|Mary Oliver, “The Chance to Love Everything,” in Dream Work (NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), p. 9.|
This is the third and final installment of a document I've now shared in my two previous postings. For parts one and two of the document, please click here and here. As those two postings explain, this is 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.
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 part three:
Even before I accepted the Belmont Abbey position, such questions about "lifestyle" had surfaced. For a number of years now, I have lived with Steve Schafer. When we both applied for the two openings that Belmont Abbey had advertised for the fall of 1991, we did not make a point of telling Belmont Abbey this. Why should we have done so? As anyone does in applying for a job, we sent in our résumés and awaited the results.
We understand that, independently of each other, all members of the hiring committee ranked our two applications as the top two from more than 75 applicants. After we had both been brought in for interviews, I was called by the dean to be offered the position of chair of the department, and was told that the other opening was to be offered to Steve. At this point, however, the Belmont Abbey administration discovered (or claimed to discover) that Steve and I lived together — a fact that at least some members of the monastic community seem already to have known, because of Steve's many Benedictine relatives, one of whom communicated this information to the acting administrator of the monastery, Timothy Kelly (who is now abbot of St. John's monastery).
When the Belmont Abbey administration discovered that Steve and I lived together, the hiring process suddenly broke down. The reason was clearly the question of "lifestyle," because in this intervening period, one of Steve's references called to say that he had received a telephone call from an administrator at Belmont Abbey to ask precisely this question — i.e., what Steve's "lifestyle" was.
Since we were both publicly respected theologians in New Orleans (I had been elected chair of the theology department at Xavier by unanimous vote of the theology faculty, had been offered tenure at Xavier, had been elected president of the New Orleans chapter of the College Theology Society), this question was strange, indeed. Did professional accomplishment and public respect count for nothing at all? In the face of these, why did questions about what the college chose to call lifestyle even need to be asked at all?
Because we were respected professionals, the Belmont Abbey administrators heard nothing damaging about "lifestyle" and eventually hired Steve. However, even as I was in the process of moving to Belmont from New Orleans, as I attended the Catholic Theology Society meeting in Atlanta, I met a priest from a town near Belmont, and happened to overhear him telling a graduate-school classmate of mine about the reservations the college president had when he discovered that I lived with Steve. Needless to say, this was painful. It made me feel vulnerable, as if my private life was somehow the subject of scrutiny by people not even connected with the college. I did not relish having details about the hiring process spread to former classmates and colleagues in other places.
When I got to Belmont Abbey, it was very evident that the fact that Steve and I had lived together and had bought a house together in North Carolina made us susceptible to inordinate critical attention from some faculty members. Clearly, this fact underlay the almost hysterical response of some faculty to the list of core values I mentioned above — as if I had single-handedly drawn up the list (rather than the committee's having done so, on the basis of the college mission statement) as a sinister attempt to transform the college into a gay haven.
In the two years that I was at the college, in fact, some male faculty members (among them the "most important" faculty) exhibited almost hysterical (at times ludicrous) homophobia — of a sort that I have never encountered anywhere else that I have taught. A number of colleagues at the college whose knowledge of the college is more extensive than mine and whose counsel I value (and none of whom is gay) tell me that they believe this homophobia — simply on the grounds that I have lived with Steve in the past and continue to do so, since we have not made public the terms of our relationship — is the fundamental reason I was considered vulnerable, and was treated in a particularly demeaning and unjust way.
According to these colleagues, objections to my theology and ecclesiastical pressure were the underlying reasons I received a terminal contract. But the choice to do this in such a dehumanizing way was motivated by homophobia. The administration and those pressuring it considered that I would surely simply disappear like a whipped dog when my job was taken from me without reason, rather than expose myself to publicity that might delve into my private life. This was why the college president had initially tried to frighten me by saying that he had a reason for the terminal contract which ACE had advised him not to disclose. This was why the dean had told the chair of the Professional Affairs committee not to hear my case, since I had received the terminal contract for "non-academic" reasons.
To illustrate how strongly homophobia tinged the atmosphere of the college in the past two years, I would point to another instance. In the 1992-93 academic year, the admissions officer whom I mentioned above, an unmarried man, brought in a candidate to be interviewed for a position in his office. When the candidate (another unmarried man) met with an interview committee of three faculty members, one asked him if he were dating anyone at the moment. When he replied no, the faculty member then asked if he were gay.
This incident and others say to me that there was a very strong perception at the college in the past two years (one not based on any rational judgment or factual evidence) that if something were not done to counter its happening, the college was on the verge of becoming a lavender enclave in which gay people suddenly would sprout out of the very woodwork. This is also to say that there was a strong perception on the part of some "important" male faculty members (married and presumably heterosexual) that their control of much that happens at the college was imminently threatened, and they were willing to stop at nothing to reassert control. These faculty members are almost all Catholic and more conservative by far than the majority of faculty, who are non-Catholic and are mystified by some of the behaviors and open expressions of prejudice the faculty in question permit themselves. (Belmont Abbey is the only college in which I have taught where I have heard faculty members use the word "n----r" casually and disparagingly in conversations.)
