Friday, August 29, 2008

Update of Update: UCA President Resigns

Update of update: University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin did resign yesterday (, hardin_resigns_harding_correct.aspx#comments).

As one might have predicted, the UCA board of trustees presented the resignation as something other than a forced resignation of a president who had demonstrated patent lack of integrity: the board chair’s announcement speaks of Mr. Hardin’s health needs, and thanks him for the fine work he’s done for the university. The chair also announced initially that Mr. Hardin would be on sabbatical for a year, then retracted that term, and has now noted that the term does apply.

The buy-out is, as expected, exceedingly generous. Details are in the articles to which I link above. From an educator’s perspective: one cannot help wondering what underpaid, hard-working faculty feel about the plums thrown the way of this values-challenged president, as he resigns.

And about the board’s malfeasance . . . . The board’s lack of courage and immediate sensitivity to the lapse of in value-judgment is evident in the length of time it took the board to respond to this issue, and to the growing public hue and cry for action. The board’s lack of professional acumen (a lack often evident among trustees of universities in many places) seems to me to be evident in the back and forth about whether Mr. Hardin had received a sabbatical.

A UCA insider posting on the Arkansas Times blog reports that that a new board of trustees is now a “done deal,” and that soundings for new board members have been underway for weeks—though “it will all be done and leaked slowly and ‘conservatively’ so as not to give the impression of panicky desperation -- which is what it is.”

And, see, again, this is what I don’t get (though I know full well most university boards act this way). These are values issues. These are leadership issues.

What do board members think they are saying to students about values and leadership when they move “slowly” and “conservatively” to address shocking breaches in values-oriented leadership? Do they think they can continue to speak of their institutions to students and the public as values-laden and interested in producing ethical leaders, when they appear to demonstrate so little sensitivity to values, as trustees?

Well, if nothing else, this little story demonstrates that university presidents and university boards can occasionally be held accountable, when the public demands such accountability. Maybe this will provide hope to those watching other universities where similar questions about the integrity of key leaders are being asked. And—wild hope—maybe this story will provide some lessons for board members of such institutions to ponder, as they sit by in silence, doing the “conservative” thing.

As the current president of Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, who is an expert in the field of transformative leadership, notes, it is imperative for those leading institutions of higher learning to have in place mechanisms to critique and evaluate failures of the institution to fulfill its mission and to abide by its core values:

Change for the sake of change is never the objective of effective leadership. On the other hand, the lack of a mechanism to critique and evaluate an agency’s mission could be a barrier to that organization’s future. Clarity on philosophy and mission are essential to address our leadership crisis. As our world continues to be more complex, diverse, and divided, the role of education has to concern itself with confronting values that conflict with humanistic goals (“Leadership to Match a New Era: Democratizing Society through Emancipatory Learning,” Journal of Leadership Studies 4,1 [1997], p. 62).

If Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed is correct in this assessment of the role of academic leaders (and I believe she is), boards of trustees have a strong responsibility to assure that the institutions they govern have in place “a mechanism to critique and evaluate an agency’s mission”—particularly when questions are raised about the commitment of key leaders in the institution to the core humanistic values that must drive the mission of any institution of higher learning. As an aside (which is not an aside), if Barack Obama was correct when he noted in his acceptance speech last night that the time is past when American citizens can allow their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to be discriminated against, it seems incumbent on all U.S. colleges and universities today to have policies in place forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation—and mechanisms to expose and correct such discrimination, when it occurs.

If boards of trustees are not looking at these issues, mandating such policies, and setting in place mechanisms to hold even the top leaders of institutions accountable for lack of integrity, they are failing the institutions they serve—and the public at large.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Respect for Life: The Tragedy in New Orleans

As the current elections revive the increasingly enervating discussion of the pro-life principles that should guide people of faith as they make political decisions, I want to post on this blog I piece I posted elsewhere on 6 September 2006. This statement appeared on the blog of the National Catholic Reporter website at, where there's a fairly lengthy thread discussing it. I wrote the piece in September 2005.

My statement about Katrina and Catholic pro-life principles is as follows:

I’ll admit it: I’m biased. New Orleans is the lodestone of my adult life, the gravitational force always pulling me back. I began my college teaching career there, reveling in the generosity of seasoned teacher-mentors at Xavier University, who patiently taught me how to identify and use my gifts as a teacher. The jewel-like experiences I have had in that magical, maddening city near the river’s mouth have enriched my life in ways so profound that I will never get over New Orleans. Nor do I wish to do so.

I studied at both Loyola and Tulane. In my undergraduate education, what the Jesuits at Loyola taught me about God’s determination to lift up the downtrodden has forever stamped me. The Jesuits compelled me into ministry, overturning my well-laid plans to sequester myself in an ivory tower with my beloved Greek and Latin texts. Those crafty men who would not cease nattering about the importance of living for others turned my life upside down. I came to them a callow middle-class youth from a small Southern town. I left them with blinders forever stripped from my eyes. After what I learned in my years of ministry to the needy in New Orleans, I had no option except to head off to study theology, to get my mind around what my heart had learned about how systems of neglect and oppression affect the poor.

In my forays into ministry in New Orleans, I brought books, literacy training, food, and housing assistance to the needy. I approached these expeditions cavalierly: I was the one bearing gifts, after all, the one with the answers. But I quickly discovered that those to whom I reached out offered me far more than I could ever bring them. They taught me more than I could ever begin to teach them.

With these connections, I am shaken to the core of my soul by the scenes I have watched unfold in New Orleans day after day this week. I feel a frustration akin to battering my head against prison walls as I watch people pleading for food and water, even dying from lack of elemental nutrition or simple medication. I watch these scenes in helpless rage, in a comfortable house well-stocked with food and pure water. As I sit glued to my television set, I shout questions at it: how is it possible that we live in an advanced nation in which technology allows us to see people die of hunger, and yet our nation’s leaders seem incapable of delivering food to these suffering people we can see in front of us? I ask the television if we are in truth a developing nation, incapable of meeting the simplest nutritional and healthcare needs of our populace when disaster strikes.

As I worry the well-paced rug of questions in my head, I flash back to the last presidential election, when so many of our religious leaders twisted our arms as they informed us that voting for any but the pro-life candidates would be wicked in the extreme. I recall some of my own Catholic bishops compelling their flocks to vote pro-life, spelling out the “right” candidates and the “wrong” ones. I recall bishops who were willing to break with longstanding Catholic tradition and to use the Eucharist as a political whip to coerce errant believers into submission to their episcopal will.

I am also flashing back now to those grim scenes outside the facility in which Terri Schiavo died, when pro-life religious leaders held daily vigil as hydration was removed from the brain-dead woman lying inside. Where are those advocates for life now, I keep crying out to my television? Where are they as babies cry for water in the grueling heat of New Orleans summer days? Where are they, while corpses collect unburied, blankets draped over them, on the sidewalks of New Orleans?

The scenes we are seeing show us people dying precisely as Terri Schiavo died, from lack of nutrition and hydration. And yet those now dying on the streets of New Orleans are not brain-dead. They have the potential to live vibrant lives. Where are the buses of protesters now, shouting about how our nation has lost all respect for life? For that matter, where are the bishops who sought to bully us into voting pro-life in the last election? I have yet to hear the voice of a single one of my episcopal leaders, as human beings plead for food and water in New Orleans.

And the pro-life leaders the bishops told us to elect: what is their response to the agonizing scenes we see anytime we care to turn on our television sets? They are as absent as our bishops. As the grim scenes in New Orleans unfold before us, a number of bishops (along with their political allies) are engrossed in planning Eucharistic events, huge religious parties to celebrate the bread of life. Are those planning these parties recalling, I wonder, that the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper centers on a table, on bread, on wine, on food offered to the hungry? There is continuity between the dinner table at which we break our daily bread and the Eucharistic table at which the church offers bread to all hearts hungry for God.

