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Sister Jane Dominic: one strike and she's out?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 07, 2014

We still don’t know exactly what Sister Jane Dominic Laurel said at Charlotte Catholic High School to provoke such an angry reaction. No recording has been produced; no text of her talk has been released. We have only second-hand reports. We do know that the school and the Charlotte diocese have apologized , and now Aquinas College, where Sister Jane Dominic teaches, has announced that she will be cancelling her speaking engagements and taking a leave of absence.

Did Sister Jane Dominic Laurel do or say something wrong? If not, why is there any need to apologize for her talk? Why should she stop making public appearances?

As Jeff Mirus has pointed out, Charlotte Catholic was right to apologize for not having informed parents beforehand about the nature of the presentation Sister Jane Dominic would give. But that’s a complaint against the school, not the speaker.

An official of the Charlotte diocese, after saying that most of the sister’s presentation was “excellent and fully in line with the Catholic faith,” added that toward the end of the talk Sister Jane Dominic, who is trained as a theologian, included some sociological observations which could be debated. “Because of the ongoing debate,” said Father Roger Arnsparger, “it would have been better if these studies and data were omitted from the presentation to the students.” Sister Mary Sarah, president of Aquinas College, made a similar observation:

In her presentation, Sister Jane Dominic spoke clearly on matters of faith and morals. Her deviation into realms of sociology and anthropology was beyond the scope of her expertise.

Are we to believe, then, that a theologian should not use any sociological data? That high-school students should not be introduced to thoughts that are debatable? No, another sort of complaint is at work here. Aggrieved students and their parents said that the information presented by Sister Jane Dominic was offensive and/or hurtful.

Now it is possible that a theologian, venturing into the field of sociology, might present arguments awkwardly, and thereby give offence. If Sister Jane Dominic Laurel were an inexperienced public speaker, that might be a viable hypothesis to explain this sad incident. But in fact she is quite experienced, and generally acclaimed.

A look at Sister’s speaking calendar (which, unfortunately, is now hard to find on the web) shows that she gave 13 presentations last November, to audiences in New York, Oklahoma, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In December she spoke at 14 parishes in Florida. If any of those presentations sparked complaints, I didn’t hear of them. She has no history of offending audiences.

Maybe she had a bad night in Charlotte. Maybe she introduced some new material that she didn’t know how to present properly. Or maybe—just maybe—she ran into an audience that was prepared to take offense at a clear presentation of Catholic teaching. I don’t know the truth, and unless some more hard facts become available, I doubt the truth will ever be clear.

But this much is clear: After one contentious presentation, an effective speaker has been sidelined. Sister Jane Dominic Laurel is now labeled, perhaps forever, as a “controversial” speaker. Whenever she does resume public speaking, some audiences will view her with suspicion, and her critics will be ready to pounce.

It’s bad enough that a Silicon Valley executive can be hounded out of an executive position because he dared to defend marriage. But if a Catholic theologian can suffer a similar fate, that’s intolerable.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: self - Apr. 09, 2014 4:04 PM ET USA

    I heard Sister Jane Dominic speak here in San Antonio, TX. I assume that the talk here was essentially the same as the one written about in this article. I don't recall the details of the study but do recall that it did present data that would be relative to Catholic teaching about the nature of homosexuality. Yes, it was controversial in the current culture (as is abortion, contraception, etc.) and was advertised as being appropriate for a mature audience. Seems PC Police are at work here.

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Apr. 09, 2014 6:35 AM ET USA

    Bishop Jugis of Charlotte is the one who must carry the can for this debacle at Charlotte Catholic High. He has clearly failed to act like a shepherd to his flock, allowing them to acquire a sympathy for people who are persistently living in grave mortal sin. The bishop was bound by his office to correct the false notions about sexuality among his people, and he did not do so. Pope Francis should accept his resignation.

  • Posted by: Dan - Apr. 08, 2014 5:47 PM ET USA

    I'd like to read the "debatable" data. John Jay College produced reams of data on clerical sex abuse, and most Catholics know nothing about the findings because they were either not reported or willfully misreported (i.e., "priest-pedophile scandal"). If the data Sr aired is debatable, then let's debate it.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 08, 2014 5:19 PM ET USA

    The last word is one that strikes directly at the heart...the heart of the matter. For decades the mantra has been one of docility, openess to almost everything but certitude. Those who appealed to certitude through the teachings of the Church were denounced. Their pride and venom unacceptable. But docility leads to consequences. The truth cannot be hid under a bushel. Of course we're free to tolerate attempts to do so. But as we've seen so often of late the consequencess are intolerable.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Apr. 08, 2014 5:01 PM ET USA

    Mere hostility would be easy. The world is supposed to hate us. But from the Church? That makes a cross hard to bear. It isn't the first time in history. St. Ignatius, for instance, didn't have it easy with the Church. St. Francis had his problems. It is good to have the support of the Church, but one must expect every now and then facing oposition from one's own kin. Well, it was Christ's own kin that crucified him. Not that I'm being dramatic, I only say that we may be denied by our own.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Apr. 07, 2014 1:38 PM ET USA

    I will stake some money on this one, Phil. In her audience many regularly watch TV and see programs like "Modern Family" (Name? I saw only a few moments once on a relative's set). The 'plot' of this agitprop is designed around a happy, heartwarming, sincere, honest, loving, and almost saintly pair who live in perfect harmony (of course) with others. Oh, did I mention that the couple are sexually deviant? THIS is what those Catholic kids are used to. Is their hostile confusion really a surprise?

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 07, 2014 1:30 PM ET USA

    Is running scared a core component of the new evangelization?

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