As I look back on my experience at Belmont Abbey, I find myself moving ineluctably to an anguishing conclusion: this is that the church is willing to trample on the rights of a theologian who has earned respect, and to participate in a charade of untruths as it does so, because of homophobia and homophobia alone. One does not even have to be openly gay; one can walk the fine line the church asks gay priests, theologians, and religious to walk today, cleaving one's "private" life from one's public life. Yet even when one walks that line with all its crippling tensions and restrictions invisible to the privileged, and even when one earns respect and entitlement of a sort as one does so, the church can act with astonishing disregard for one's human dignity, and can be party to blatantly unjust acts that deprive one of a livelihood without the suspicion of a reason.
I believe — what has happened to me makes me unable to believe otherwise — that if I had been married and presumably heterosexual, neither the college administration nor the church, via its pastoral authorities, would have acted so conspicuously unjustly towards me. I may be wrong, but I am also under the impression that unmarried lay theologians who are presumed to be heterosexual (and there are many such theologians in the American Catholic church today) are seldom subjected to the kind of degrading questions about lifestyle that Steve Schafer and I encountered at Belmont Abbey.
This experience has taught me something that I have known previously, but less experientially than I now know it: that homophobia deeply informs the consciousness of the Catholic church and its institutions. The church pays a horrible price for this prejudice. I grieve for the stunted lives of so many gay priests and religious who must stand by and watch some church leaders abuse people who are gay (or presumed to be), and who cannot raise their voices to protest because they do not want to implicate themselves. I also grieve for the malformation of those gay clergy, religious, and bishops who actively participate in acts of injustice towards gay people, or people presumed to be gay.
The church appears perfectly willing to avail itself of the considerable pool of talents to which it has access in its gay clergy, bishops, teachers, theologians, religious. But at the same time it forces those who bring these talents to the church to abide by deforming restrictions that make it impossible to affirm the particularity of their own humanity, the source of their insights and talents. The message the church gives such people is often that it is safer and better to be involved in furtive sexual encounters than a longstanding committed relationship, because the longstanding relationship draws attention in a way that furtive sexual encounters do not. By the very fact that one works (against great odds in a homophobic culture) to sustain such a relationship, one makes oneself vulnerable to those in the church who are willing to judge people on the basis of sexual orientation alone.
If I said that it is easy to write about all this, I would not be telling the truth. I have spent weeks now writing and rewriting this letter, and as I do so, anguishing over what to say about what BAC calls "lifestyle." The anguish arises from the sense that the truth about what has happened to me at BAC needs to be spoken, not merely for my sake, but for all those who endure such shameful treatment in silence. But in speaking the truth, I also hand a certain victory to those who want to reduce me — and me as a theologian — to sexual orientation. By the very act of speaking a truth that circumstance constrains me to speak, I give those who have wanted to silence me a handy tool to justify such silencing, such reductionism of me and my thought.
Something in me cries out, and has always cried out, against such reductionism. Sexual orientation is indeed a part of me, and an important part. Coming to terms with sexuality in general (and this has been far from easy for me) over the past decade has been extremely important for me as a thinker, theologian, writer. I write out of who I am. I see the world as I do out of my unique experience of it and perspective on it.
But I am far more than sexuality. I believe I have more to offer the church than some tidbits of insight I have garnered about sexuality or about the morality of homosexuality. The resistance I feel is to a determinism and reductionism that the church itself insists on imposing on me by its need to define me exclusively in terms of sexuality. This reductionism is one that is still strongly operative in Catholic thought about sex in general — as if everything in moral theology is a footnote to the treatise on sexual behavior. And it is a reductionism that makes the claim of the 1993 Vatican document on homosexuality that gay people elicit violence when they make their orientation public appear at best ludicrous, at worst as downright evil — when in various ways the church itself hounds and harasses those who are gay and leaves them no choice except to reveal themselves.
What I am struggling lamely to say is that I am keenly aware that I take risks in sharing so frankly what has happened to me. But I believe that those who remain silent in such situations risk even more, and that now is my time to speak. I agree with Audre Lorde when she observes that the silence of those who are oppressed will not protect them from oppression. Silence only serves the ends of those who want to make us silent. I do not like having my personhood reduced to sexuality, nor do I like having what tenuous privacy I have been able to build for myself destroyed. I am not entirely sure I have the strength to endure all that might follow from the disclosures I am making, but I feel strongly that I have to speak now, and speak loudly. My faith tells me so: I believe that now is the time for me to step out in blind trust that the God who, as Rilke tells us, emerges from the blind, the cast-out, and the mad, will uphold me.
