Academe Comes Out of the Closet

Gender studies at Catholic schools

In September of 2010, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis denied the Eucharist to rainbow sash-wearing members of the group PRiSM (People Representing the Sexual Minority) from St. John’s University in Collegeville. In October, Loyola University Chicago and the University of Notre Dame hosted dragqueen pageants. In February, Joe Solomonese of the gay-rights activist group Human Rights Campaign lectured at Georgetown University. In February 2010, Cardinal Francis George denounced New Ways Ministries, an organization that “ministers” to Catholic homosexuals and has an online list of 106 “gay-friendly” Catholic colleges and universities.

The examples cited above represent instances of the success of the gay-rights movement on ostensibly Catholic campuses. Usually, however, the gay movement operates in less blatant ways. Its operating philosophy is “queer theory,” which presents itself as a form of social justice, consequently appealing to idealistic but poorly catechized students. It is promulgated in women’s and gender studies programs, and is often subsumed into English and sociology departments. Queer theory extends further into “LGBT resource centers” and extracurricular on-campus activities. What was once a fringe philosophy has become mainstream.

Notre Dame, arguably the best known of all American Catholic universities, offers instruction in gender studies. The university’s website says that the coursework “analyzes the significance of gender—and the cognate subjects of sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and nationality—in all areas of human life, especially in the social formation of human identities, practices, and institutions.… [I]n the context of the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, Gender Studies facilitates the study of the intersection of gender and religion in the shaping of ethics, culture, and politics.” Gender and sexuality are presupposed to be social constructions, and Notre Dame instructors are advancing that theory. This venerated Catholic institution is not the only one engaging in queer studies in the name of academic enquiry; the course description above is a concise synopsis of the relativistic philosophy pervading many Catholic campuses under the auspices of queer theory and gender studies.

The origins of queer theory

Queer theory originated in the 1980s with authors such as French philosopher Michel Foucault, who taught at the College de France; Duke University professor Eve Sedgwick; and Judith Butler, a professor at UC Berkeley and visiting professor at Columbia University. These three writers provided the philosophical basis for queer theory.

Michel Foucault’s three-volume work The History of Sexuality (1976- 1984) is foundational in queer studies. He saw gender and sexuality in terms of his favorite topics: power and death. Gender and sexuality, in his eyes, were mere social constructions that restricted people. The concepts of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” were used to uphold a bourgeois majority. According to Foucault, homosexuals didn’t exist until the term was coined in the 19th century. Before that, he argued, “sodomy” could also apply to sexual acts between heterosexuals, but the term “homosexual” was used to pathologize and oppress a minority. Truth is relative, he taught, depending on who is in power.

Foucault was also obsessed with death. He had an ecstatic near-death experience with LSD in Death Valley in 1975. Foucault enjoyed San Francisco’s gay bar scene, and eventually succumbed to AIDS in 1984. He concluded the first volume of History of Sexuality with the assertion, “Sex is worth dying for.” His texts are the basis of the Georgetown course “Seminar on Michel Foucault,” and “Theories of Sexual Identity: Queer Theory and Beyond,” a class offered at Boston College.

Eve Sedgwick, who passed away from cancer in 2009, is another important author in the queer theory field. Her Epistemology of the Closet (1990) is foundational. She claimed terms such as “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” limit understanding. Sedgwick used the closet as the metaphor for gay oppression, paralleling it with the story of the biblical Queen Esther, who kept her Jewish faith a secret until Haman endangered her people. Sedgwick argued that sexuality was a continuum, with people choosing their identities. In her view, heterosexism and gender oppression rested on strict categories and stereotypes. Her texts are used in Stonehill College’s “20th Century American Literature: Gender, Race, and Nation” course. Her Coherence of Gothic Conventions is used in Marquette University’s “The Female Gothic,” a class taught in the English department.

Judith Butler’s key texts are Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Undoing Gender (2004). She has discussed becoming a lesbian at the age of 14, and said that her gender was outside definitive categories. At Yale University’s 1989 Conference on Homosexuality Butler said: “Compulsory heterosexuality sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic; the norm that determines the real implies that ‘being’ lesbian is always a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmic plenitude of naturalized heterosexuality that will always and only fail.”

Butler’s theory is that all gender is a performance, since there is no original. She coined the term “performativity.” For Butler, all clothing is drag, because nothing “properly” belongs to a specific gender. She criticizes gender categories, as well as “normative heterosexuality.” According to Butler, heterosexuality presents itself as under constant threat by homosexuality in order to oppress minority sexualities. Butler’s philosophy critiques the “heterosexism” that singled her out as different for being a lesbian. Her key texts are used in classes such as St. John’s University’s “Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory,” and Boston College’s “Advanced Seminars: Bodies and Borders.” Her “Subjects of Sex/Gender/ Desire” is used in St. Norbert College’s “Writing on the Body” course.

