Safe Zone Stickers and Bad Ecumenism

Even those who dissent from Church teaching should know you can’t take a genuinely ecumenical posture and admit Catholics to the ecumenical conversation you prize on the condition that they reject Church teaching

The following comments are offered in the hopes of contributing to good ecumenical environments, especially in Christian higher education. They are my views, and not the views of my beloved home institution, Hope College.

At my institution, there is a sticker in circulation which is not sponsored by the institution itself but that many faculty and staff have on their doors that reads “Safe Zone.” Through the middle of the sticker runs a horizontal rainbow band. In the middle of the band, there are two stick-figure couples, both clearly meant to be homosexual couples, one of two men, and one of two women. I know many institutions of higher learning have similar stickers or ways of identifying zones they want people to understand are “safe” when it comes to students who identify as LGBT.

Ecumenism, as the Second Vatican Council told us, signifies a movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians. Now, if neither you nor any institution of which you are a part is guided by, or aspires to, a Christian ecumenical vision, you can stop reading now. Safe Zone stickers, for all I know, may be totally consistent with whatever guiding principles you hold dear. Nevertheless, I maintain that these particular stickers are bad ecumenism because of whom, and how, they exclude.

If you are still reading, then the remainder of this article is a defense of the last sentence.

Before discussing Safe Zone stickers themselves, I should say something about what I take to be good ecumenism. There are many worthy discussions of ecumenism and ecumenical theology, but just about everyone in that discussion agrees about the following types of things: in an ecumenical context, it is important to listen to one another (as well as pray and worship together when possible). We should listen first, and more often than we speak, but when the time comes, it is sometimes important to offer one’s own witness to Christ. We should always do this while conscious of our finitude and sinfulness, as well as our temporally, culturally, and geographically limited place in the Christian story. When our testimonies ring a discordant note with one another, no one in an ecumenical community is to usurp the ability to edge another tradition out of the conversation or even to edge out another’s sincere personal conviction, so long as those convictions are grounded in a commitment to Christ. These ecumenical discussions matter, even if the institution itself, as I think it should, takes its own position in these conversations.

Here are some examples of what this means for me as a Catholic at an ecumenical institution:

• I should welcome discussion with colleagues who assent to the United Church of Christ’s position that abortion is permissible, even though my own tradition has witnessed St. John Paul II’s declaration that the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church holds definitively that procured abortion is always a grave evil.

• Likewise, I welcome Baptist colleagues to ecumenical conversation, despite the fact that many of them call infant baptisms in a Catholic context illegitimate, and despite the fact that one’s baptism in a Baptist congregation would be valid and not repeated in a Catholic context.

• I also welcome Orthodox brothers and sisters (and I hope someday we have more among us at my institution) to ecumenical conversation who cannot welcome me to their altar, even though it is possible, under the right circumstances, to welcome them to Communion in a Catholic community.

There are many similar cases that could be generated. With that in mind, we will consider the issue of “Safe Zone” stickers.

Some years ago, my college, Christian and ecumenical in its orientation, was having a panel discussion about the issue of homosexuality and how then-current college policy treated it. At the end of the discussion, presumably in an effort to manage the sometimes tense environment, and to inspire frankness in the questions, questions were asked to be submitted anonymously on a 3×5 card. I wrote my question on a card, which was asked verbatim to the panel. It went something like this: “I would like to have a ‘Safe Zone’ sticker on my door to indicate that students are welcome to discuss their questions with me in a non-threatening environment. At the moment I will not do so because I believe that doing so carries with it the implication that I find homosexual behavior to be morally permissible. Since I can’t claim the latter, I’m nervous about doing the former. I love my students. Should I have a sticker?”

This question was then discussed by the panel. The panel included a senior colleague who enjoys both wide respect on campus (including my own respect) and a high degree of credibility among those favoring more liberal policies on sexuality. This colleague recognized that no definition had been given to the “Safe Zone” stickers, but that he doubted that members of the faculty or staff who regarded homosexual behavior as intrinsically immoral would have the correct meaning in view if they put such a sticker on their doors. This response predictably garnered loud applause. I think that this colleague was correct in his interpretation.

