The University of St. Thomas: A Failure to Love?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 25, 2013

In her first academic convocation address at the University of St. Thomas, new President Julie Sullivan chose to express concern about diversity and, in particular, the need for a welcoming attitude toward gay and transgendered persons. Her university, located in St. Paul, is not to be confused with the University of St. Thomas in Houston, which is a radically more Catholic enterprise. But here is the key quotation from Dr. Sullivan’s address earlier this month:

The planning and climate surveys reflected concern about a welcoming and supportive attitude to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in our community. It pains me to think that a gay student, staff or faculty member would ever feel unwelcome or a need to “hide” at St. Thomas. As Pope Francis reminds us, we are not called to judge. We are called to love and support everyone in our community regardless of their sexual orientation. And, I might add, regardless of the gender of their spouse.

This statement raises far more questions than it answers. One wonders, for example, whether Dr. Sullivan understands the distinction between loving a person and approving of his or her sins. Typically we make a useful distinction between same-sex attraction and commitment to a homosexual lifestyle (commonly referred to as lesbian or gay).

That being the case, one wonders why a Catholic school would have any “gay” staff or faculty, since the presumption is that such persons not only struggle with same-sex attraction (which is a heavy cross) but advocate homosexual activity as a good (which it is not). If so, they oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church, so why would they be hired at any college which exists to serve a Catholic educational mission.

One also wonders whether Dr. Sullivan grasps the demands of love. It is true that we are not to judge persons as evil; we are all sinners. But we are to judge the moral quality of actions, especially so that we can learn ourselves to strive for the good, and help others to do the same. Now to love is precisely to will the good of another, and it is not love to pretend to them that they are behaving in a good way when they are behaving in an evil way, to pretend that their choices are drawing them into closer union with Christ when in fact their choices reject Christ and rupture their relationship with Him.

Once one grasps this distinction, as it would seem that anyone who knows the first thing about Christianity must, it becomes obvious that we must love and support each person in different ways, affirming their value as persons, praising what they do well, and helping them to see their errors and weaknesses so that they might live more fully in the truth and avail themselves of Christ’s healing power. Are we to suppose that authentic love is never uncomfortable?

Dr. Sullivan (almost inevitably, one senses) cites Pope Francis to his detriment, implying that he was referring to an ability to judge the morality of human commitments and human actions, when in fact he was continuing the constant Catholic tradition which recognizes our common sinfulness and teaches that we cannot say we are spiritually superior (overall) to another person just because we do not fall into their particular sin. This is worlds apart from a failure to assist another person in overcoming a sinful tendency, which indeed it is far easier to do if we honor their fundamental value as a person.

Gay marriage, of course, is an intrinsic falsehood as well as a declaration of opposition to Catholic teaching and a commitment to a lifestyle which opposes Christ, and indeed opposes the putative values of the University of St. Thomas itself. It goes far behind the typical lapses of a sinner struggling to overcome a temptation. Is it really possible to treat someone in a so-called gay marriage as if their situation is perfectly normal and just as acceptable as any other marriage? Is it desirable for any Christian to do so? Is it desirable that the University of St. Thomas would do so in its official policies, or that it would insist that its students and staff do so as well?

What spiritual failures would such a deliberate blindness entail? Where in all this do we find room for authentic Christian love?

The Catholic Answer

That, ultimately, is the question. We are in the midst of a vast cultural challenge to those teachings of Christ which lie at the heart of the institution of marriage, the institution which forms the very basis of society and which, in the surpassing beauty of its intimacy, is intended to mirror of the relationship of Christ to His Church (Eph 5:32). In this context, I find a dereliction of duty for a Catholic academic administrator to address the need to “welcome” gay and trans-gendered persons without making these distinctions. To do so merely opens the community to a cowardly failure to love.

The presumption in such a case can only be that the administrator in question has not accidently overlooked something but instead rejects the teachings of the Church and departs, on this issue, from unity with Jesus Christ. Let me close, then, with St. Paul’s description of the proper role of educators, which should be part of the foundation of every Catholic college or university, and which should have found expression in Dr. Sullivan’s address:

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! [Eph 4:11-20]

I do not suggest that I am morally superior to Dr. Sullivan just because I do not suffer from this particular error. I feel no temptation to treat her as something less than human. But I do hold that in this matter she is seriously wrong, and that advocacy of her error is a serious failure of both natural and supernatural love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: family-man - Sep. 29, 2013 7:05 PM ET USA

    Since 2007 at least, UST has had an LGBT group. The campus life director informed me, "The Allies are a UST recognized student organization that supports and educates members and the UST community on LGBT related issues." My query about their goals and activities and the Catholic identity of UST went unanswered. So, the new president's statement is disappointing, but not surprising. My greater concern is our seminarians at St. John Vianney college seminary and its connection to UST.

  • Posted by: wakescheid - Sep. 28, 2013 11:16 AM ET USA

    While Pope Francis is absolutely right that we must not harp about specific immoral behaviors ad nauseum, I think it is not usually conservative Catholics who insist on bringing these issues to the front and center - case in point, Dr. Sullivan. Any hostility I might feel surrounding this issue is not directed at gay individuals. It is directed at those in the public eye who like to imply that my Catholic faith predisposes me to hostility in the first place. Circular reasoning, I know.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 26, 2013 12:08 PM ET USA

    To help people out of charity is a common debt we owe one another. However, to allow those same people the perrogative of "redefining" us and the Church at large is quite another thing. People who call themselves "Catholic" or even Christian imply that they live or strive to live by the orthodox standards defined which are indeed a witness to God's created reality. To pretend that that "doesn't matter" is not "to welcome" but rather to capitulate to the Lie of the Devil.