Sunday, October 18, 2015

More of My Story: 1993 Letter That "Went Everywhere," According to Abbot Who Accused Me of Assaulting Him by Telling My Story (2)

Mary Oliver, “The Chance to Love Everything,” in Dream Work (NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), p. 9. 

As I explained yesterday, this is (part 2 of) a letter that I sent on 29 September 1993 to friends and colleagues in many places, telling them that I had resigned my position at Belmont Abbey college after I had received a one-year terminal contract that the college's officials refused to explain. Part one of the letter is at the link I've just provided. As I also said yesterday, I'm sharing this letter now because 1) I've never shared it on this blog, 2) some of you have asked about Steve's and my story, 3) I think stories like this need to be documented, since many LGBT employees of Catholic institutions have been and continue to be treated this way, and 4) nothing the synod says about mercy means a hill of beans until such stories are engaged and the harm done by Catholic institutions to LGBT people mended. Here's the next installment:

When I informed AAUP of what had occurred when I met with the president and the chair of the Professional Affairs committee, it agreed with my lawyer. AAUP wrote the president to say that the reason he had given for the terminal contract was spurious, and it asked that he provide me with a bona fide reason, because in not doing so, he was violating AAUP academic freedom guidelines. This was at the end of the spring semester, 1993.  

The president ignored this letter all summer. In August, I wrote to ask that he give me a written statement of the reason(s) for the terminal contact. He responded by sending me a letter reiterating that he had already given me the reason for the contract. The letter does not state that reason in writing — and, of course, he had never given me any reason at all for the terminal contract.

Over the course of the summer, the dean also removed me from the position of chair of the theology department, and placed the philosophy department chair in the position of chair of the theology department. This seemed a curious decision for the college to make, because the chair of the philosophy department states publicly and unequivocally that he believes Vatican II was a mistake, and continues to hold the fortress model of the church abandoned by Vatican II.

To his credit, the philosophy chair protested the dean's attempt to remove me from the chair's position, saying that he thought it was punitive, and that the refusal to provide a reason for the termination of my tenure track position was a violation of academic freedom. The dean told him that his contract requires him to do anything that the college administration demands, within reason, and that he would be "insubordinate" if he refused!

Since I was clearly persona non grata at the college, I decided at the end of summer that I would not subject myself to further indignities by returning. I had signed the terminal contract in April, because it came at such a late date that I had no real opportunity to seek another academic position. When I decided to resign, my lawyer offered to negotiate with the college's lawyer for any sort of severance pay or continuation of benefits the college might be willing to provide, on the grounds that the situation was a conflictual one that could be appropriately resolved in such a fashion.

The college president informed my lawyer via the college lawyer that the college would adamantly not provide any severance pay or benefits, and that I had placed the college in a reactive position by seeking legal counsel.  The lawyer found this insinuation astonishing, since she said that it is very clear to her from her conversations with the college lawyer that the college had already sought legal counsel about me long before it decided to terminate my tenure track. (And the president's own statements to me on March 30 clearly indicate that this was the case).

The president did, however, inform the college lawyer that if I were willing to meet with him without a lawyer, he might "work something out." I refused to be placed in this humiliating position, and resigned, even though it will be very difficult, to say the least, to make a go of it economically, and I cannot afford medical insurance. The lawyer, who has been wonderfully sympathetic and helpful (and has done extensive work for me without charging me), has told me that in her years as a lawyer, she has never dealt with an employer which demonstrates such astonishing lack of ethical sensibility as does this Catholic college.

As to the whys and wherefores of the terminal contract, I can only make educated guesses, since the college has obviously decided to refuse to discuss these. As I have noted, from the time I came to Belmont Abbey, I experienced scrutiny and harassment that I have never experienced anywhere else I have taught.  

In addition to the examples above: in my first year at the college, I was asked to chair a committee which (at the college board's request) was to make a recommendation of a values statement to accompany the college's mission statement. This values document was to be incorporated into the current strategic plan. 

After the committee had worked for a year on this document, it drew up a list of five values enshrined in the college mission statement as core values of a Catholic, Benedictine college. Among these were respect for diversity, the practice of hospitality, and acting on behalf of justice for the disempowered. We distributed the list to faculty, staff, and monks, and asked for feedback.  

When we had done so, we found that the statements regarding diversity, hospitality, and justice elicited negative reaction from a few, but key, faculty members and monks. Some stated that diversity was a code word for people who hold a pro-choice position on abortion, for women seeking ordination in the Catholic church, and for gays and lesbians. Those who said this stated that they refused to respect these groups. One letter spoke of pro-choice people as intellectually and morally bankrupt. Some responses also attacked the statement regarding hospitality, asking "Hospitality for whom?" as if endorsing hospitality as a key value would open the door to anyone who might seek to avail himself or herself of the college's hospitality. The statement regarding justice was attacked as an attempt to "politicize" the curriculum.