For me, the death of my brother in 1991 shortly before I came to Belmont was an experience that has somehow released me to speak more plainly about the truths out of which I live. I was with my brother when he died. When the nurses told my family that my brother was dying and asked if any of us wanted to be in the room with him as he died, I didn't hesitate about saying yes. Not that it was easy for me to do so; this was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, even if it was a split-second decision. What gave me resolve was the recollection of all the nights in childhood when I would wake afraid in the dark and ask my brother to hold me. As small children, we slept in the same bed. Even though my brother was a year younger than I, he never suffered from anxious, sleepless nights, as I often did. When I woke him from a sound sleep to ask to be held, he always complied without a complaint.
How could I let him walk into death alone, when I had the chance to hold him in the dark? Standing beside my brother's death bed and watching him die was an experience that changed my life profoundly. One of the ways it did so was that it made me irrevocably aware how relatively unimportant are many of the concerns that have dominated my life until now, how much more important it is to find the foundational truths of our lives and speak out of them. My family called me courageous for offering to be with my brother as he died. I don't think I am truly courageous. The gift that was given to me in that moment, I think, was a gift of being able to know how important it is to live fully, to know when life calls on us to act and to speak, even though we are rightly terrified to do so. Since this experience occurred just as I took the BAC job, it has been part and parcel of how I have viewed my vocation in these years, and is somehow foundational for me as I seek the courage to write this letter.
If the church has been able to do to me what it has done at Belmont Abbey, when I have played the game and have made no open declarations about "lifestyle," then for me to remain silent would only keep the church's own immoral behavior from being held up to inspection. The silence of the church in my case has been a useful tool for the church in its dealings with me, because any open discussion would expose to scrutiny the church's willingness to act unjustly on the basis of homophobia. The church counts on the silence of the gay people it oppresses, and has always done so. In a state such as North Carolina, it counts on such silence when the one who dares to reveal himself as gay risks a great deal: this year, the North Carolina legislature reaffirmed a law (originally English) criminalizing sodomy that dates from 1594; in criminalizing homosexual behavior, it also criminalizes practically all forms of sexual behavior practiced by heterosexual married couples.
In a strange way, it has been curiously and precisely my discovery of how powerless I have been to challenge the injustice done to me that gives me strength to speak. Because I have found myself to be in a position of utter powerlessness at BAC, and have found the church to be a willing partner in this reduction of me to powerlessness, despite its teachings about justice, I am all the more determined to find ways to share my story.
I think that, for the church's own sake, its willingness to participate in such unjust acts ought to be exposed to public scrutiny. One of the excruciating aspects of what has been done to me is that the church, insofar as it is represented by the college, monastery, and Charlotte diocese, appears perfectly willing to endorse a might-makes-right ethic and to engage in might-makes-right behavior. Though there are overwhelming ethical reasons that no human being should ever be treated as I was treated at BAC, the college (and the monastic community, by its silent and its overt complicity) seem perfectly willing to proclaim, "If we can do it, we shall do it."
The church's silent complicity in this ethic is all the more painful to recognize when one sees that it is willing to uphold this ethic by lending its symbolic authority to those who have told me a series of documentable untruths as I sought to be given a reason for the termination of my tenure-track position.
At the 1993 Belmont Abbey graduation ceremony, the bishop was in attendance for the first time in recent years. The graduation speaker was the chancellor of the diocese, who is now its acting administrator. The college gave an honorary degree to the abbot of St. Vincent Abbey. The college president, whose actions in my case profoundly contradict Catholic ethical norms (as he himself has admitted) was permitted to surround himself with ecclesiastical authority figures in a way that, in my view and the view of others, implicitly makes statements about why I was run out of the college.
And by recommending that I receive a terminal contract, the dean, too, has been permitted to present himself as a savior of Catholic orthodoxy. To appear as such is particularly important to him, because his power base is insecure, and he garners political support primarily by allying himself to those conservative Catholic faculty who are few in number, but whose influence on college affairs is in disproportionate influence to their numbers. The dean constantly insists that the Catholic and Benedictine character of the college is its most important defining feature, but he appears to know next to nothing about either. In fact, his own religious affiliation is a mystery. On some days, he speaks of himself as religiously this, on others, as that. To all external appearances, he is thoroughgoingly secular, and lives by values consonant with those of middle managers in the business world, rather than with those of religious believers.
In upholding those who have treated me so shamefully and whose commitment to Catholic values seems to be as thin as their understanding of these values, the church seems perfectly willing to give thinking people the impression that it is more keen to legitimate cultural standards of behavior (including prejudices such as misogyny or homophobia) than to ask critical questions about what the gospel says to culture. In acting as it has done in my case, the church appears eager to accede to the demands of Gestapo groups in the American church today who seem intent on validating certain cultural norms and developments in the name of tradition, rather than on permitting critical understandings of the entire tradition to mediate between culture and church at a time of profound cultural transition.