When the church fails to do all it can to defend those who lack daily bread, it undermines everything that it proclaims about the holy bread of life. A church that neglects those hungry for daily bread cannot convincingly announce God’s invitation to hungry hearts everywhere to come to the table of living bread. Where are the bishops who teach this as the very heart and soul of Christian faith, while people lie dying in the streets in New Orleans, in this land of plenty, and no bread arrives?

Perhaps those bishops need to re-think their support for “pro-life” politicians who, to all appearances, seem shockingly callous in face of the need of poor, hungry human beings trapped like rats in a bowl in a major American city now lying largely underwater. Perhaps, as they prepare for their big Eucharistic shindigs, they should be pondering the core significance of what they profess about the bread of life. At the very least, perhaps they should be adding to their roster of speakers some who will remind us of the connections between providing daily bread to the hungry and inviting the spiritually hungry to the table of the Lord.

If they don’t do these things, it’s entirely possible that, one day, the bishops will give a party and no one will come. Or that they’ll shake their big sticks to compel the faithful to vote the “right” way, and no one will cower anymore. It’s possible that, having seen how our pro-life leaders have responded to the needs of the people of New Orleans, we will re-think what it means to vote pro-life in future elections, no matter what our bishops tell us.

John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John: Loving Coupledom

I continue to be fascinated by the discussion of the plans to move Cardinal Newman’s body. In yesterday’s new roundup, I linked to an article and a blog discussion of this matter at the website of the National Catholic Reporter.

There, in the blog discussion about plans to remove Newman’s body from its resting place beside his longtime companion Ambrose St. John, what fascinates me is the response of several bloggers who seem to think that any attempt to depict Newman’s love for St. John as gay love debases that love. As a way of denying that Newman and St. John might have been gay and in love with each other, one blogger points to the well-known phenomenon of male-bonding in situations of stress such as on the battlefield. As if there haven’t been well-documented cases in abundance throughout history, from the days of the Greeks up to the present, of men discovering same-sex attraction while serving together in battle!

Other bloggers pick up on a theme discussed in the NCR article attached to this blog—the theme of “loving coupledom.” As the article notes, English historian Allen Bray applies that phrase to Newman and St. John in a highly regarded study entitled The Friend (University of Chicago Press, 2003), which demonstrates the gay nature of a number of celebrated male “friendships” over the course of history. Bray states that Newman and St. Johns shared a love that was spiritual, and was not the less intense for being spiritual.

In the view of some bloggers, to claim that Newman and St. John loved each other with deep spiritual intensity is to deny that they were gay. These bloggers suggest it is dishonest and inappropriate for current gay believers to claim Newman as a gay role model.

In my view, these attempts to deny the same-sex attraction that was so obviously present in Newman’s relationship with St. John are unconvincing. They miss an important point: namely, that gay partners can be bonded in a spiritual love that may or may not have an explicit erotic physical component. But to say that Newman and St. John may not have expressed their same-sex love physically is not to say that it was anything other than same-sex love.

As the NCR article notes, following the death of St. John in 1875, Newman wrote: “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater than mine.” Of his beloved’s death, Newman wrote, “This is the greatest affliction I have had in my life,” and “A day does not pass without my having violent bursts of crying and they weaken me, I dread them.”

I’d like to ask those who want to deny that Newman and St. John were gay lovers how they would react if any priest today published statements like this about a clerical friend who had just died. Would church leaders today—would those within the church trying to rid the priesthood of gays—sit by in silence if any priest published such statements following the death of his priest friend?

Frankly, I don’t think so. Given the current crackdown on gays in the priesthood, I doubt Newman or St. John would have been accepted in seminary. And I feel quite sure they would not have been allowed to live together as “special friends” for years, sharing a house and then requesting that they share a grave.

It seems sad, the need to deny what is right before our eyes: the intense, valuable, generative love that two men or two women can have for one another, exemplified so beautifully in this monumental thinker of the 19th century. And pathological to wish to go to such lengths to deny that such love can exist, that we’re willing to ignore the final burial wishes of Newman in order to erase evidence of his lifelong love for St. John.

Power to the People: Citizen Journalism and the UCA Story

Since I’ve blogged a number of times about the unfolding saga at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), I think it’s important to provide updates to that story as they come along. The Arkansas Times reports last evening and again today that UCA president Lu Hardin has chosen to resign with a buy-out contract of $1 million (,

The chair of the UCA board of trustees has confirmed that the board will meet today, noting that Hardin has the votes to remain as president if he so chooses. Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, suggests that the board of trustees has been, well, less than scintillating in its handling of a matter in which the president’s integrity appears to patently compromised in a very public way. Brantley writes,

The Board of Trustees has not distinguished itself in this matter. If Hardin resigns in recognition of his inability to credibly lead, would it be wrong to suggest that the Board should make a similar gesture? (emphasis added)

On the whole, bloggers at the Arkansas Times website wholeheartedly agree. Comments of bloggers about the role the board has been playing in the UCA story include the following (emphasis added):

The Board, with their handling of this just sent a terrible--really a horrible lesson and message to anyone paying attention to this. Shame on them all. They never got out in front of this. Not once. Even know. I'm sorry, I just have absolutely no respect for their handling of this.

If Hardin needs to resign then surely a majority of the board does too.
▪Sad as this is to say, the reality is that what is right and fair is irrelevant. Only the politics of the possible. It is really disturbing to think that the board will pay him the full buyout when he could have, should have been removed for cause.

▪I just sent the governor an e-mail asking him to exercise some control over the BOT.

▪Go back and look how the whole affair has unfolded. Early on the Board was in denial and defensive of the facts. If Hardin is REWARDED for his actions with severance pay, then say adios to the Board for wasting TAXPAYER dollars in awarding severance pay for the SECOND time. The UCA episode has evolved into the likes of a Greek tragedy with Lu Hardin playing lead. It is time to end the tragedy by not only releasing the lead player but the supporting cast as well.

The Board still doesn't get that their role is stewardship of the institution. Again, shame on them for blowing it here. Thankfully, and I think this was a large part of it, the ArkTimes Blog kept this in play long enough and to the degree necessary for the issue to be kept alive until the full weight of what happened here was fleshed out. Once again, evidence that the power is shifting from the hands of the mass media to the masses.

As I’ve noted before, I have a twofold interest in this story. One is, of course, that I’m a citizen of Arkansas and my tax dollars help fund this school (to which, by the way, two of my aunts went to do graduate work as they prepared for teaching careers).

But I’m even more intently interested in this story because of the questions I’ve raised in this blog about the significant role higher education plays in imparting to students civic values essential to the successful maintenance of a democratic society. As I’ve noted, when the example set at the top of an educational institution—from the board of trustees and the president—is one that contradicts core values necessary to build a sound participatory democracy, we all have reason to be concerned.

My experience in higher education has been solely in faith-based universities. Though these institutions cannot be held directly accountable by citizens and by state governments in the same way that UCA can, our tax dollars also help to fund church-owned universities. And we therefore have a vested interest—all of us, as citizens—in calling for the tax dollars also help to fund church-owned universities.same degree of public accountability, transparency, and integrity on the part of boards of trustees and presidents of church-owned universities that we expect from state-sponsored ones.

In fact, I would go further and argue that the church sponsorship of church-owned universities gives those institutions an added responsibility to exemplify the highest level of integrity on the part of their leaders—starting with their governing boards and presidents. Precisely because these institutions proclaim that their mission is grounded in the ethical teachings of their sponsoring churches, leaders of church-based universities have an exceptionally strong responsibility

to value and speak the truth

to be transparent and accountable to the various publics they serve

to entertain open discourse about the core values of their institutions by members of those constituencies, even (and especially when) that discourse exposes disparities between the values an institution proclaims and the behavior of its key leaders

to defend those most susceptible to abuse within the power dynamics of the university

▪and to refrain from doing harm—as in ignoring the rights of vulnerable minorities who have no legal protections, and then using legal threats to silence members of minority groups who protest such immoral treatment.

