that eye is watchful. Some give more deference to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, others to religious orthodoxy.

New Inquisition

In 2001, Cardinal Walter Kasper foreshadowed, perhaps, the application and reapplication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the twenty-first century. He wrote: “The Church needs academics of the highest order, intellectuals who do not use their skills and knowledge only for their own sake, their own advantage and their own interest, but in the service of the common good. And this means for the promotion of a world which is shaped according to the truth God revealed to us in creation itself and bestowed upon us through His revelation in salvation history.” In other words, so long as a faculty member’s pursuit of truth does not deny what the church hierarchy has ruled about nature, morality, and theology, all is free for truth seeking.

There was another time when similar standards were used to suppress transgressive thinking: the Inquisition. In Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá write, “On threat of torture, in 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo to state publicly what he knew to be false: that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe. Three and a half centuries later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that the scientist had been right all along but said that the Inquisition had been ‘well-intentioned.’” Ryan and Jethá go on to say, “Well, there’s no Inquisition like a well-intentioned Inquisition.”

Presumably, John Paul II meant what Cardinal Kasper meant when he described the pursuit of truth within the orthodoxy of the church. In the seventeenth century, the pursuit of truth (as constrained by orthodoxy) meant denying a heliocentric universe. In the twenty-first century, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church seems to have refocused its inquisitorial aim on scholars of religion who challenge official theology.

The year 2010 was particularly bad for scholars in the fields of religion and sexuality. In 2008, theologians Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler of Creighton University had published The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. The book suggests that the Catholic Church has sustained a reading of natural law that is far too steeped in medieval concepts of “natural” and “unnatural,” which are no longer supported by contemporary analytical studies in sexuality, ethics, and religion. It includes reflections on how Catholic moral theology might be accepting of same-sex relationships, how it might condone the use of contraceptives, how it might reform ideas about premarital sexual activity, and how it might accept certain artificial reproductive technologies. From the perspective of official Catholic moral theology, the suggestions of Salzman and Lawler are immoral. Acknowledging that their argument conflicts with official Catholic teachings, Salzman and Lawler said that they were “wide open to dialogue.”

The theologians knew that the church hierarchy would disagree with their academic arguments. In academia, of course, disagreement often provides the opportunity to enrich dialogue. But the US Council of Catholic Bishops did not view the matter that way. On September 15, 2010, that body’s Doctrine Committee condemned the book, claiming that Salzman and Lawler “cannot provide a true norm for moral action” and characterizing their writing as “harmful to one’s moral and spiritual life.” For discipline, the US Council of Catholic Bishops turned to Creighton University.

As John Allen Jr. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, the archbishop of Omaha, George Lucas, “expressed ‘confidence’” that the administration of Creighton would handle the situation “in a manner consistent with the mission of a Catholic university.” The response from Creighton would, in fact, amount to a defense of Salzman and Lawler’s academic freedom (even as theologians). While deferring to the authority of the US Council of Catholic Bishops on moral and theological matters, the president of the university said, “A Catholic university sometimes walks a fine line between academic freedom and Church doctrine. Creighton respects the academic freedom of its faculty to dialogue on societal issues; in studying and researching, new and sometimes controversial ideas are explored, examined and exposed to scholarly scrutiny.”

Although the crisis at Creighton ended favorably, the tremors of the bishops’ condemnation would extend beyond Creighton’s campus. As the drama played out, scholars of religion and sexuality at other Catholic institutions asked themselves, “What if this had happened here, at my institution, with my publication, and with my administration?”

In summer 2010, according to Jamie Manson of Religion Dispatches,

Marquette University rescinded a job offer made to Jodi O’Brien, a professor of sociology. . . . Hearing about the appointment, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki expressed concerns about O’Brien’s writings. “Her areas of concentration in terms of her studies seemed always to be in the areas of gender sexuality, those types of things,” Listecki later told the Milwaukee Fox News affiliate, “so what was that going to bring to the table in terms of understanding?”