The stickers themselves were initially developed by a student group without official college recognition, and it is now some years since they were put into the field. Even when they were, they were not given any defined meaning by those distributing them that I could ascertain, despite my attempts. Now, the student group has put together a training session for those wishing to acquire the sticker, which I am told by another respected colleague is very well done. Indeed, I am told that the session was marked by a very warm and welcoming environment, and I have no trouble believing it.

Recently, however, my attempts to discern the meaning of the sticker have confirmed my respected colleague’s judgment at the panel. The other colleague who went through this more recent training assured me that “safe” in this context does not mean “hate the sin and love the sinner.” I’ve always disliked that phrase, but I think what he meant was what my aforementioned colleague at the panel meant: that if you have a sticker, you shouldn’t think that every instance of homosexual activity is intrinsically immoral by reason of being homosexual. If you think that, you lack a key qualification for telling others that you are “safe.” Recent interactions with students have only confirmed this view. The trouble is that “safe” zones suggest very clearly that zones outside the identified area (usually an office) are “unsafe,” or at any rate, that whether they are safe or not cannot be assumed.

If I cannot claim that my office is safe according to those regulating distribution of these stickers, then I must not qualify as “safe” (there being nothing geographically relevant about my office). But if I don’t qualify, there must be something unsafe about me or my views. To be sure, some people with traditional moral views behave in unsafe ways for LGBT students, and I need always prayerfully to consider how I can respond with compassion to all my neighbors (and to repent when I fail any of them). Nevertheless, danger is not a consequence of simple moral disagreement. On the definition these stickers use, I cannot qualify as safe until I regard homosexual activity as morally permissible. But when the claim that homosexual activity is not permissible is taught by my faith tradition, the matter becomes ecumenically interesting.

Ecumenism cannot lead with dissent. It is all well and good to cite your favorite polling statistic that a large percentage of Catholics dissent from Church teaching, and God knows they do. But even those who dissent from their Church’s teaching should be able to recognize that you can’t take a genuinely ecumenical posture and admit Catholics to the ecumenical conversation you prize on the condition that they reject Church teaching. That is ecumenical nonsense. An objector might respond that these offices are not the sites of the ecumenical conversation in ecumenical institutions. Rather the sites for that conversation are at public events, academic classes, sponsored co-curricular events, and so on. After all, individual faculty members at an ecumenical institution can hold to their own traditions and views on sexuality as on any other matter. Of course. But it is the ecumenical vision of these institutions, and the people who constitute them, that should make these communities and conversations “safe,” not the fact that your moral view will find explicit agreement and affirmation when you darken a particular door. As an alternative, I would propose calling oneself a resource person for LGBT issues, or simply saying openly that you believe homosexual activity is on a par with heterosexual activity, that you support gay marriage, the expansion of transgender rights, and so on. Post notices to that effect on your door. Feel free to use a rainbow or an equal sign. I will, by the way, defend your right to do so. But please don’t say that your office is safe (while denying me the ability to say the same thing, or being complicit with that denial) because you hold a position on which the body of Christ is divided. If that’s your vision of safety, then ecumenism isn’t safe.

My institution as such does not sponsor these stickers or their usage, and the people who do, have, I think, the best of intentions. But I believe those individuals have unwittingly sacrificed sound ecumenical principles in their desire to affirm the sexual desires and practices of LGBT students, and at some points, one must choose between ecumenism and activism. To be clear, I support the right to academic freedom and to post this sticker on one’s door, but I believe that the decision to do so is a mistake, because it is out of keeping with the goals of a genuinely ecumenical institution.

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About Jack Mulder, Jr. 2 Articles
Jack Mulder, Jr. is an associate professor of philosophy at Hope College. He is the author of What Does It Mean to Be Catholic? (Eerdmans, 2015) and other work in philosophical theology and ethics.