As someone who has had the unpleasant experience of watching university boards of trustees operate up-close, I have to say that I have seldom been overwhelmed by the degree of competence and—above all—commitment to core civic or religious values among many members of boards of trustees. As with boards of state institutions, boards of church-sponsored universities too often value impression management and protection from legal action above respect for the core values of their institution (and, in the case of church-sponsored universities, of the sponsoring church). Most will bend over backwards to protect a president even when they have strong reason to suspect that the president is either incompetent or venal, or both. Hardly any will take the trouble to investigate—and to hold open forums—when it is patently obvious from many credible reports that a president’s behavior is dangerously close to violating core ethical principles of the institution.

The blogger who notes (above) that, sad to say, “the reality is that what is right and fair is irrelevant” to many boards of trustees, is right on target. As that blogger concludes, many boards—and I include boards of church-sponsored universities here; my experience has been solely with those—are interested only in the politics of the possible.”

And so what does that communicate to students and to the public constituencies served by any university about its values? That they don’t mean much at all, when push comes to serve. That values are something to be paid lip-service in a classroom, but discarded when students enter the real world.

Holding faith-based institutions accountable for the services they provide the public, and for the ways in which they either exemplify or betray core civic values: this is an exceptionally important task of the American public, since we are a nation with the soul of a church that invests billions of dollars in these institutions precisely because we believe they serve the common good.

And as long as church leaders, and the leaders of church-owned institutions, resist transparency and public accountability (as they often do)—and as long as they use their financial clout and institutional image-management capital to resist transparency and accountability and attack those who call for integrity on the part of their leaders (as they continue to do)—the most significant tool we have today to accomplish this task is, as one of the comments cited above note, the ability of citizen journalists to keep significant issues in the public eye.

If readers will forgive my citing once again something I have written (but collaboratively so, with a leading scholar in the field of values-based education and transformative leadership, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed), I would like to conclude with several reflections from the document I cited earlier this week on transformative leadership, which is used as an introductory text the master's program in leadership at Bethune-Cookman University:

▪Abundant literature suggests that a key challenge facing higher education in the 21st century is to produce leaders for a rapidly changing postmodern cultural context. The cultural context within which students are now growing up and in which they will pursue careers is marked by change (technological, social, political, and economic) of an ever increasing pace, a communications and information explosion, new fusions of regional cultures throughout the world, increasing interaction of people from various cultural backgrounds due to advances in transportation technologies and migrations of people, and profound ethical shifts concomitant with the preceding developments.

If educational institutions fail to assist students in dealing with these developments—above all, to assist them to acquire the ability to think critically about and respond with ethical sensitivity to them—they will abdicate one of their chief responsibilities. This is to shape leaders who help to promote civic cultures in which more and more constituencies are drawn into participation, and in which the voices of groups historically marginalized (and those presently marginalized through lack of access to information) are heard and valued in processes of participatory democracy.

▪Because they are often looking solely at economic trends and focusing only on skills rather than internal and affective ethical change, organizations that fail are usually entrenched in maintenance forms of leadership that value preservation of the status quo above responding creatively to change.

To my way of thinking, this says it all: educational institutions, including (and perhaps particularly) church-owned ones, which value maintenance of the status quo and entrenched forms of leadership above the imperatives of mission, which ignore the centrality of values to the educational process, which abdicate their responsibility to inculcate values that build participatory democracy, are failing—even when, as at UCA, the numbers game allows them to claim that their "brand" is appreciating in value in publications such as US News & World Report.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mid-Week News Roundup: Wafer Wars, Benedict and Fascism, Retrieving Femininity in Christ, Citizen Blogging

More news articles cropping up, which continue stories I’ve previously noticed on this blog.

Obama and Biden: Catholic Controversy

Catholic news sites are full of discussion of the effect Obama’s choice of Biden will have on American Catholics. As Rocco Palmo notes in a posting entitled “Hail Columbia . . . Hello Controversy” this past Sunday at his Whispers in the Loggia blogsite, it appears the choice of a pro-choice Catholic candidate for the vice-presidential slot will revive the “wafer wars” of the 2004 campaign—the enervating and unnecessary wafer wars (

As I have noted in previous postings here, in the 2004 elections some American Catholic bishops sought to use the Eucharist as a political weapon, to force their flocks to vote “right” ( These bishops maintained that a pro-choice Catholic political leader (and anyone publicly supporting her or him) should be denied communion.

Not all American Catholic bishops agreed, however. In fact, those issuing statements forbidding pro-choice politicians from receiving communion in their dioceses were significantly in the minority. In an article entitled “Biden Nomination Could Touch Off Episcopal Split” at the National Catholic Reporter website, John Allen surveys the controversy and its theological (and church-political) roots (

Even more interesting to me than Allen’s analysis is the blog commentary following this article. The large majority of those posting comments are solidly against the use of the Eucharist as a political weapon. As one anonymous poster states, “I do not feel the Eucharist should be used as a weapon for any reason. It is an insult to the Body and Blood of Jesus who came for everyone.”

Others, however, support the decision of a few bishops to deny communion to pro-choice politicians. A poster calling himself (or herself) Abe, engages in . . . interesting . . . “logic” to conclude that a Catholic who questions any church teaching is not a Catholic, and thus not entitled to the Eucharist. Abe lambasts those of us pleading with the bishops not to make the same mistaken this election cycle that they made in the past—letting the Eucharist be used as a political weapon—as grand-standers and sophists who want everybody to get “all Hands-Across-America-like and sing koom-by-ya and feel warm and fuzzy inside and light candles to pixies and sing Sarah McLauglin songs and dance around with silk scarves.”

Abe tells us to SCRAM (his caps). As an anonymous poster replies to Abe (sarcasm meter ticking high), “That sounds sooo much like something Jesus would have said.”

In my humble opinion, the response of posters like Abe illustrates precisely what a can of worms the bishops open, if they make the Eucharist a political weapon and a reward for good (submissive, conscience-denying) behavior. They hand the church over to the worst among us, to those who don’t seem to have a clue about the core of Jesus’s message, which is inclusive love, welcome of all, an invitation of everyone to the table—where sinners have a special place.

Some day, historians and future generations of believers (assuming we permit a future) will look back and wonder at the willingness of church leaders to court those who deny the most essential Christian values in the name of an orthodoxy that betrays the richness of the Christian tradition. The pro-life values of those who call for the Eucharist to be denied to pro-choice politicians are, in just about every case I examine carefully, limited to life in the womb. If the crop of “pro-life” leaders these folks told us to elect in 2004 are authentically pro-life, I’ll eat my hat.

Brother Roger of Taizé: A Protestant-Catholic Communion Story

As I noted in my posting cited above, re: the use of the Eucharist as a political weapon, one of the very strong arguments undercutting the way some bishops and some Catholics want to use the Eucharist today as a reward for good (submissive, conscience-denying) behavior is the choice of the present pope Benedict XVI to give communion to the Protestant prior of the Taizé movement Roger Schütz at the funeral of John Paul II. Benedict was then Cardinal Ratzinger; he had not yet been made pope.

The Clerical Whispers blogsite has a fascinating discussion of this topic today ( As this article notes, because Catholic law forbids Catholics to give communion to non-Catholics, the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger—long regarded as the watchdog of Catholic orthodoxy, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—to give communion to Brother Roger raised eyebrows.

And even more eyebrows went up when it was revealed that Ratzinger was simply continuing a practice of John Paul II himself: the previous pope had given Brother Roger communion on a number of occasions. Well. As my elderly Polish friend Stanislaw often says when faced with a quandary requiring an inventive imagination, “What to do? What to do?”

Since it is very important for many right-wing Catholics to hold the hard line on the “use” of the Eucharist as a weapon/reward, this choice of a sitting pope and a future one to give the Eucharist to a non-Catholic is inconvenient, to say the least. These Catholics have therefore decided to spin a little myth about Brother Roger, that he secretly became Catholic before he died. Hence Benedict and John Paul II did not contravene canon law. Hence the use of the Eucharist as weapon/reward can be continued. (We Catholics have a venerable history of playing the "secret" card, when faced with inconvenient facts.)