How students respond

Queer theory defines itself as a subversion of what it calls patriarchal, heterosexist society. “Transgression” is a common theme. “Theories of Sexual Identity,” a sociology class at Boston College, uses the texts of Foucault, Butler, and Sedgwick. Students are taught that “heterosexism” is a terrible societal sin. Catholic youth, more schooled in generalized concepts of social justice than authentic Church doctrine, may well find this new theory admirable and humane. It seems in harmony with the Golden Rule: condemning homosexual activity, as well as calling homosexuality “intrinsically disordered,” is seen as simply bullying people who are different.

Exposure to queer theory’s apparent sophistication has an intoxicating effect on students. Emily Czarnik-Neimeyer, a St. Norbert College student in an exchange program with Swansea University in Wales, provides an example. She comments on the “study abroad” page of the women’s and gender studies department website, “This class makes me analyze and reevaluate how I ‘do’ gender in my life based on my sex and culture and how very ambiguous human sexuality can be.” She praises Judith Butler for educating her on the fluidity of gender as a “free-floating artifice.” Czarnik-Neimeyer also mentions reading Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto and Joan Rivere’s Womanliness as Masquerade. She praises these works for prompting her to ponder the “intersections and interactions between gender, genre, and language in literature from the MiddleAges to the present.” This student’s remarks illustrate how young minds, enthused with an idea that seems to be liberating, can be easily swayed.

Rachel Siebert, a student in the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College, wrote “The Lesbian, Bisexual, and Questioning Peer Support Group at a Catholic University” for the women’s and gender studies department’s academic journal, VOICES, in Spring 2010. In the essay she writes: “Homophobia is prevalent throughout American culture, and doubly so in a Catholic institution.… Christian values invoke and rely on the heterosexual norm of getting married and having children.” Siebert discusses an LBQ peer group at an anonymous New England Catholic institution that faced opposition from conservative donors. Eventually, some of its members “outed” themselves, showing that one can be “gay and a live a full life.” She depicts this small group of “outsiders” as pitted against a patriarchal, heterosexist institution that represses women and gays. Siebert concludes, “The most demanding form of altruism they [the members of the LBQ group] could invest in was to recognize the personal as political.” Siebert’s argument is that LGBTQ groups on Catholic campuses provide positive change in the face of a stodgy, hypocritical, repressive Church.

Theory into action

On the surface, many courses that promote queer theory describe their content as covering family patterns, gender, literature, and sexuality, while intentionally redefining or “undefining” all of those concepts. A notable example is Seton Hall University’s “Politics of Gay Marriage,” taught since the fall of 2010. The professor, W. King Mott, is raising his adoptive child with his longtime male partner. The “politics” seem to have already been decided. Conversely, Scott Fitzgibbon, a professor of law at Boston College, came under fire in September 2009 when he supported a measure to preserve traditional marriage in Maine. Students and faculty alike wrote petitions to the dean’s office denouncing Fitzgibbon. How could the defense of Catholic teaching get a professor in trouble with his colleagues and students at a Catholic institution? This could only occur in an atmosphere in which the “gay rights” movement feels secure. This security comes from insisting onthe “rights” aspect of homosexual behaviors— queer theory in action.

For a faithful Catholic, these programs and the use of activist texts are problematic. Many of these courses look dull or innocuous—or even unintentionally laughable, such as “Gender, Sexuality, and Race in the Twilight Series,” an offering from DePaul’s Lesbian- Gay-Bi-Transgender-Queer Studies Program. These courses are not required, yet their presence is troubling. For the student looking for an “easy A” or for titillation, such classes could be attractive, based as they are on a worldview fundamentally in conflict with the Church. At best, these Catholic institutions risk sending mixed messages on sexuality, an approach that favors relativism.

But the inclusion of gay studies and its agenda at the Catholic university has defenders. The University of San Francisco offers courses in “gender and sexualities studies.” According to the school’s website, the LGBTQ Faculty/Staff Caucus claims such classes are“grounded in the Jesuit and world religions traditions of respect for the dignity of every person.”

Dana Luciano heads the women’s and gender studies department at Georgetown. She says, “All Jesuit institutions have women’s and gender studies. Jesuits believe in learning for the glory of God; they believe in academic standards. We have a liberal, progressive agenda.” Luciano sees gender studies as consistent with the Ignatian method, part of a complete intellectual education.