After the job offer was withdrawn, Marquette President Robert A. Wild, SJ, said, “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.” Wild insisted that O’Brien’s sexual orientation did not play a role.

Although O’Brien is not a scholar of religion, as a sociologist her work resulted in conclusions about gender, marriage, and family that ran contrary to Catholic social teaching. O’Brien’s case demonstrates that when an administration chooses to defer to the sensibilities of the bishops, it places the security of academic posts at risk. The concern for both academic freedom and job security only increases as American bishops and Catholic university administrations widen the scope of the activities they believe it necessary to comment on or control.

As Manson notes, at the same time that Marquette University was withdrawing its appointment offer to O’Brien, Laine Tadlock, “director of an education program at Benedictine University in Springfield, Illinois, was removed from her position and forced to resign after publishing a wedding announcement in Springfield’s State Journal-Register”—an act which the university condemned as public disregard for fundamental Catholic beliefs. If Tadlock’s same-sex wedding announcement resulted in her termination, how might scholars whose public academic arguments disagree with Catholic social teaching on the ethics of homosexuality be treated—whether by that administration or by the administration of any other Catholic institution?

Sometimes, fortunately, the parties can reach compromise.

In 2011, Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Fairfield University launched a four-week conference series, with sessions hosted at each school, called “More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” Its organizers described the series as an attempt to “lift up new voices that are rarely heard,” and to “raise awareness about the impact of church teachings and public stances on the lives of LGBT people.”

According to Catholic Education Daily, the presidents of Fordham and Fairfield Universities—both Catholic institutions—had to promise New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Bridgeport Bishop William Lori “that the ‘More Than a Monologue’ conference series would ‘not be a vehicle for dissent.’” That said, it is difficult to imagine what would count as an academic exercise in critical discourse that did not also function in some way as a “vehicle for dissent.” Conservative Catholic groups like the Cardinal Newman Society have criticized Fordham and Fairfield for “deceiving the bishops.” However, I have yet to find evidence of condemnation by the bishops or of ecclesiastical pressure to shut down the proceedings.

Like those at Fordham and Fairfield, the administrations of other Catholic institutions might realize that they need not engage in self-censorship nor fear the ever-looming specter of aggressive ecclesiastical oversight. Perhaps academic freedom can be defended by administrators able to protect scholarship while remaining diplomatic with the hierarchy. However, Catholic colleges and universities will need to stay on alert.

On June 4, 2012, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—formerly, the Office of the Inquisition—“sharply criticized” Sr. Margaret Farley’s award-winning book on sexual ethics, Just Love. Farley, who wrote the book as a contribution to the study of Christian sexual ethics, promotes “justice” as the key criterion for evaluating sexual morality and immorality. Her conclusions affirm LGBT people in long-term committed relationships, permit masturbation and contraceptives, and allow for remarriage after divorce. The Vatican’s public condemnation of the book was alarming. After all, aside from her association with a religious order (the Religious Sisters of Mercy), Farley was a faculty member at a non-Catholic school (Yale), and she wrote the book for an audience that is largely academic.

The ramifications of Farley’s case are not yet clear; some scholars fear that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has no sense of boundaries when it comes to the evaluation and control of scholarship. Farley’s case, like that of O’Brien, Tadlock, or Salzman and Lawler, points to legitimate professional concerns that Catholic scholars (especially junior scholars) have about engaging boldly in the field of religion and sexuality.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has created a silence-inducing culture of fear through its own moral and theological anxieties. We can only wonder how many scholars have abandoned projects, whether to spare their college or university embarrassment, to spare their administration “trouble,” or even to avoid a feared loss of job security.