Unfortunately, said myth is simply untrue. Brother Roger remained faithful to the Reformed tradition into which he was born, up to the day of his death—as his Taizé community also continues to do. But because the sheer fact of what Ratzinger and John Paul II did in the case of Brother Roger remains so inconvenient, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, is now seeking to develop a more sophisticated myth to “explain” the choice of Ratzinger and John Paul II to give the prior of Taizé communion.

As Kasper maintained in a recent interview (Clerical Whispers links to an English translation of the original published in L’Osservatore Romano—see, Brother Roger was both a Protestant and a Catholic when John Paul and Ratzinger gave him communion.

Stuff and nonsense. As a theologian, Kasper has to know better. If a prospective pope can give communion to a Protestant whose faith is “progressively enriched by the patrimony of faith of the Catholic Church” (Kasper’s phrase)—and in the highly symbolic venue of a papal funeral—and if a previous pope has set the precedent for this contravention of canon law, why may an “ordinary” priest or bishop not choose to give communion to a believer of another Christian communion whose faith has been enriched by the patrimony of Catholic faith? Or to a Catholic who, as with non-Catholics, accepts some magisterial teachings while questioning others?

I write about this topic with a certain pique for two reasons. The first is that I find it highly offensive to use the Eucharist as a political weapon or as a reward for good (submissive, conscience-denying) behavior.

But the second has to do with something that has happened in the life of my brother’s family. Several years ago, when the priest in his parish began to preach homilies that challenged parishioners to form their political conscience around church teaching (and these homilies were construed as critical of the current presidential regime), the priest found himself booted from the parish. The ostensible reason for the booting? Some parishioners offended by the “politicization” of the gospel reported having seen him give communion to non-Catholic family members at the funeral of their deceased relative.

Since that time, my brother and his family no longer go to church. The action of the bishop split the parish, so that nearly half of the parish has left. Petitions by significant numbers of parishioners to reinstated their pastor were ineffective. As my youngest nephew Patrick put it (more crudely than I’d ever say), while some priests diddle minors, church authorities go after a priest who gives communion?

Benedict vs. Fascism: Update on Controversy re: the Berlusconi Government

And as long as I am recounting Catholic news, I’d like to make brief note of another story about which I have previous blogged a number of times. This is the story of the connection of the Vatican to Italy’s current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In the 15 August posting from this blog cited above, I speak of “the fascist tendency that runs always just beneath the surface of Catholicism.” In several postings at the beginning of this year, I expressed my strong reservations about the apparent alliance the Vatican had made with the Berlusconi government, around “family values” (, In a later posting, I noted the patent shortcomings of Berlusconi’s own family-values track record, after Benedict chose to be photographed with Berlusconi

As my postings indicate, I strongly fear that, in allying itself with political currents that use the family issue to try to hold together center-right and right-wing alliances, the church will end up being implicated in fascism—as it was in the first half of the 20th century. Because I am concerned about this possibility, I am happy to note that some recent indicators appear to indicate that the Vatican is perhaps raising the same questions I’ve raised about Berlusconi’s government.

Recently, the best-selling Catholic weekly newspaper in Italy, Famiglia Cristiana, published an editorial warning that Italy was in danger of returning to fascism under the Berlusconi government. The paper, which is owned by the Paulist fathers, pointed in particular to the xenophobia and racism that the current government’s policies towards groups like the Gypsies seemed to be eliciting.

Immediately, the Italian government went on the offensive, and the Vatican issued a statement appearing to distance itself from Famiglia Cristiana. But the story didn’t end there: this past Sunday, in his Angelus prayer at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict noted the importance for Christians to help society to "overcome any temptation of racism, intolerance and exclusion, and to organize themselves with options that respected the dignity of human beings" (see, which documents the entire controversy leading up to the Angelus remarks).

Because these remarks come right on the heels of the Famiglia Cristiana controversy, many political and religious observers have read them as the pope weighing in on that controversy—and against a Vatican alliance with the Berlusconi government whose price would be looking the other way as fascism reasserts itself. I hope those observers are correct.

Helping Women Retrieve Their Femininity in Christ

As blog readers know, I am highly skeptical of the male-female complementarity argument increasingly used by Christian churches today across the board to frame sexual ethics (and worldviews with significant political implications that support male domination and female subordination) (,, Though many churches are building elaborate theological systems on the assumption of a male-female complementarity they see as central to the bible, and have elevated the concept of male-female complementarity to the level of a church-sustaining and church-dividing issue, I don’t find a scrap of evidence to suggest that maintaining such complementarity was an overwhelming concern of Jesus or of the Jewish tradition in which he was grounded.

This being the case, I’m interested to learn that the notorious “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International has just announced a ministry to help women (clearly, given the organization’s goals, women questioning their sexual orientation) to “embrace their . . . God-given femininity” and “journey towards wholeness in their femininity in Christ.” I’m grateful to the blog Good as You for bringing this important initiative to my attention—see, linking to

Hmmm. I’ve read and re-read the Christian scriptures, and don’t recall ever having come across the phrase “femininity in Christ” (or its counterpart “masculinity in Christ”). I’d surely be happy to see some scriptural reference to this phrase, on which whole ministries and the theology of many churches today are implicitly relying. And, given the importance being placed on male-female complementarity in churches across the board, I’d dearly love to see some reference to Jesus’s overwhelming interest in this subject.

The Increasing Importance of Citizen Bloggers in Our Democratic Society

A remark Arianna Huffington makes today in her Huffington Post assessment of the role played by bloggers at the current Democratic National Convention has me thinking ( Huffington notes that in the 2004 election, Huffington Post did not exist. Nor did YouTube.

When one puts those facts in context—in the context of the increasing predominance of citizen blogging in our political process—the implications are enormous. It begins to make sense why so many of those who want to control the process—by controlling the flow of information, what may and may not be said—are so frightened of the new world of citizen blogging.

It also begins to make sense to me why groups historically concerned with the transmission of information—e.g., the media, churches, schools, colleges and universities—are far behind the learning curve, if they have not yet recognized the importance of citizen blogging in their information-transmitting initiatives. As I have noted in numerous postings on this blog, in my view, the shift to citizen blogging as a way of transmitting and dissecting the news holds great promise for a democratic society.
The mainstream media have simply stopped doing their job. In my view, they are no longer doing it well enough to sustain our democratic society. As quite a few blog commentaries on mainstream media coverage of the current DNC are noting, in televised coverage of our election process, we increasingly have to put up with red-faced, belligerent talking heads shouting sports metaphors across tables at each other (see, e.g.,

Because I am not edified by that kind of “news” coverage, I am just saying no to televised coverage of the convention. And I’m highly dubious of the print coverage I do read daily online. When I compare a video clip of a convention speech with the “official” presentation given to that speech in the mainstream print media, I’m shocked at the disparity between what I see and hear and what I’m told I should have seen and heard.

Having direct access to all kinds of media clips, as well as on-the-spot analysis and reporting of the news by citizen bloggers, gives me a much wider range of information than I could ever get through the managed outlets of television or print media. It also allows me perspectives (and stories) I would never run across in our official news outlets.

As an educator, as a theologian, I am baffled that so few academic institutions have begun to recognize the power of citizen blogging as a tool for teaching, facilitating dialogue, and transmitting information. I am baffled, and yet I understand the reluctance of university administrators who have bought into the corporate-managerial model of running their schools to encourage faculty to teach and do research by means of blogging: putting ideas and opinions out there for everyone to read will inevitably ruffle the feathers of some funders who want “their” universities to toe their political line in order to keep on receiving funding. In the minds of all too many university presidents, the boundaries of academic freedom end where funding pressures begin.

But at what a price that funding is bought, when blogging can so effectively transmit ideas and information today, and catch others up in that dialogic process of critical reflection that we keep saying is essential to education—not to mention our political process . . . .

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Primer: Institutional Viability and the Moral Decay of Institutions

The following primer is an attempt to identify some key systemic issues that, in my experience as an administrator, can cause the demise or failure of institutions of higher learning. In a cultural and political milieu in which external forces (e.g., federal funding trends and pressures from accrediting bodies) sometimes appear to threaten the stability of financially strapped institutions of higher learning, the focus in attempting to keep such institutions (e.g., HBCUs) viable is often on external threats.