As an effort to create dialogue in a situation in which people seemed to be shouting across ideological lines rather than talking seriously together, the committee brought in an outside speaker, an ethicist from Manhattan College. Several days before the speaker arrived, a faculty member in the business department posted in the faculty lounge a clipping from Our Sunday Visitor stating that theology departments are undermining the Catholicity of Catholic colleges. The clipping targeted in particular Richard McBrien at Notre Dame. The article's statements about theology departments were underlined.

On the day of the lecture itself, the same faculty member distributed (with the help of the monastic novices) a packet of materials to all monks and selected faculty. The packet contained the entire text of the papal encyclical Ex corde ecclesiae (which the archconservative members of the college board want to append to the college's mission statement) and various articles attacking theology departments and identifying Steubenville and Christendom Institute as the only "truly Catholic" colleges left in the country.

When I asked this faculty member what he wanted the committee to do with the packet of materials, it was clear to me that he had not even read the documents. He knew nothing at all about James Burtchaell, whose articles figured prominently in the packet, nor had he read Ex corde ecclesiae.

The faculty member did not even show up at the evening lecture. I had to conclude that his intent in sending out the materials was not to create dialogue, but to drum up animosity against the committee (and me as chair), in order to prevent dialogue from taking place. I am told by some members of the monastic community that this faculty member acts in concert with a former abbot of the monastery who was deposed, who no longer lives in the monastery, who holds extremely conservative views, and who attended the meetings organized by the American bishops to discuss the pastoral letter on peace in order to attack what the letter eventually said. I find it easy to believe the claim that this faculty member acts on behalf of the abbot to keep things stirred up in the college, since on several occasions he made mystifying remarks to me in the hallways of our office building in which he insinuated that we both act as "agents" for opposing causes. This faculty member is a Polish immigrant with a very conservative understanding of politics and religion.

At the lecture itself, another former abbot and member of the philosophy department (who is also, I understand, a CUF member) stood up and accused the speaker of espousing relativism, and of not being truly Catholic. The abbot went on to say that "these theologians" are "destroying the church." Since he made the charge in such a public way, I felt I had no choice except to respond, and I did so. I stated that what the abbot was attacking was the theology of Vatican II (ironically, he attended the council). The philosophy chair leapt to the abbot's defense, and we debated publicly.

From that time on, I began to notice signs that a conservative groundswell was occurring at the college, and that it was targeting the theology department. In December, 92, the student newspaper published an advertisement for Planned Parenthood. The editor of the paper happened to be a theology major. I did not know that the ad would appear, and, in fact, have never said a single thing about abortion in a class at Belmont Abbey, nor have I written about the topic.  

When the ad appeared, the then bishop of Charlotte (who was formerly the chancellor in Washington, D.C., when that diocese began to take action to remove Charles Curran from his position at CU) wrote the college president, stating that the president must publicly apologize for letting the ad appear, and that its appearance reflected negatively on the orthodoxy of the monks. The bishop's letter (of which I have a copy) states baldly and without any qualification that he does not believe in academic freedom.

In addition, the philosophy department chair staged a protest burial of fetal remains in the Abbey cemetery, with the assistance of fraternity men. No women were present, nor, I understand, were invited to stage the protest. The student newspaper was suppressed, the student editor was punished (despite the fact that she had the approval of her supervisors to run the ad) and became sick, and a right-to-life newspaper suddenly appeared for several months in the dispensing boxes for the student paper. A large stack of the same newspapers showed up in the faculty lounge, and when I asked what was the reason for its being there, I was told by a colleague that I should shut up, because it was asking such meddlesome questions that got me into trouble.  

Clearly, naked assertions of the real power centers at the college were taking place, and they were intended to symbolize the throttling that anyone who sought to elicit dialogue ought to expect, if that dialogue touched on topics these power centers did not wish to have discussed. These symbolic assertions of power required that I be demonized and positions attributed to me that I do not even hold.

In the same month that these events occurred, the monastery sponsored a lecture by Fr. Alfred McBride on the topic of theology in the church today. Curiously, though I was chair of the theology department, I was not invited or even informed that the lecture would occur. I learned of it post factum and only by chance when the Loyola Institute for Ministry extension group in Charlotte came to the college to interview me. Several members of the group had attended the lecture and been shocked at its tone. They told me that McBride charged that "theologians are destroying the church," and named in particular Richard McBrien and Elizabeth Johnson. Students of mine who attended the lecture told me the same.

I could cite many other instances in the spring semester, 1993, that illustrate how both the college administration and monastery systematically disempowered me, but the story is really too sordid to deserve such a detailed telling. Sadly, a number of these instances strongly suggest to me (though I have no absolute proof of this and will likely never obtain such proof) that both the present abbot and the bishop of Charlotte were involved in what has happened to me, and that the silence of the college administration about the reasons for the termination of my contract serves the ends of pastoral authority, even as it grossly violates academic freedom and norms of justice the church itself holds.  

When it was becoming clear to me that a strong attempt was being made to get rid of me (even before I received the dean's evaluation in February, 93), I asked to see the abbot to talk about what was happening, as a matter that affected my conscience. I called the abbot three times and left messages, and he did not return my calls. Finally, I wrote him, and he answered with a curt note saying that he would not see me, because that would be to involve himself in college business (though he is chancellor of the college and his monastery owns the college).

