Monday, December 9, 2019

Remembering Carmel McEnroy, RSM, a Distinguished Theologian Whose Career Was Cut Short by St. Meinrad Theology School

I've learned today from the tweet of Sarah R. MacDonald above  that my graduate school classmate Carmel McEnroy has left us. Carmel was a few years ahead of me in the graduate theology program at University of St. Michael's College of the Toronto School of Theology. I'm saddened to hear of her death. Carmel was a person of great integrity, who suffered much when St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology School fired her, a tenured professor, after she signed a statement calling for keeping discussion of women's ordination open.

The treatment of McEnroy by St. Meinrad raised uncomfortable questions about the academic freedom of Catholic theologians and the denial of academic due process. In her autobiographical notes in the postscript of her book on women and Vatican II, she recalled how she was fired from her teaching position "with less than two weeks' notice, no due process, and the insulting offer of half a year's already meagre salary. All of this was in clear violation of the terms of my contract, the procedures spelled out in the Faculty Handbook, and the school's endorsement of the American Association of University Professor's Statement on Academic Freedom."

Carmel was fired a year following my terminal contract at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, which refused ever to provide any reason for presenting me with a terminal contract when I was in a tenure-track position. When I was stonewalled and lied to as I sought a reason for the termination, I chose to resign rather than continue working for an institution that could behave in this way.

After both Steve, my then partner and now husband, and I had our careers as theologians ended by the monks of Belmont Abbey and the officials of the diocese of Charlotte, Carmel sent a gift of money to the two of us — even as she was struggling financially due to her own job loss. She was a Sister of Mercy, and did not have abundant resources.

That gift meant much to us, but even more, her solidarity meant much to us. She was, at that time, the only classmate of ours at St. Michael's ever to contact us and say she was sorry for what had been done to us, and that we did not deserve the abuse heaped on us. That meant even more than her kind, generous gift of money.

This was the disheartening experience of what happened to us at Belmont Abbey: people we had expected to care, to support us, received the news of what had happened to us in total silence. They did nothing at all to support us or even tell us they were sorry about what had been done to us. Carmel, by contrast, understood. She was walking the same path.

The last time we ever went to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion, not long after I had gotten the never-explained terminal contract at Belmont Abbey, I had one eye-opening experience after another about where some of my classmates really stood regarding me and the worth of my life and theological vocation. I remember walking up to a table at which four or five classmates sat, and seeing amused smirks suddenly spring out on several of their faces — smirks that told me how happy they were to see me slapped down.

Without exception, these peers jubilating in the destruction of my theological vocation have had secure jobs and easy lives in the Catholic academy. One of them always had entrée because his uncle was a powerful (and very right-wing) Dominican leader in Poland (though this did not stop my classmate from living openly with his girlfriend before marrying her). Another made her way along in graduate school by, well, the most charitable word I can use to describe how she climbed the ladder is to say she used her charms to curry favor.

At that AAR meeting, I spotted another classmate coming down the hallway towards me, a woman who has had a stellar career as a scholar of the Jewish scriptures, someone whom Steve and I had hosted for at least one dinner at our apartment. I smiled when I saw her, said a hearty hello; she barked out a hello and kept right on walking, not ever even looking me in the eyes.

I discovered at that meeting that I was invisible — to a graduate of our theology program who had been in it some years ahead of me and had been head of the Catholic Theology Society of America. He had previously always been cordial to me. At this meeting, when I passed him several times in hallways, he looked right through me, as if I were not there. Ditto for a woman Steve and I had considered a close friend, a religious sister who walked out of graduate school into a secure job in a Catholic seminary and has never had the slightest bit of difficulty maintaining that job. We became invisible to her after Belmont Abbey's actions outed us as a gay couple — and this was the big reason that table of our classmates chose to take off their masks at this meeting and smirk when they saw me.

Carmel sent money. But more than that, Carmel contacted us, called us, wrote letters to us, told us that she cared. This meant a great deal to us, because, to be honest, we felt then and continue to feel like total failures — people who are ashamed to be in contact with the people with whom we were in school, ashamed to be in touch with our former professors.

Why do I say all these things in eulogizing my classmate Carmel McEnroy? Because this history is important. It needs to be remembered. It needs to be remembered that, in a very ugly period of Catholic history in the latter part of the 20th century, as employees of Catholic institutions were having their human rights violated right and left — in not a few cases, because those employees were gay or lesbian — most of their so-called "progressive" Catholic colleagues sat by in total silence, doing nothing to assist them, stand with them, fight with them.

It needs to be remembered that some of us, in this period, contacted leading Catholic news outlets in the U.S., pleading to have a hearing for our story, and were told that these things are too commonplace in Catholic institutions to deserve a hearing. It needs to be remembered that due to the complicit silence of too many good people in this dark period of Catholic history and due to the silence of too many "progressive" Catholic media outlets, gay employees of Catholic institutions are still being fired, without their stories receiving a hearing — a point made in this recent posting at Bondings 2.0 about the diocese of Grand Rapids.

The church lost much when it lost the voice of Carmel McEnroy as a theologian with a place in the academy. As Sarah MacDonald states, "When a comprehensive history of women and the Catholic Church in the 20th century is written, the name of Sr. Carmel McEnroy will loom large."

May the angels welcome her into heaven and dance with her as she walks its streets.

(Please see this subsequent footnote to the posting above.)

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