In my view, we need equally to keep in mind the internal, inbred cultural factors in some institutions that can collude to cause their demise. If many universities are undergoing unparalleled transitions today, with unparalleled challenges to their survival, survival may depend on being critically aware of trends within their own cultures that have to be addressed, at the same time that they deal with trends external to the institution. The following primer seeks to identify some intra-collegial cultural trends that may contribute to the fraying of the cultures of academic institutions.

They have demonstrably poor leadership at the top levels (e.g., at the level of a Board of Trustees).

▪Key BOT members may be ethically compromised; they may implicitly benefit (at the expense of the institution) from serving on the BOT.

▪Other BOT members do not have the courage to challenge the ethical compromises these members bring to the BOT, or decisions they make based on these compromises.

▪The BOT involves itself at a micromanagement level when it should empower and trust its own management team.

▪The BOT micromanages on the basis of misinformation provided by employees within the organization who are pursuing agendas destructive to the institution. These employees can even include presidents.

▪The BOT is uninvolved, on the other hand, when it needs to be involved—e.g., it does not provide leadership in fundraising or keeping salaries within the institution competitive with those of peer institutions.

▪Serving on the BOT does not require a BOT member to engage in either initial or ongoing training about BOT responsibilities and the mission of the institution.

▪BOT members are not well-informed about the key values of the institution and its mission, or about the challenges faced by institutions of the sort on whose BOT they are serving. Their information about personnel in the institution is often partial and false, and is based on misinformation provided by employees, including presidents, in some cases.

▪BOT members are not chosen on the basis of their fidelity to the institution’s mission or their ability to further that mission, but on the basis of ties to key constituencies within the institution.

A culture of lying, dominated by people of the lie, has become normative in the institution.

▪People within the institution who demonstrably have its best interest at heart are attacked by people of the lie whose untruths can easily be disproven, but who are allowed to continue their campaign of lies and distortions with impunity.

▪When several people of the lie are allowed to gain key positions or power within the institution, they create a critical mass that affects its whole culture, such that it begins to be difficult for its leaders and governing bodies to sift fact from fiction: distortion of the truth becomes systemic and woven into the fabric of the institution.

▪Often, those targeted by people of the lie are the strongest bearers of truth and witness in the institution; by their very presence, they represent a threat to the people of the lie, and must be expelled.

▪If the leaders of the institution are not proactive about immediately disempowering people of the lie, the institution begins to hemorrhage talent as outstanding people leave.

▪When people of the lie have begun to dominate the culture of an institution, much of the energy of its most talented people is siphoned off trying to deal with chimerical battles, rather than with moving the institution forward.

▪People of the lie create chaos, confusion, contention, and a situation of stasis in which they can exercise power, without regard for the mission of the institution.

▪As people of the lie begin to dominate an institution and sway its entire culture, destruction of truth-tellers can become a kind of blood sport; traps are laid for those who have the potential to speak out and challenge the people of the lie, and much energy is spent trying to entrap these colleagues.

▪People of the lie can provide an illusory sense of forward movement for the institution by adroitly demonizing those with the most potential to lead the institution, then having them expelled on the basis of lies, and claiming that by doing so, they have assisted the institution in dealing with its systemic problems.

▪Instead, such behavior only masks the systemic problems and provides unhelpful and misplaced solutions that do not address the real issues that need to be addressed, if the institution is to move forward.

▪When people of the lie dominate an institution’s culture, rumors and character assassination become routine, and consume much energy that is essential for moving the institution forward and serving its mission. If these are unchallenged, people who are seriously devoted to the institution and its mission often simply leave, to avoid working in a situation that is morally toxic.

Behavior that contradicts the institution’s mission becomes acceptable and widespread, while those who challenge this behavior are silenced, harassed, and/or driven away.

▪A culture of the lowest common denominator is created, in which giving less rather than more becomes normative.

▪In such a culture, those who try to fulfill the institution’s mission and pursue their job duties are often harassed and targeted precisely because they do their work—and by so doing, they implicitly expose those who are failing to do so.

▪In institutions that allow persistent failure to meet the mark, those intent on not working to capacity can become very noisy about all that they do—as a smokescreen to divert attention from the fact that they are, essentially, not fulfilling their job responsibilities.

▪They can also expend much energy making it appear that others are not doing their task, creating a cultural behavior by which others routinely are blamed for their own failures to fulfill their duties.

▪They can sometimes create situations in which things are contrived to go wrong, so that they can step in and appear to be savior figures.

▪To divert attention from the failure of many within the institution to fulfill their duties, key players can use ideological wedge issues to divide the community—e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, class issues, or religious issues—thus thwarting the systemic analysis that the institution needs in order to identify where breakdowns in service and work are occurring.

▪When pressures for change are intense, and when immediate constructive change is necessary for survival, entrenched elites within an institution may abet those who divert attention from the challenge at hand. This diversion serves the interest of the entrenched elites by preserving their control and by neutralizing the potential of talented members of other constituencies within the institution to help it change in order to survive.

When an institution’s top leadership is weak, when people of the lie have come to dominate its culture, and when behavior that blatantly contradicts the mission of the institution is allowed to become endemic and go unchecked, a process of decay sets in that quickly causes the institution to lose its competitive edge and attracts damaging attention in the public sector.

▪Just as people can decay morally, institutions can also do so.

▪Just as in the individual’s moral life, institutional moral decay occurs when the institution proclaims values or ethical norms that it fails to observe in its own institutional life and behavior.

▪Institutions that allow people of the lie to set the tone for their culture, and that permit ongoing, endemic failure of employees to serve the institution’s mission, begin to decay from within.

▪In such a setting, the most unhealthy or ill-intentioned members of the community are likely to rise to the top—those least competent to move the institution forward—and the most healthy or well-intentioned members of the community are often disempowered and/or expelled from the community.

▪As this happens, an institution’s moral decay begins to become noticeable in the various publics it serves.

▪There may be individuals within the institution who actually mount campaigns designed to draw negative attention to the institution, because they are pursuing agendas against individuals within the institution and cannot see the damage they are doing to the institution itself.

▪As the process of institutional moral decay accelerates, the institution can lose financial support and/or can be censured by bodies to which it must answer in order to receive credentials to pursue its mission; institutions decaying from within also routinely attract negative media attention, and stop drawing the constituency they are charged to serve.

▪If this process is allowed to run its course unabated, the institution often ends up closing its doors.

Assuring Integrity in Academic Leaders

Thinking these days about integrity. And about its connection to leadership. The backdrop of my reflections is the current federal election cycle, in which it is often difficult to judge precisely where truth lies, and whether leaders possess sterling integrity.

And integrity and truth are connected—intrinsically so. They are connected because the root meaning of the word “integrity” is “wholeness.” No person or organization can be whole when there is a split between what the person or organization says, and what the person or organization does. Dishonesty cleaves a person to the core of her or his being.

The integrity of rock-solid honesty is essential on the part of leaders, because the institutions a leader heads founder when the leader lacks integrity, and the virtue of truth-telling. When the leader of an organization (especially a values-drive one—one that at least claims to be driven by values) is routinely dishonest and is permitted to trade in lies, the culture of the institution she or he leads becomes similarly split. It can be so cloven at its very core by the disconnect between what is professed and what is practiced, that it begins actively to promote those who lack integrity, producing a culture dominated by what Scott Peck calls “the people of the lie.” As a companion piece I intend to post today on this blog notes, when people of the lie begin to control and institution, that institution’s fate is sealed.

I’m afraid we live in such a culture now in the U.S. And I am not sure we can climb out of the pit into which we have dug ourselves, by our willingness to hear lies for so long now, and not challenge them. The endemic nature of the assault on basic truth in our culture is so deep that determining the integrity of a prospective leader is now exceedingly difficult. Even the very sources that purport to seek unvarnished truth in our political process, and to purvey it to the rest of us—the media—are seldom characterized by a strong regard for integrity. Or dominated by people whose integrity is self-evident—people willing to pay the price to tell uncomfortable truth that we don’t want to hear.

