Thursday, August 27, 2015

St. Mary's (Portland) controversy reflects tensions nationwide within Roman Catholic church

Melissa Binder
The Oregonian
August 27, 2015

St. Mary's Academy had it coming.

The downtown Portland school teaches young women to value social justice and have a voice, so students and alumni were not surprised by the outcry this week at news President Christina Friedhoff rescinded an offer to a job applicant after learning she intended to marry her girlfriend.

"We're taught to be women who follow our hearts, who don't back down easily, who protect each other fiercely," said Charlotte Karlsen, a 17-year-old senior who started a Facebook page and used the #FightForSMA hashtag to organize her peers.

But while St. Mary's is a unique place, with a unique group of students and alumni, the controversy isn't confined to one Portland school. Instead, the philosophical clash between administrators and others in the St. Mary's community highlights the widening gap between Catholic leaders and the social values of the young people they educate.

"There's a temptation to say, 'Oh, it's a Portland thing,' but it's not," said David Roy, whose daughter starts her first year at St. Mary's next week. "It's a generational thing."

St. Mary's families learned in a Tuesday night email from Friedhoff that the school had rescinded an offer to make Lauren Brown an academic advisor. (Brown maintains the decision came when they learned she was gay, not planning marriage.)

Students and alumnae responded in force, decrying the choice on social media. Less than 24 hours after news of the decision broke, the school's board voted to expand its hiring policy to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

That vote came despite strong and vocal objections to same-sex marriage among leaders of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, which does not oversee St. Mary's but does have the power to strip the school of its Catholic affiliation.

St. Mary's students and alums say their response to Brown's treatment was exactly what the school has taught them.

"They encouraged us to take kindness and a strong belief in what you think is right wherever you go," said alumna Dahlia Bazazz, editor of the University of Oregon's student newspaper.

St. Mary's is not the first Catholic institution to face this challenge, nor will it be the last. Support for same-sex marriage has risen dramatically in the last decade, particularly among millennials. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of people born after 1980 support same-sex marriage.

Catholic teachings have not changed in that time. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sexual acts are sacred and meant for both procreative and loving purposes, said Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos, director of the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University.

St. Mary’s Academy held meetings for students and parents the morning after a decision a was made to reverse the school’s policy on gay hiring. The Oregonian/OregonLive asked them about their response to the controversial change.

Any sexual act outside a marriage between a man and a woman is considered a perversion of that meant-to-be-sacred act, she said.

The gap between young people and Roman Catholic doctrine is not the only tension at play.

"There is this tension between teachings on sexuality and the more fundamental teaching on God's love and mercy and Jesus's teaching on the inclusion of those who are excluded," said Punsalan-Manlimos.

That seeming disconnect was reflected in the language of angry St. Mary's students Wednesday:

"In class we read the gospel like a book of love," said Hannah Argento-McCurdy, a 17-year-old senior. "These are not actions of love."

While religious exemptions in U.S. law make it legal for faith-based organizations to align hiring practices with religious doctrine – in this case, to not hire people who are gay – but doing so isn't necessarily moral, Punsalan-Manlimos said.

"The law is fairly clear, but that doesn't answer the more difficult moral question of whether these actions are reflective of what it means to be Christian," she said.

St. Mary's is not simply one in a series of dominos to tip in the same direction. Other schools have faced similar circumstances and chosen a different path. This summer, administrators at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York, opted to stand behind a theology professor who married his same-sex partner. Georgetown University has a thriving LGBT Resource Center.

But at the University of San Francisco, another Jesuit school, a tweet celebrating the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling was quickly deleted by campus leaders. At Eastside Catholic University outside Seattle, a vice president was fired for marrying his partner and went on to sue the school.

In downtown Portland, it's unclear whether St. Mary's will face any consequences for stepping outside institutional doctrine. Archbishop Alexander Sample does technically have the power to strip the school of its Catholic affiliation, said archdiocese spokesperson David Renshaw, but has not indicated he intends to do so.

The diocese hopes to start an "open dialogue" with the school about its policy change, Renshaw said.

For now, the statue outside St. Mary's has shed rainbow heart glasses and protest hoodie students added Wednesday morning. The statue, a nun who represents the founders of the school, simply has flowers tucked into her metal habit and hands.

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