Thursday, June 25, 2015

John Howard Yoder's Story at Notre Dame University, and the Continuing Damage That Heterosexism Does to Catholic Institutions

Yesterday, I noted that Catholic culture (at an official level) remains irredeemably heterosexist, and has gotten even more so in response to the movements for women's and LGBT rights in the 20th and 21st century. I predicted that the upcoming synod on the family will only cement into place more firmly than ever the trend to heterosexism — to the domination of women by men and of homosexual people by heterosexual ones — in Catholic institutions.

To me, the recently released draft of the report on which synod discussion will be based strongly suggests that the upcoming synod will not be a kairotic occasion for the Catholic church to acknowledge the manifold ways in which heterosexism, with the unmerited power and privilege it accords heterosexual males and its belief that women should be subordinated to men and gay folks excluded from the order of creation, does very serious damage to the church itself and to the world at large.

I'd like to ask you to keep those remarks in mind as I talk now about an important set of articles by Soli Salgado that National Catholic Reporter published online this morning. The first of these notes that allegations of sexual harrassment of female students by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder now extend to Notre Dame University, which hired Yoder as a full-time professor of theology in 1984. The second article, also by Salgado, explains why it seemed important that this story be told, given that Yoder died in 1997 and the officials who chose to ignore or cover up his sexual violence towards female students are also themselves no longer with us in many cases.

One of the people cited in both articles is Mennonite theologian and mental health clinician Ruth Krall, whose outstanding theological work on issues of sexual abuse I've often noted here. As I've indicated, at her blog site Enduring Space, Ruth has published a series of books entitled The Elephants in God's Living Room: Clergy Sexual Abuse and Institutional Clericalism, which deal with the Yoder story. These books, and Ruth's work on issues of abuse in the Mennonite church, have been ground-breaking in forcing the Mennonite church to talk honestly about Yoder's legacy, and to come to terms with what it means for Mennonite pacifist theology to have been represented, in the 20th century, by a leading theologian with a history of sexual violence towards his students.

I've written about the Yoder story (and Ruth's work on it) previously — here, here, here, here, and here. According to Soli Salgado, Ruth Krall "took the issue [i.e., of Yoder's alleged sexual harrassment of students at Goshen College, where both Yoder and Krall taught] to Notre Dame in the early '80s." But as Salgado states with damning understatement, the information that Ruth communicated to Notre Dame officials about Yoder at that period "somehow failed to stimulate bureaucratic concerns at Notre Dame for decades."

Salgado writes,

Former colleagues of Yoder told NCR they knew very little regarding his history of sexual harassment when he first arrived as a full-time faculty member to Notre Dame. The noted professor finished his 20-year career there in good standing. Documents, though, from Yoder's time at Notre Dame and Goshen Biblical Seminary -- including his personal letters, contracts and alleged victims' testimonies -- suggest his superiors at both schools were at least aware of allegations of his misconduct with young women.


Firsthand records and interviews confirm Yoder's predatory behavior in the name of ethical studies and that it continued at Notre Dame.   . . . Together, the documents and interviews NCR conducted indicate that Yoder attempted to conceal from Notre Dame the reasons for his departure from the seminary, but that Notre Dame officials became aware of his previous sexual misconduct in the early 1980s, years before alleged victims went public in 1992.

What remains unanswered, Salgado notes, "is who knew what at Notre Dame at the time of his hiring, whether officials there simply ignored his past and what officials on the South Bend, Ind., campus subsequently did as reports of his abusive behavior began to surface." These questions appear to extend to Yoder's distinguished colleagues in the Notre Dame theology department, including his close friend (Salgado's phrase) Stanley Hauerwas and the department's chair at the time Yoder was under investigation within the Mennonite community in the early 1990s, Lawrence Cunningham.

For my part, I'll say unambiguously: I find it impossible to believe that Notre Dame officials did not know the full scoop about Yoder and his activities at Goshen when he first began teaching at Notre Dame in 1977, and was tenured — prior to his full-time hiring by Notre Dame and resignation from Goshen in 1984, a transfer that, as Salgado's account makes clear, had everything in the world to do with the trouble he had made for himself at Goshen due to his predatory sexual activities.

