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Tyler Mahoney

Tyler Mahoney

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Do Jesuit Identity and Sexual Identity Clash? On Marquette's Decision to Pre-fire Dr. Jodi O'Brien

Posted: 05/19/10 05:22 PM ET

As Marquette University senior Cathleen Bury drove by campus on a recent afternoon, she saw an image reminiscent of the 1960's. Marquette was awash with student protesters. Marquette's President Rev. Robert A. Wild had withdrawn a job offer to Dr. Jodi O'Brien to become the dean of Marquette's College of Arts and Sciences; a job offer which the Seattle University sociology professor had already accepted. When Bury learned that this job offer had possibly been rescinded because of Dr. O'Brien's lesbian sexual identity, she thought it was "outrageous and kind of scary." Bury turned to Facebook to share the story with the web.

That day, Bury became an administrator of the Facebook group "Marquette: Do Not Discriminate Against Jodi O'Brien," which had been started by Marquette freshman Jimmy Kozlowski. Bury started organizing and getting the word out about Marquette's recent actions, keeping the group's more than 2,800 members updated as to how the students were planning to respond to President Rev. Wild's actions. Bury and several others drew plans for students to gather outside Marquette's Academic Senate meeting to encourage the faculty to hold Rev. Wild accountable. Over 200 students showed up to the Academic Senate on Monday, May 10. The senate voted to reaffirm the university's commitment to the diversity statement and asked Rev. Wild to clarify his views on academic freedom, and to take responsibility for his recent decisions.

Bury is glad that students and faculty aren't standing idly by. "Students and faculty are stepping up and saying this is not how we do things, even during finals week," she said. "There is a movement to wear pink and purple to graduation" to show solidarity with Dr. O'Brien.

It was this very "stepping up" of the Marquette students that showed me, a Seattle University alum, that Rev. Wild's views do not represent Marquette as a whole. A spokesperson for Marquette was quoted in the New York Times as saying that O'Brien lacked "the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity." In the same piece, Rev. Wild said that his decision had nothing to do with Dr. O'Brien's sexual identity. Rather, he based his decision on her academic writings: "We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family," he said.

These statements came as quite a surprise to me and Dr. Ted Fortier, an anthropology professor at Seattle University who serves in Dr. O'Brien's department. Dr Fortier said his colleague "has so much respect for the Catholic mission and Jesuit identity" and has been involved in several projects that promote Jesuit identity at Seattle University that it's hard to imagine that she would be unable to fulfill Marquette's Jesuit mission. What we have here is a tension between what Catholic Mission and Jesuit Identity mean, and how they are understood differently by Seattle University and Rev. Wild.

When I first set foot on the campus of my alma mater in 2005, I knew Seattle University took its mission statement very seriously. In my first term I was required to perform 15 hours of community service for my introductory psychology class. Once a week I tutored students at Meany Middle School in Seattle's Central District. As an upper class white male from Alaska, this was the first time I encountered poverty and the pain God's poor constantly suffer through. The Jesuits were introducing me to the words of their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola: "I want to overcome all diseases, all poverty, all ignorance, all oppression and slavery--in short all the evils which beset humankind." They'd got me to help in their mission to work not for myself, but, like their motto says, "for the greater glory of God."

So what does the administration at Marquette mean when they say Dr. O'Brien lacks "the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity"? Is she unable to work for the greater glory of God because of Rev. Wild's estimation of her views on family? Dr. Daniel Maguire, a long-time theology professor at Marquette University, wrote a scathing open letter to Rev. Wild and the Marquette administration. I interviewed Dr. Maguire, whose disappointment was palpable.

"I criticize the theology department; the administration made their case (against Dr. O'Brien) with Catholic teaching without consulting the theological experts on campus," said Maguire. He says these theological experts "have sat on their hands." Maguire explained that Marquette's administration has performed an "anti-Catholic action" and that "Catholicism has room for moral pluralism on issues of same-sex relationships." Why then has Marquette withdrawn Dr. O'Brien's job offer? Maguire said that "the Church and the administration is fixated on pelvic zone orthodoxy rather than social justice and peace." Under the guise of protecting "family values," Rev. Wild is subverting the core aspects of the Jesuit mission, which is to love thy neighbor and promote social justice for the greater glory of God, not to discriminate against already-oppressed minorities.

Therein lies the issue. Dr. O'Brien's views on social justice and her commitment to Jesuit identity were glossed over because of "some strongly negative statements about marriage and family," which Dr. Fortier sees as an attempt by the Marquette administration to paint Dr. O'Brien as "a radical lesbian scholar who attacks Catholic teaching when she is not." This brings up the wider problem of academic freedom within Catholic Universities. Dr. Fortier says that it sends a message to the faculty of Marquette that "everyone has to obey Catholic teaching to be in line with the administration," which he says is just pushing Catholic universities toward "getting to be like Oral Roberts," a conservative evangelical college in Oklahoma. What message does Rev. Wild's decision send to scholars whose work doesn't line up with his views on Catholic teaching? Should they be fearing for their academic careers?

If Marquette is choosing to dump Dr. O'Brien over her supposedly strongly negative views over family, the administration should be more consistent with how it interprets Catholic teaching. For instance, maybe the Marquette administration could create a litmus test for all the economics professors they hire to see if they affirm the preferential option for the poor, a very important part of Catholic teaching. If they don't, they should fire them!

Ultimately, I agree with Dr. Fortier when he says this is "a breach of civil rights and academic freedom." Rev. Wild should call upon his own tradition, regardless of whether he agrees with Dr. O'Brien, and look back to the founder of his order. Boston University professor Dana L. Robert wrote in her book Christian Mission; How Christianity Became a World Religion that the success of the early Jesuit missions of the 16th and 17th centuries was due to the Jesuit order's ability to collaborate with the cultures they encountered and not destroy them. Robert explains that when the Pope sent two Jesuit missionaries to Ireland in 1542, Ignatius ordered them to adapt to Irish customs to better engage the culture. Rev. Wild, I pray that you can adapt to 21st century customs.

I pray for reconciliation and forgiveness of this insult toward Dr. O'Brien, a talented academic who is more than qualified for the position of dean. This could be a great moment in the history of Catholic education if Rev. Wild can be humble enough ask for forgiveness and re-extend Dr. O'Brien's job offer. I have hope, but maybe Jesuit educators have trained students like Cathleen Bury and myself too well. We really do want to end "all oppression" and "all ignorance." There is a chance for reconciliation, but there is also the risk of further entrenchment of divisive perspectives on the Jesuit mission.