Betsy Jones Hemenway, who heads the women and gender studies department at Loyola Chicago, is another defender of queer theory on campus. She describes her department as “examining experiences of people who have been neglected. It is about looking at a marginalized population and making them visible. By looking at the experiences of women, at gender as a category of difference, we understand the bigger picture.” Hemenway interprets gender and sexuality in terms of power and roles. The slogan “the personal is political” applies to her framework. Her “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies” course is tripartite, moving from the history of feminism to “masculinities,” culminating in queer studies. Queer studies branched out from gender studies, Hemenway explains: “Queer studies is a new field, it questions any boundaries. It challenges notions of binary categories—not just two genders.… It’s thinking outside the comfort zone and traditional categories.”

DePaul University, the largest Catholic academic institution in the US, has taught courses in LGBTQ studies since 2005. Thomas Foster, who heads the LGBTQ Studies Program, defined the coursework as “broadly focused on the sexuality and also histories and experiences of LGBTQ individuals and communities as well as the social and political issues around LGBTQ sexuality.” Foster explained that LGBTQ studies fit within a Catholic school’s purpose, saying: “The university’s Vincentian mission includes outreach to diverse urban communities and a commitment to social justice. The LGBTQ Studies Program sees itself as squarely within this catholic mission.”

Outside the classroom

Women’s and gender studies do not confine their activities to the classroom, however. Loyola University’s LGBTQ Heritage Month and Georgetown’s Gender Liberation Week encourage students to participate in “celebrations” and activities fostering a “gay-friendly” campus atmosphere. Regis University, another Jesuit institution, has a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) that sponsors LGBT art exhibits and readings of the book Heather Has Two Mommies. St. Mary’s College in California, run by the Christian Brothers, also has a GSA, and in November 2010 the school’s performing arts department staged Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Bellarmine University (which, although named for a Jesuit saint, was founded by the Archdiocese of Louisville with the help of the Conventual Franciscan Fathers) held an LGBTQ History Month Concert, co-sponsored by the music department. DePaul, Georgetown, Notre Dame, St. John’s University, St. Norbert, Stonehill, Marquette, Regis, St. Mary’s College, Bellarmine, and Boston College are all on New Ways Ministries’ list of “gayfriendly” institutions.

Father Paul Check, who heads Courage, an orthodox ministry for homosexuals, said that his group lacks a presence at Catholic academic institutions.

“We haven’t resolved this question internally,” Father Check said. “We have to be invited by the local ordinary. We’re still discussing the best way to approach young people.” Father Check argued that ministries providing outreach to homosexuals must be “guided by Church teaching on sexuality.” He took issue with groups whose “studied ambiguity” misleads pastors and the faithful.

The Cardinal Newman Society is a watchdog group focusing on Catholic academic institutions. Patrick Reilly, its president, sees these “gay friendly” developments as “detrimental to our culture.” The problem boils down to authority, Riley said. “Under Church law, bishops don’t have direct control over colleges and universities,” he explained. “Many of these colleges don’t respect the authority of religious leaders.”

The Cardinal Newman Society deals with dissent by contacting bishops and “alerting faithful Catholics, encouraging them not to attend these institutions.”

“The awareness of Catholic families has increased. Most Catholics are aware that there’s a big difference among Catholic universities,” Reilly explained. “At most Catholic colleges, [there are] very few people in leadership who fully embrace Catholic teaching. It’s a tall hill for us to climb.”

The triumph of relativism

In December 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the Roman Curia about the current debate over gender. The Holy Father, himself a longtime professor, is well acquainted with the atmosphere that prevails in academic life, and his comments intimate that he is acquainted with some of the principles underpinning queer theory. He said:

It is not outmoded metaphysics when the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman.… What is often expressed and understood by the term “gender” is definitively resolved in the selfemancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator. Man wants to create himself, and to decide always and exclusively on his own about what concerns him.

Queer theory deconstructs and relativizes sexuality, rendering it meaningless. This essential element of humanity, present at the moment of conception, is in danger of disappearing from our societal view. Being human becomes a matter of interpretation. The deconstructionist, like Pontius Pilate, cynically asks, “What is truth?”

The current crisis of identity—be it gender identity or faith identity—is plaguing Catholic universities. In February, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco addressed the problem at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome. He said, “The question of so-called non-negotiable values, with all that it entails, demarcates this border line, the threshold beyond which man is lost and society becomes inhuman. Not to be fully aware of what is at stake, and not to have reason confirmed and illumined by faith, would signify a grave sin of omission toward God and toward man.”

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About Anna Abbott 0 Articles
Anna Abbott writes from Napa, California.