Paul Crowley, a Jesuit priest, teaches systematic theology at Santa Clara University. I spoke to him in October 2012 for an article entitled “Being Gay at a Catholic University,” published today at Religion & Politics. Crowley says he is not an activist, but he has tip-toed into the conversation surrounding Catholicism and homosexuality. In 2004, he published an article in the Catholic journal Theological Studies entitled “Homosexuality and the Counsel of the Cross.” He concluded that being gay isn’t a problem for the church to contend with, but “an invitation to a different way of looking at things, and toward a deeper embrace of the very gospel that threatens to subvert our most cherished notions about the God whose name is Love.” Below is a longer excerpt of our interview.
Mike O’Loughlin: Will you talk a bit about the climate at Santa Clara University in terms of how LGBT community members are treated?
Paul Crowley: In general, it’s a very tolerant, accepting, inclusive kind of atmosphere. The local church here [the Catholic Diocese of San Jose, led by Bishop Patrick McGrath] has been really supportive, too. It’s one of only three dioceses left with any official ministry for gay and lesbian people. We’re really, really fortunate. There have been no public struggles [between the bishop and Santa Clara University].
I’m sure there must be homophobia present in some quarters, as there would be most anywhere, but it would be a matter of a tiny few.
MO: What was it like when you arrived to teach in 1989?
PC: Gay and lesbian students were pretty much hidden in the student body, and gradually that began to change. As I recall, it started with a student support group in campus ministry, and that went on for a few years. One of the things that really gave it legs at Santa Clara was the HIV/AIDS crisis. World AIDS Day, every December 1, became an occasion on which LGBT issues could be raised publically, with vigil programs, people talking, and testimonials. Meanwhile, the world around us was changing rapidly, especially here in the Bay Area. Later, an LGBT faculty group that was formed, and a GASPED [Gay and Straight People for the Education of Diversity] group, and a couple of other groups evolved. And at the same time, the administration gradually and diplomatically grew much more open to and accepting of these groups.
Students and faculty were pushing along this change in attitude, and some encouragement also came from some of the Jesuits. Part of the mix, too, was just that the world was changing, and our students were coming to us with a very different mindset than they would have had in earlier years.
MO: Do you think there’s the chance of the university losing some of the ground it’s made?
PC: I don’t see the university as an institution going back at all. You always have to work carefully with the local church, and if we were to get a new bishop things could change; but we just don’t know, so we do the best we can. Hopefully there won’t be any deep conflicts in the future.
MO: Let’s talk about your students. How do they approach LGBT issues?
PC: The vast majority of students come with such open minds. The downside of it is, sometimes I wonder if they have any critical skills at all, [laughter] but it’s better to open minded than closed off. The majority, it seems, come here supporting basic civil rights for LBBTQ students and marriage equality. I could tell you so many stories. In general, there’s a deeper sense of comfort with and openness to fellow LGBTQ students and to diversity in general.
MO: How do they respond when you present them with official Catholic teaching on the topic?
PC: When I teach my human sexuality course, I give my students the official church documents, first without commentary, tell them to read them, and then to come back to class to discuss them. They come back and ask, ‘Is this serious? Do they really mean this?’ They just can’t believe it. That’s almost the universal reaction. So my job is actually to try to help them understand where the church is coming from in some kind of objective way. As a matter of intellectual responsibility, I need to help them develop a critical mind and an informed critique, and not rest content with their a gut reaction that it just shouldn’t be taken seriously. I think it’s important to try to understand these teachings from the inside out, whether you agree with them or not.. It’s what Thomas Aquinas did so well, presenting others’ arguments so clearly that you’d swear he agreed with them. He laid out several divergent views before presenting his own, and then usually with quite a few qualifications.
MO: Looking more broadly at the Catholic Church, do you think it’s getting better for LGBT Catholics?
PC: If you look at the history of the church, in one sense it’s getting better in that people are actually talking about the issue. It’s true that the reaction on the part of some of these Catholic authorities leave a lot to be desired, but there was a time when no one would have raised these issues at all. There’s a huge struggle going on between certain sectors of the church and the wider culture, and some of the bishops are putting all of their eggs in the same-sex marriage basket. I don’t know where this is all going to go, but the toothpaste can’t be put back into the tube. So the church is going to have to do some deeper thinking about how to accommodate itself to new realities, which is what we’ve always done, after a few fits and starts. It takes a couple of hundred years, usually, but it will have to move faster than that now.
MO: What’s your reaction to some of the extreme statements coming from the Vatican on LGBT issues?
PC: One of the things that people need to understand about the Catholic Church is that anybody who can get a microphone in Rome will take advantage of it, so you can get really crazy things said by junior staff members in any particular office, and it gets reported in the press like it’s the Vatican itself. We have to be careful when use the words “The Vatican.” When you look at documents from the church, you really have to look at what the hierarchal order is, and that’s more effort than most people have time to undertake.
[Some of the statements have] done great damage, and there are some bishops out there who want to tighten the screws even further.
I personally think it was better [when the church wasn’t so vocal about these issues]. There are some issues that are better left not addressed quite so clearly, to leave a bit more room for the ambiguity of human existence and really to take seriously for all of us, not just for gay people, the need for and continuing life of grace and regeneration. We all need that. We need much more of a message of mercy and love than of proscription.
MO: What, in your experience, do LGBT Catholics seek to hear from their ecclesial leaders?
PC: What the world really needs to hear, and what we so deeply need to hear, is a message of loving mercy and inclusion, rather than judgment. The language of “objective disorder” has proved to be very problematic, to say the least. On one level, all that LGBT people in the Catholic Church are asking for is an affirmation of who they are as human beings, people whom God loves. If you say anything like this in church, people come up to you and say, ‘Thank you Father for being so courageous!’ Well, it’s not courageous, it’s just the Gospel! On another level, many are asking the Church not stand in the way of civil recognition of their love for one another in civil marriage. They love the Church but are perplexed and hurt by the language and actions of some bishops. At the very least, they are looking for a time of listening, but most seek genuine openness to and embrace of themselves and their committed love for each other.
MO: How are LGBT Catholics living their lives in the church?
PC: People are living their Catholic lives, in spite of what the church says about how to live their lives. I know several gays Catholic couples. One couple adopted two children. They attend the local Catholic church with their children, both of whom have been baptized at the parish and attend the parish school. For all of us, you never know what lies ahead, and you have to continue to live life, and be hopeful for the future. You want your students to leave your classroom in hope, and not in discouragement or despair. I have so much hope in them for the future. The church and the world need people like this. I think it’s so exciting. I see it in the younger generation, such great hope.
(Image source: http://www.scu.edu/cas/religiousstudies/facultystaff/Regular/crowley/)