As an educator, I can say (sadly) of my own profession that it, too, often fails today in its responsibility to serve the public by fostering the values necessary for civil society to work effectively, by producing leaders with a strong sense of integrity, and by offering students leaders of integrity as role models. This is a motif emerging in analysis of the ongoing problems at the University of Central Arkansas, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog.

Those problems increasingly center on the president and board of trustees of UCA. That is, people’s awareness of where the problems at UCA lie is now focused squarely on the top leaders of the university.

And on the issue of integrity. As journalist and political commentator John Brummett notes in a piece about UCA published today for the Arkansas News Bureau, though the numbers look good at UCA (a rise in US News & World Report rankings, more students, increased revenue), serious questions about the integrity of president Lu Hardin now threaten to undermine his effectiveness and credibility, and thus of the institution itself (

Brummett sees Hardin’s damning sin not as lying to the media, creating his own little fiefdom at UCA, or violating state FIA laws. In Brummett’s view, the action that most radically calls into question Hardin’s integrity (and, implicitly, the board of trustees’, if they fail to act decisively) is his having created a memo arguing for secrecy in a board-approved pay raise, and then having typed the names of three vice-presidents at the bottom of the memo.

Brummett’s analysis focuses squarely on Hardin’s egregious lapse of integrity, then, and what it is going to do to the university he leads, if the board of trustees does not act. In Brummett’s view, the outcome that will serve UCA’s best interests and place it back on track as an effective (which is to say, values-oriented) institution of higher learning is the board’s insistence that Hardin step down.

These are issues I’ve long thought about in my own work in higher education—and written about. At one of the institutions at which I have served as academic vice-president, I wrote a guide to effective academic leadership. The list of attributes begins with integrity.

I began my analysis of academic leadership with integrity because, in my view, it is the foundational virtue for effective leadership. Without integrity, everything a leader does is vitiated from the outset. If a leader lacks integrity—in particular, if a leader deliberately deceives those she or he leads—everything the leader does will be undermined by the lack of conformity between what is professed and what is acted out. As my document “Leadership in Academic Life” notes,

Integrity is about making our example conform to the message we preach. It is about harmony between the words we say and the actions we take. Leaders of high integrity stand by their words. They do not make promises they are unable to keep. They do not make statements that fail to conform to the truth. In cases in which not every piece of information is able to be disclosed, leaders exercise critical judgment about when to speak and when not to speak: leaders do not disclose information that violates the confidentiality of others, or that might potentially damage the College. At the same time, when they do choose to speak, they back up their words with appropriate action that illustrates conformity of behavior to words.

I address these issues, as well, in a document I had the privilege of writing collaboratively several years ago with the current president of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, Trudie Kibbe Reed, when she hired me to co-author a document to be used in creating a master’s program in leadership for BCU. In that document, entitled “Transformative Leadership: A Conceptual Framework and Application,” Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed and I note that values must be front and center for leaders, because many recent studies demonstrate that a lapse of values on the part of an institution’s leader impairs the effectiveness of the entire institution. Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed and I state:

Recent developments in many organizations demonstrate that the inability of an organization and its leaders to meet ethical challenges forthrightly undermines the organization’s effectiveness. Lack of ethical sensitivity and practice results in lost income and courts legal penalties that deplete an organization’s resources.

Whether in the non-profit or for-profit sector, organizations are by their very nature mission-driven and mission-oriented . . . . Accrediting bodies for institutions of higher learning are increasingly emphasizing an institution’s conformity to its mission statement, as accreditation or re-accreditation is considered.

Along with the increasing emphasis on the centrality of a mission to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations has come an understandable emphasis on the need to develop institutional leaders who have strong values and the ability to understand and implement the mission of their organization. Unfortunately, the ability of institutions of higher learning to adapt to the challenge of producing values-oriented leaders of strong character has not always kept apace with the demand for such leaders. Some educational analysts have suggested that perhaps both undergraduate general education core curricula and the professional-training components of undergraduate programs have been too narrowly devoted to preparing graduates to meet the demands of a specific job. Too little attention is paid to character development and inculcation of leadership skills—though these should be strongly embedded across the curriculum in institutions of higher learning.

I am delighted that this document is now used as an introductory text in the master’s program for leadership at Bethune-Cookman University.

In another (unpublished) text I wrote at an institution at which I previously did administrative work in the field of academic affairs, I put the point this way:

A respect for basic human dignity—particularly in a faith-based institution—demands that people be told the truth. It is demeaning in the extreme to communicate untruths to others. Such behavior objectifies a human being, turning that person into an object rather than a human subject with human dignity and rights.

The preceding statement was a reflection on something I myself experienced in the institution in question. I made the statement in a letter I chose for various reasons not to send. As the letter itself notes, in the polity of this church-owned university, administrators work at the good pleasure of the president, so there is no appeals process for administrators who find themselves subject to discriminatory treatment—though, when administrators also have faculty appointments, as I myself did, and are not given written evaluations (as I was not) or recourse to an academic grievance process, the university is violating key academic freedom stipulations of accrediting bodies.

In my case, the situation to which I was struggling to respond was this: an outside consultant had been brought in to work with my division. Prior to the interview, I was told by an administrator who is second in the chain of command at the university that the consultant would meet only with me, my associate, and the person heading our accreditation preparation committee.

When I met with the consultant, I discovered that he had been told to meet with the entire academic team reporting to me, to do an "evaluation" of my work (one I was never allowed to see). Though that "evaluation" was about an hour in length, and the consultant had never met me and showed abysmal ignorance of my career (and of the accrediting standards he was supposedly expert in), the "evaluation" was used to remove me from my position and eventually to terminate me.

Here is how my unsent letter described the effect of having been lied to on me and my work:

Because the disparity between what I was told prior to the interview process and what actually occurred in it is so stark, and because the process itself violated my human dignity by subjecting me to a performance evaluation without informing me in advance of any shortcomings in my performance or allowing me to prepare a defense against allegations based on false information, I find myself challenged to know how to represent this faith-based university in any public setting.

I am strongly committed to the values of this [name of owning church omitted] Church university. In my view, how I have been treated in recent weeks violates those values in a very egregious way. As a result, I am deeply divided inside myself about appearing as a public representative of an institution that violates the core values of the church communion and university community it represents. I do not know how to participate now in public ceremonies until it has been made clear to me why I have been demeaned, and why core principles of honesty, integrity, and respect for fundamental human rights have been contravened in my case.

To add insult to injury, when I reported to the two top administrators of this university something the consultant told me in the interview, they accused me of distorting the truth, and informed me that they had called the consultant and verified that he did not tell me what I reported what he had said. When I refused to back down and insisted (in writing) that we both be given a lie-detector test to determine who was telling the truth, they informed me they had called the consultant again, who now admitted having said what I maintained, but who qualified the statement as saying something to the “effect of” what I was repeating. Again, a written request for a lie detector test did not result in any action on the part of the two top administrators of the university.

Discovering that someone who heads a church-based university will lie to you is devastating. Perhaps I am naïve. But I care about the truth. Caring about truth is, ostensibly at least, what brings anyone to the field of teaching. As a theologian, if I am not dedicated to truth-seeking, then what possibly motivates me in my vocation?

And because I care, I keep repeating my bottom lines. Bottom line: institutions of higher learning absolutely cannot produce students with a keen sense of values unless they are led by presidents and boards of trustees who model the values the institution seeks to impart to students. And second bottom line: under the social contract governing the role of higher education in American culture at large, a core responsibility of higher education is to produce citizens and professionals with solid values and the ability to make sound ethical judgments.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are (openly) gay, it is an uphill battle, in conflict situations in which the leader of a church or a church-based institution denies the validity of what we report, when the report is inconvenient. Churches and their constituents still all too often automatically give the benefit of the doubt to anyone other than the employee who is (openly) gay. They all too often automatically assume that gay people are malicious, bent on undermining Christian institutions, and unable to be truthful.