I find it impossible to credit any story on the part of Notre Dame officials or Yoder colleagues at Notre Dame that they did not know the full truth about Yoder's history at Goshen. I find this impossible to believe, in part, because I have chaired theology departments at two Catholic universities and have been an academic dean / vice-president at two United Methodist universities, and I know how exhaustively and carefully candidates for jobs are vetted by universities.

Especially when they are coming into a new school to teach theology or religious studies, and that new school has a religious affiliation . . . . At religiously affiliated schools whose sponsoring churches do not, for instance, approve of gay "lifestyles" — a point that might be made about both many Catholic universities in the U.S. and many United Methodist ones, as well — the weeding process when a candidate is suspected of having such a lifestyle and is seeking a position in a theology or religious studies department can be intensive and quite personally intrusive. I can attest to this from my own personal experience in seeking jobs in Catholic schools, and I know many others who might do the same.
So, again, I'd like to return to that point that I asked you please not to forget as I began this posting: heterosexism — the preferential treatment of heterosexual males, with the concomitant demeaning of women and LGBT people — hurts churches wedded to this pattern. It hurts their institutions. It hurts the culture at large by suggesting that there's a hierarchy of worth within the human community that places heterosexual men at the top of the ladder of worth, with women and LGBT people beneath them.

Yet the obvious, clinically discernible kinds of wounds that heterosexism inflicts on a whole bunch of people have been, for a long time now, beneath the notice of the men running many religious institutions including their departments of religion and theology — even as some of those institutions have willingly hired men with a known history of sexual predation. 

As long as the object of their predation has been women . . . .

As Mennonite scholar Stephanie Krehbiel said in a hard-hitting 2104 article focusing on the Yoder story (I link this article in the first of my "here, here," etc. postings),

[T]heology is a male-dominated field with a long history of covering, enabling, and trivializing sexualized violence.


As a powerful male leader operating in a patriarchal religious academia, Yoder was anything but atypical as a sexual predator.

These are, to my mind, damning statements, indeed, about Notre Dame university, which was, at the time it was willing to hire John Howard Yoder to teach theology (with, I'm convinced full knowledge of whom it was hiring), whole not in the least a welcoming or safe space for LGBT students, faculty, and staff.

Heterosexism damages. It damages institutions that practice it. It skews their moral priorities in a way that undercuts their ability to proclaim the gospel effectively to . . . anyone at all.

As Stephanie Krehbiel has observed in another article commenting on the importance of Ruth Krall's dogged determination to see the truth told about John Howard Yoder (this article, too, is linked and discussed in one of my "here" links above) the critically important contribution Ruth makes is to point to Yoder's sexual violence, which was long ignored / covered up by officials at both Goshen College and Notre Dame University as "a symptom of a systemic problem, enabled by negligent institutions and a religious culture that elevated male leaders and devalued the lives of sexual abuse victims."
In the last generation or two of the academy in many American church-affiliated institutions including Notre Dame, these male leaders have, in departments of theology or religious studies, often been liberal men who have been gung-ho about the sexual revolution — as long as that revolution has served the needs and interests of straight men like themselves. While welcoming into their midst a John Howard Yoder, they have been disdainful of and conspicuously hostile towards gay candidates seeking positions in their departments. (In many Catholic theology departments including Notre Dame's, those straight men have also found strong allies and acolytes in heterosexual female colleagues also determined to hold the line against the gays.)

This heterosexism and the serious damage it does to the Catholic church and its instituions in the U.S. need to be discussed as honestly and openly as the Yoder story is finally being discussed in the Mennonite church and its institutions. The upcoming synod on the family would be a valuable venue for such a discussion.

But, as I have noted regarding that synod, all indicators suggest to me that any such discussion will be very unlikely at a synod that will, in all likelihood, confirm the toxic heterosexism which is so conspicuously undermining the effectiveness of many Catholic institutions at this point in history. Heterosexism has become too bedrock, too foundational, to many Catholic institutions to be subjected to critical analysis at the synod — or even, for that matter, to be mentioned by the old boys' club running that show.

The photo of John Howard Yoder is by Carolyn Prieb and is in the John Howard Yoder Photograph Collection at the archives of the Mennonite Church USA at Goshen, Indiana; it has been made available for sharing at Wikimedia Commons.

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