What this says to me is that important and powerful groups in the church are willing to keep patriarchal constructs alive at all costs, even as these constructs are being exposed as toxic to both church and culture. As a theologian, I ask how a church that so uncritically identifies cultural developments with tradition itself can move towards the future with gospel-centered hope. The need of the church at this moment in history to muzzle, silence, destroy so many people who ask penetrating questions about its relationship to culture, precisely as culture itself is rapidly changing, seems to me to speak volumes about the willingness of those whose power is threatened to preserve that power at all costs, rather than to look towards a future (and a church of the future) that may be profoundly different than the church of the present, even as it is in continuity with that church. I simply cannot understand the lack of hope that lies behind this need to protect power and to offer up talented people as sacrificial victims on the altar of the status quo, in the name of preserving the tradition. I don't understand it from a gospel standpoint: it seems to be motivated more by fear, wrath, the desire to control and coerce, than by faith, hope, and charity.
For all these reasons, I am seriously reconsidering my vocation. How can I not do so, when, even though I have excelled at my work, at any moment my job security may apparently be whisked away by a Catholic institution? Steve Schafer lost his job at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans under similar circumstances. If the church can do this to some theologians again and again, when they have given good and faithful service at low wages, do those theologians have any option except to conclude that the church does not want them? If theologians who are priests or religious lose their jobs, they have at least the institutional resources of the church to fall back on. I don't have those resources, and haven't saved any money at all in my nearly ten years of full-time teaching in Catholic colleges.
In fact, I moved to Belmont at my own expense, and am still paying the bills I incurred in the process. For the first time in my life, at the age of 41, I was able to buy a house of my own (with Steve Schafer; the house in New Orleans had belonged to him, and he had bought it with money from his aunts, which enabled us to buy the house in New Orleans). Now we must face the possibility that we will lose the house in North Carolina. It was important to me to have this house not only for myself, but for my mother's sake, since my brother who lived with her died shortly before I moved to Belmont, and my only living brother is now in Sri Lanka. My mother is aging and not well, and I wanted to have a place in which I can care for her, as she needs such care.
In short, one of the painful recognitions I have come to as a result of my experience at Belmont Abbey is that, though I have a life, the church seems willing to treat me as if I do not, as if I am dispensable, as if I do not have a right to security and comfort, even when I have earned these. That the church can do so while those who preach against materialism often have such secure lives seems profoundly anti-gospel: the monks at Belmont Abbey have six hundred acres of prime real estate outside a rapidly growing urban area, yet speak of themselves as marginal and countercultural. Without a salary, however, I am not only unable to buy health insurance, but my attempt to draw the unemployment benefits to which I am entitled by state law has been blocked by the college.
Sadly, it seems to me that not only fringe groups in the church, but people in the "mainstream" as well, would agree with the views expressed by Archbishop Thomas Dolinay of the Pittsburgh Byzantine-Rite (Roman Catholic) archdiocese in a recent letter, as reported in National Catholic Reporter and the bi-monthly newsletter Second Stone. The archbishop said that gays and lesbians belong on the "list of the expendable," and that, were St. Patrick alive today, he would be "strongly tempted to lead them over the precipice" into a "dump somewhere far from civilization."
What has happened to me at BAC is all the more anguishing because, in the two years I was at Belmont Abbey, I hit my stride as a teacher and scholar. In my teaching, I felt a strong generativity, an ability to transmit something of value to my students. Students responded to this and sought me out, both as a teacher and confidant. The church's destruction of my career — and what else can I call what the church has done to me? —seems almost to be a deliberate response to that emerging generativity and my ability to reach a wider and wider audience, as if it becomes more important to silence me as I claim a public role as a theologian.
Yet in telling the story of what has happened to me in the past two years, I have not only to speak of anguishing experiences, but also of experiences of solidarity and sympathy. Friends both at the college and around the world have been wonderfully supportive at this time of pain, and I must thank them and God for their friendship. It is the strength that I gain from such support that enables me to tell a story that is so painful, and that has made me decide to write such a letter and send it to friends. Thank you for listening to a lengthy story, and one full of anger and pain. More than anger and pain, though: in what I have endured from the church, I have come to feel shame for the church itself. I mourn the church's willingness to go to such lengths to assassinate those who, out of fidelity to its teachings, call for open discourse about the pressing moral and theological issues of our day.
Yours in hope,
William D. Lindsey.
(For a sequel to this September 1993 letter that I sent to the same group of friends and colleagues the following February, please see here.)
(For a sequel to this September 1993 letter that I sent to the same group of friends and colleagues the following February, please see here.)