This silence born of fear must be resisted. It is contrary to the life of the scholar, and it threatens the integrity of the university. Given current ecclesiastical politics, it may be tempting for college and university officials to sacrifice the scholar of religion and sexuality on the altar of “Catholic identity,” apologizing that this area of scholarship is more transgressive of Catholic values than economics, science, political science, public health, and other fields. But such selective absorption of anxieties about sexuality demonstrates nothing more than the willingness to scapegoat. Unresisted, inquisitions that begin with religion and sexuality will surely move on to the next theological anxiety.

Responding to the Threat

We need a twofold response.

First, we must call on the administrations of Catholic colleges and universities to protect the academic freedom of scholars and programs that engage the fields of religion and sexuality—and to do so by standing up to the juridical authority of the church hierarchy. Those institutions that play it safe by avoiding controversial subjects of study may have a difficult time recruiting and keeping the kind of faculty and students who seek institutions that champion bold academic initiatives. Catholic colleges and universities that courageously defend academic freedom will likely succeed in attracting the kind of faculty and students who will sustain the institution’s reputation.

Administrations could follow the path of Creighton, where the solution was to promote academic freedom while recognizing that, in church matters, the bishops reign supreme. Such a separation of powers allows the exercise of conscience instead of narrowing control to a few. Catholic colleges and universities can enjoy professional relationships with members of the church hierarchy, but they can do so only when the appropriate boundaries are drawn.

I am not suggesting that colleges or universities should hide their Catholic identities. There is much to appreciate about the heritage of Catholic schools: it can be quite inspiring to learn that religious orders were motivated to establish centers for higher education. Indeed, it is often the case that these institutions were built on the sacrifices of women and men whose beliefs in their educational mission flowed from their religious principles. But colleges and universities require the service of scholars who, by definition, must work with the liberties of academic freedom. We cannot forget that Catholic colleges and universities—by virtue of being colleges and universities—are committed to the advancement of knowledge, not to religious indoctrination. Wherever religious orthodoxy constrains the pursuit of knowledge, inquisition triumphs over academic freedom.

My second suggestion is that we encourage scholars to engage in their study unapologetically. Selfcensorship will lead only to frustration and will feed the current system of fear and silence. While the risk of ecclesiastical condemnation does take a psychological and emotional toll on the scholar, the price of staying silent is higher. Fearful silence means living life within the professional closet.

There is, of course, a difference between living in the professional closet and situations in which pragmatic steps are required. In order to execute a conference series like “More Than a Monologue,” it might first be necessary to educate a college community with more preliminary projects. But pragmatism should not be an excuse for restricting or denying academic freedom. As the religion and sexuality scholar Mark Jordan has long been warning, there is a “rhetoric of repetition” active among many in the church hierarchy. I suggest we can see that rhetoric trickling down into many Catholic colleges and universities. The rhetoric repeats old condemnations and poses alarmist threats about “what may come” should a university dare to pursue knowledge boldly. I am concerned about how the rhetoric of repetition bears on academic freedom, especially in light of the ongoing reapplication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and what appears to be growing anxiety among the church hierarchy about sexuality.

Scholars of religion and sexuality who are working in Catholic colleges and universities need to get ahead of the problem. “Getting ahead,” however, means getting prepared, not falling back. When one is a scholar of religion and sexuality—something surely not concealed at hiring—engaging with one’s field does not amount to thumbing one’s nose at ecclesiastical authority, nor does it involve showing disrespect to the founding religious principles of the institution. Rather, the analyses of the scholar of religion and sexuality provide much-needed content for ongoing discourse— even if that content represents a challenge to particular reigning moral or theological norms. Without such discourse, the university will become a place of monologue and indoctrination. Church efforts to stamp out such discourse are a form of inquisition dressed in the modern language of the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of “truth and the common good.” The Inquisition didn’t work well for Galileo or for the advancement of knowledge in the seventeenth century; it doesn’t work for Catholic scholars, universities, or the advancement of knowledge now.


Richard W. McCarty is assistant professor of religious studies at Mercyhurst University. He specializes in religious ethics and sexual ethics. His e-mail address is [email protected].