They are also all too often willing to use their financial and public-relations clout, as well as ugly, immoral tricks, to "neutralize" a gay person who raises questions about their integrity as leaders. Churches and the institutions they sponsor have incredible power to do damage control to disguise the lack of integrity of their leaders, and to vilify those who come up against these leaders, particularly when the employee who is proving to be a thorn in the side for corrupt leaders is (openly) gay.

But, if we believe in truth, we keep on telling it, in season, out of season, until enough people who both cares and can do something to make a difference listen.

Don't we?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Newman and Jägerstätter, Kosher Ethics and Hurricane Fay: Ruminations on the News

John Henry Newman Exhumation Story

I’ve blogged several times about the plans underway to exhume the body of the 19th-century theologian and Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman (,, As my previous postings note, since Newman has been declared blessed by Rome (a preliminary to canonization, the step at which a blessed becomes a saint), the Vatican has announced plans to move Newman’s body from its resting place in a small cemetery in Rednal, England, to a shrine in Birmingham.

As I’ve also noted, the ostensible reason the Vatican is giving for this move is to allow the faithful to venerate Newman more readily than they can do at the present burial site—where Newman shares a grave, at his explicit end-of-life request, with his lifelong companion Ambrose St. John. I’ve also discussed the protest of gay activist Peter Tatchell, who views Newman’s exhumation as “an act of religious desecration and moral vandalism.”

The story continues. This past week, National Catholic Reporter published an outstanding overview of the story, including the question of Newman’s sexual orientation and relationship to St. John—Dennis Coday’s “Moving Cardinal Newman’s Body Runs into Controversy” ( Coday’s article notes that the London paper Church Times has an online poll in which readers can vote regarding whether they approve or disapprove of the removal of Newman’s body. The poll is at

Last I checked, the vote was 80% against the exhumation of Newman’s body and his separation from St. John, and 20% in favor. And how this whole thing feels to me? Frankly, as though churches that can’t do enough to make the lives of gay folks hell on earth won’t even leave us alone in death!

There. I’ve said it. And am happy to have that off my chest.

Newman Story in Light of Story of Franz Jägerstätter

As I reflected recently on the story of what the church wants to do with the resting place of Newman and St. John, it occurred to me that there’s an interesting parallel case that, to my mind, represents the disparity between how the churches treat gay relationships and gay human beings, and how they treat straight relationships and straight persons. This has to do with the Austrian martyr Franz Jägerstätter.

Jägerstätter was an Austrian layman who refused conscription into the Nazi army, and was executed for this refusal. He defied the pressure of priest and bishop to enter the army; these pastoral counselors told him that Christians have a solemn duty to obey the dictates of the state. Jägerstätter insisted that Catholic teaching stresses the inviolability of one’s sacred conscience, which one must follow even if church authorities tell one to do otherwise. He was executed because of his defiance of the Nazi regime.

Last October, Pope Benedict declared Franz Jägerstätter blessed. Insofar as I know, Jägerstätter is still buried in his parish cemetery, in a simple grave that is not marked with any conspicuous signs. If I am not mistaken, his elderly widow Franziska still lives, and is to be buried beside him in the rural parish cemetery.

My source for this information is a moving account by Jesuit writer John Dear in National Catholic Reporter of a pilgrimage he made to Jägerstätter’s grave in the 1970s ( Dear notes that no signs mark the way to the shrine, and that Jäggerstätter is buried in an humble grave outside the chapel in which he attended Mass, his grave marked by a simple crucifix.

And so it should be, in my opinion. And so it should remain—Franz Jägerstätter buried with his wife and family beside him in the simple churchyard where he attended church, to remind us that sanctity is accessible to all of us, is the call of every one of us, who achieve sainthood as he did, by living our “ordinary” lives in the light of the gospel. I would be appalled, frankly, if the church should choose in future to move Jägerstätter from his current burial site, and to separate him from his wife.

With churches, I’ve learned, anything is possible, no matter how outlandish and how obviously cruel to some folks’ eyes. It will be interesting to see if there will be any pressure in future to move Jägerstätter from his current burial site. If not, one cannot help concluding that the churches employ a cruel double standard, when it comes to how they treat gay persons and our relationships.

Discussion of Kosher Ethics

I blogged some time ago about how the federal raids on the kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa (raids that led to the deportation of a large number of Mexican and Central American workers) have resulted in a discussion of the ethics of declaring food kosher ( In my previous posting on this topic, I linked to an op-ed article by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who quotes 19th-century Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who is believed to have refused to certify a matzo factory as kosher because its workers were being treated unjustly.

I noted my own interest in this discussion: is ritual truly effective (in the literal sense of that word: it effects, it accomplishes) when circumstances in which the ritual is celebrated undercut the fundamental ethical proclamations of the religion mounting the ritual? I’ve noted on this blog that where I find myself vis-à-vis my own church, the Catholic church, and its central ritual, the Eucharist, is a position of alienation.

I am alienated—I cannot participate in the Eucharist—precisely because I believe in the Eucharist. I believe in what it means. I believe that communion in the sacred, ritual sense must be mirrored by the intent to effect communion within the body of Christ, or the ritual contradicts what it proclaims at the most fundamental level.

For me, as a gay person who has been hounded out of a livelihood and career—out of daily bread—by church officials who never have to question where their daily bread will come from, the disparity between how the church behaves and what it proclaims has become too stark to support. I simply can’t stomach that disparity by participating. My very presence at Eucharistic celebrations would be, I feel, a confirmation of the emptiness that surrounds the Eucharistic proclamation, until the church examines the radical injustices it is doing in the name of a clerical system based on power over others who are dominated by clerics. And until those of us at the receiving end of the clerical lash receive a mere apology.

As I have also noted, my gay believer’s experience at the Lord’s Table has not really been any different in some other churches—notably the Methodist church, with which I have had close contact due to my work in two United Methodist colleges. Though, as an alienated Catholic doing administrative work in Methodist institutions, I felt for some time a strong sense of welcome and communion within the Methodist context, that communion ended decisively when I knelt one Sunday at the communion rail beside a Methodist university president who, the following day, told me she/he wished me gone from the campus, and two days later, out of the blue, terminated me in the ugliest way possible.

One cannot believe in Communion when members of the body of Christ grossly violate the most fundamental principles of communion. I have now seen what the “welcome” offered me by the Methodist church really means. The total absence of any protest or pastoral outreach by the Methodist bishop and ministers sitting on the governing board of this university shows me how they regard me as a gay human being, and what that church’s open door slogan really means for me and my kind.

How can someone kneel beside a brother or sister in the Lord on Sunday, intending all the while to do a grave injustice to that same person on Monday—to deny him his daily bread, knowing full well that one’s reasons for doing so are vicious—how can one engage in this behavior, and mean what Communion is all about? My thinking about this issue has long been decisively shaped by German Lutheran martyr-theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer, who notes,

In the Eucharist . . . we receive not only Christ, the Head of the Body, but its members as well. . . . Wherever there is suffering in the body, wherever members of it are in want or oppressed, we, because we have received the same body and are part of it, must be directly involved. We cannot properly receive the Bread of Life without sharing bread for life with those in want.

When Christian institutions deny employment to people unjustly—in the cases I am addressing, solely because those people are gay—they radically undercut all they proclaim about the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. The current pope echoes Bonhöffer’s analysis of Communion and communion when he notes,

The consequence is clear: we cannot communicate with the Lord if we do not communicate with one another . . . . Fellowship in the Body of Christ and receiving the Body of Christ means fellowship with one another. This of its very nature includes mutual acceptance, giving and receiving on both sides, and readiness to share one's goods . . . In this sense, the social question is given quite a central place in the theological heart of the concept of communion.

All this as a preliminary to noticing another story about the fascinating discussion now going on in the American Jewish community following the Postville raids. Last week, Julia Preston reported in a New York Times article entitled “Rabbis Debate Kosher Ethics at Meat Plant” that a debate about the meaning of kosher regulations is now underway among rabbis (

To be specific: while some rabbis are urging the creation of a set of “social justice criteria” to accompany the koshering of food, others resist the proposal to add to the criteria by which food is koshered considerations about the social ethics of the food plant in which food is declared kosher.