This was shortly after the college's public relations director had called me to say that the Charlotte newspaper had asked her to recommend someone at the college to comment on a news item regarding new feminist interpretations of the Virgin Mary. I said that I would be happy to comment. My comments were published several days later. I had said what I thought were innocuous middle-of-the-road things — viz., that the Mary of the gospels was a strong and courageous woman, and that Christian symbols need constantly to be reinterpreted in light of present experience.  

After the article appeared, I heard through the grapevine that the abbot was incensed (because my remarks appeared to give credence to feminism?!), and that the bishop had called the abbot and instructed him to pressure the college president for my removal from the college. Though I have no proof, a number of faculty members who are more "in the loop" than I am think these rumors are credible. What I do know is that the abbot's note to me, and his refusal to talk with me, along with the monastery's shutting me out in the last semester I was at the ollege, give me the impression that I am considered a bad child who knows he ought to be punished.  But search my mind as I will, I can come up with no reasons for why I ought to have been treated this way.

In the spring semester as well, I made a proposal to begin the planning of a center for adult theological education at the college. When I was hired, I was told that this would be expected of me, and this was among the chief reasons I took the position, turning down the tenure I had been offered at Xavier University to do so.  

When I made the proposal, I met baffling resistance in the dean's office, was told a series of painfully obvious lies by the dean, and was eventually informed by him that I had never been told that the planning of such a theology center would be a priority when I was hired! After a period of pretending that the dean was acting independently in resisting my proposal, the president eventually seconded what the dean had said, and told me he could not support such a center for "confidential political" reasons (this is another comment he now denies having made).

In response to the treatment I had received as I met one perplexing roadblock after another and was told one clearly documentable lie after another, I expressed what I felt to be perfectly justifiable anger to the dean, and misgivings about remaining at the college. This anger gave the administration what I now see it had been looking for and had engineered by treating me with such astonishing disrespect — some basis for claiming that I "did not fit" or belong at Belmont Abbey College, and therefore ought to receive a terminal contract. 

My experience at Belmont Abbey has been extremely demoralizing, to say the least. In one sense, it accomplishes what some faculty, monks, and church leaders have wanted: it silences me. How can anyone whose livelihood is taken away (and in my case, so peremptorily and unwarrantedly that I'll be a long time in coming to terms with this event) teach and write? How can I continue a career when I have no livelihood? These are among the ragged questions I must now ask about what has happened to me.  

Above all, I have to such questions about justice and the church. I am asking myself very seriously whether it is possible for me to continue to support and work as a theologian in a church that can act with such deep injustice towards me and others, in such gross violation of its own teachings about justice (not to mention charity). As a theologian, I feel myself at a real parting of the ways, a real crossroads, with regard to the church. If for no other reason, I have no choice except to be at such a crossroads, because I am faced with having to find another means of living.  

One of the ragged questions I have to ask at this crossroads is why the church has done to me what goes beyond anything pastoral authority normally does to lay theologians. Lay theologians are not ordinarily susceptible to the kind of treatment I have received. In recent years, as a growing number of American Catholic theologians are laypersons, church authorities have refrained from violating the rights of lay theologians as flagrantly as mine have been violated. Perhaps because lay theologians are less easily coerced by the intra-ecclesiastical mechanisms that exist to control theologians who are clerics and religious, church leaders have been hesitant to suppress such theologians in crudely coercive and unfair ways. When it is practiced against lay theologians, such suppression is too easily brought before the public eye. If this should happen, the church would expose itself to media examination and to questions about how it can resort to procedures that secular society itself identifies as unfair and unjust.

And even when the church in recent years has gone after theologians who are clerics or religious, it has always done these theologians the courtesy of permitting them to know why they were being censured or silenced, or at least that objections had been raised to their theology. What is different — and particularly demeaning — in my case is that I have not been given any reason at all, nor has the one pastoral authority who has the most direct supervisory responsibility for the college, the abbot of Belmont Abbey, been willing to discuss the matter with me. How can I read his silence as the college's theology department is totally destroyed, except as the silence of complicity?  

Shortly after the abbot refused to speak to me about what was being done to me, he asked to see the college's director of admissions, who had resigned because of the president's lack of leadership. The admissions officer tells me that the abbot wanted to have all his documentation regarding his dealings with the college president. Shortly after this, I understand that the monastic chapter reprimanded the president for his treatment of the admissions officer and another administrative employee.  

How can the abbot claim that he has no authority to intervene in college affairs when he clearly does so in cases that would to all appearances seem to deserve less attention than the destruction of the college's theology department? How can the latter event be anything other than to the abbot's liking, if he has the authority to intervene, or at least to protest, and does not do so? 

All this seems to indicate that there is something else at work in my situation, something not usually at work in the church's dealings with lay theologians. What has been done to me raises serious questions about the willingness of pastoral authorities to violate the academic freedom of some particular lay theologians, to suspend all norms of justice in the case of some lay theologians. I think that I have received particularly humiliating treatment because of questions of lifestyle.

(The third and final part of this letter is found here.)

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