This debate mirrors, in a theological context different from the Christian one, the discussion I have highlighted above. Is it possible for church or synagogue to keep engaging in ritual actions whose fundamental significance is belied by the behavior of those mounting the actions?

For me—and, I suspect, for many alienated believers—these are real questions, and profound ones. If communities of faith expect to be taken seriously when they call us to worship, they need to reflect much more seriously about the ways in which the lives of the members of the worshiping community either proclaim the message imparted in worship and ritual action, or impede that message.

And they need to listen to those of us who have been seriously hurt by communities of faith, and who can easily point to the areas in which the message is definitively broken by the behavior of the bearers of the message.

The Weather and God’s Wrath

This is another have-to-get-it-off-my-chest item. Following the California Supreme Court’s decision to legitimate gay marriage, not only blogs, but the mainstream media buzzed for weeks with stories about the “unprecedented” lighting strikes in California and the fires those lightning strikes caused.

The subtext was clear, and was particularly gross, when it appeared in “unbiased” “secular” media statements from places like the AP: God is hurling lightning bolts on Californicators because of their recognition of gay marriage. “Christian” blogs, of course, made the subtext very clear, as they jubilated about the wildfires even as the red states of the heartland were being inundated by unprecedented floods.
And now along comes Fay. And soaks Florida. Another red state, one in which a lesbian not too long ago was denied access to visiting her partner as the partner died, while hospital workers told her that she was in an anti-gay state with anti-gay laws and had better just accept it.

And news reports are noting that Fay’s constant twisting and turning around the peninsula of Florida, and its drenching rains, are highly unusual and unprecedented events. But never a peep of that ugly subtext of God’s wrath raining down on Florida.

Double standard? Indeed. This selective use of the weather to underscore God’s wrath has been going on a long time among the religious right. It’s really time for it to stop, and for the AP and other “unbiased” “mainstream” media outlets to stop taking talking points from people who not only predict monsoons as punishments for areas that try to be merely humane to gay folks, but who actually crow when any weather disaster occurs in a state they have targeted.

To say that such behavior is unbecoming among people of faith would be a gross understatement. Might be better, in this age of capricious weather when God seems to send rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike, to stop claiming that you can call down God’s wrath in the form of bad weather on anyone at all.

Cyndi Lauper: A Courageous Voice on Behalf of Hope

I worked this weekend. That is, I blogged—something I usually don’t do on weekends. Since those weekend postings were talky ones, today I’m going to give readers (and myself) a respite by doing another news-gathering posting. It’s fascinating to track some discussions as they unfold after I’ve posted initial notices of them. This news roundup will revisit several stories about which I have previously written.

But first, I’d like to notice an outstanding commentary by singer Cyndi Lauper on yesterday’s Huffington Post blogsite ( Lauper’s piece is entitled “Hope.”

Cyndi Lauper has become a passionate advocate of the rights of LGBT human beings. The gay community admires her outspoken solidarity with us, her willingness to put her life and career on the line by standing with us at a time in human history when not even the Christian churches and their adherents, on the whole, are willing to make such solidarity with us—when they are, in fact, often the chief source of the pain we endure in discriminatory societies.

Lauper sees hope for change in this election cycle. She notes the increasing impatience of younger Americans with discrimination based on sexual orientation. She calls on gay people to tell our stories, since this is the only way mainstream America will understand how we are discriminated against, and what such discrimination does to our lives, our souls, and to those who love us. Lauper states,

If you want people to understand the reality of being LGBT in society today, you need to share your story.

If you are LGBT, share with them the discrimination you still face in America, and if you are a straight ally, share with them the discrimination you have seen inflicted upon your friends and family. Explain that discrimination not only affects the one it is directed towards, but it affects us all. Show through your example what LGBT people truly are like and break down the misconceptions and stereotypes that fuel the prejudices that have plagued our community and society for far too long.

I am an example of what can happen when you share your story. When my sister Elen came out to me and told me about her life, my eyes were opened to the fact that I needed to be a part of changing this country for the LGBT community and have taken that responsibility very seriously.

Wise words, and moving ones, coming as they do from someone who doesn’t just say she cares, but who enacts that care everywhere she goes. And words that demand a hearing, in our nation with the soul of a church, where the example set by churches makes a crucial difference to how the culture at large chooses to treat minority groups.

One of the most discouraging experiences many of us in the gay community often have is seeing the very people within the churches who have treated us with most conspicuous savagery rewarded for their cruelty—given preferment in their churches, praised as exemplary Christians noted for their kindness, thoughtfulness, and selflessness. Steve and I have seen this time and again—e.g., when the rector of a Catholic seminary who unilaterally denied Steve tenure after the faculty and students had voted for his tenure was then made a bishop. Since we know of other instances in which this same rector had demonstrated tremendous cruelty to gay seminarians, we are baffled (and yet truly not surprised) at his meteoric rise among the American bishops.

From where we stand, church leaders often seem to throw choice prizes to those who most viciously attack gay persons and violate our rights. Some of the most vociferous attack dogs of gay folks among the American Catholic bishops have received plush ecclesial positions. Some of these have skeletons in their own closets, when it comes to issues of sexual orientation. Their preferment seems obscene to many of us in the gay community who know too much about the lives they themselves often lead, while savaging gay persons.

Not soon after a Catholic college in North Carolina gave me a one-year terminal contract while refusing to disclose any reason for the termination, Rome elevated the church of the monastic community that owns the college to the status of a basilica—a singular honor for an abbey church. Though the community of monks that own this college, which has a history of turmoil due to the anti-monastic antics of some community members, had a visitation from its monastic governing body after we were expelled from its college, the monastery passed inspection with flying colors. And I know for certain that church authorities had been notified of the injustice the college and the monks owning it had done to Steve and me . . . .

I have seen another university president, whose behavior towards us was even more atrocious and far more damaging to us at a personal and financial level ,given a choice position on a board within the governing structures of that president’s church, after the ugly things she/he did to us were made public. That president is now celebrated as someone who creates a “caring community.”

In the final analysis, these rewards to homophobic pastors and church folks give the following message to the gay community: gay human beings deserve mistreatment, and if you are skilled at delivering that mistreatment within church circles without bringing financial loss and bad publicity to the church, you’ll be rewarded. How can we feel that the churches do anything other than despise us, when they conspicuously reward those who treat us as less than human? And how can we hear the churches’ message about wishing to be a “caring community” without rolling our eyes in disbelief, when the price of caring seems to be demonization and expulsion of openly gay persons?

The more the churches profess to be caring—to be all about open hearts, open minds, and open doors—while they kick gay folks to the gutter, the more the message is plain: not only do we not belong within the list of those for whom the church cares, but savaging us will actually earn brownie points for anyone seeking church advancement. In many ways, the treatment accorded LGBT persons who refuse to hide our identities within the churches is far more savage and discriminatory than the treatment LGBT persons receive in any other sector of American life today.

This has to stop. I continue speaking out and recounting the stories that have crossed my path to do my own little bit to stop it. Too many people simply do not know what goes on within churches and their institutions, from the inside—particularly what goes on, when it comes to how the churches actually treat gay and lesbian persons, while professing love and welcome. Too many people give the benefit of the doubt to churches simply because they proclaim themselves to be open-door communities, while behaving precisely the opposite towards gay persons. Stories such as those I’m trying to tell are seldom heard because the churches and their institutions have the financial clout to suppress negative publicity about their real treatment of gay human beings, by legal tricks and other maneuvers.

Cyndi Lauper is absolutely right: mainstream America needs to hear our stories. It will not do so via the mainstream media, though, since our media are beholden to the same movers and shakers who dictate what the churches do and say, and who often try to hold churches financially hostage if they become more gay inclusive. The hope apparent in our current cultural landscape—hope for more LGBT stories to be heard attentively by wider audiences—is to found among citizen bloggers, who persist in making our voices heard even when those who do not want these stories to become “mainstream” do all they can to suppress our voices.

And now to those news stories, in a separate posting . . . .