More irritation


We have another irritating decision affecting religious groups in this country. This one is different from the Obama White House mistake in pushing a mandate for contraception insurance onto Catholic-affiliated service agencies. This time a college is pushed into a corner where it feels it has to dictate the operation of campus ministries.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville prohibits campus ministry organizations from having a religious test for their leaders. The school, like many, requires that all recognized student organizations be fully open to all students. That isn’t the problem. A new policy is. It says the leadership must also be open to all members.
The Catholic ministry on campus, Vanderbilt Catholic, won’t comply. Instead, it will work as an unofficial off-campus ministry. A few other groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, also oppose the policy.
Presumably, the sponsors of any campus ministry would select leadership that reflects their faith and mission. It can also be assumed that the general membership would reflect that faith and mission, so the finding of leadership that fits its purpose shouldn’t be a problem. It can be, though.
Sometimes a lottery is used to spread leadership opportunity and responsibility in voluntary organizations. Think parish councils in many places. Any volunteers can have their names placed in the lottery and all have an equal chance to be picked. If no one has the authority to reject a volunteer for noncompliance with the group’s spirit and goals, the organization is forced to allow its own subversion.
As an extreme example, imagine a Muslim student joining a Jewish student group for the purpose of mischief, or vice versa.
Why did Vanderbilt adopt such a policy? The university administration acted after a Christian fraternity expelled a homosexual member. The protest of that action led to strict interpretation of a 2010 Supreme Court decision on campus discrimination.
That decision, Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez, also involved action by a campus Christian group against homosexuals. The Christian Legal Society of Hastings College of Law in California challenged the college rule that said they could not restrict membership in any way. The society said its barring of gay students was only based on their presumed behavior, on their unapproved conduct, not on their status as homosexuals.
The Supreme Court ruled that this distinction between status and behavior could not be used as an enforceable rule. Schools would have to conduct deeply invasive probes of each organization’s exclusionary rules in practice to see whether they “cloaked prohibited status exclusion in belief-based garb.” In other words, where is the real difference between rejecting a gay person because of his membership in a group or his, presumed, behavior?
The Court’s conservative quartet, Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas, dissented. They agreed that a nondiscrimination policy would not allow rejection of members based on their status, but it could accept discrimination on the basis of belief or behavior.
When Vanderbilt was challenged, it fixed its policy on student organizations to follow the majority ruling. It had little choice if the school wanted to avoid a long and costly legal battle over an issue not central to its educational purpose.
We don’t know all of what went into the decision by Vanderbilt Catholic, the student ministry group, to leave the campus and become an unofficial organization. But one unfortunate implication is that fear of homosexuals in membership and leadership was involved. That sends the wrong message about Catholic belief.
We know that every human being is oriented toward relationships of love: this is crucial to our understanding that we are made in the image of God. We are certain that every person has equal dignity in the eyes of God and is equally worthy of respect.
We are also certain that friendship open to appropriate human intimacy is part of God’s plan. Many people in the pews are not as certain that we know how to value sexual behavior not oriented toward reproduction. Our Church teaches that homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law. But the Church also teaches respect, compassion and sensitivity toward homosexual individuals.
We do not reject homosexual people engaging in any part of the Catholic faith adventure.
Frank Wessling

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  1. (This Letter appeared in THE VANDERBILT HUSTLER, the student newpaper, on March 30)

    Fellow Vanderbilt Students,
    As you probably know, there has been much debate recently about Vanderbilt’s non-discrimination policy, which prohibits student groups from having faith-based qualifications for leadership. Under this policy, registered student organizations (RSOs) are required to have their Constitution approved by Vanderbilt and sign an affirmation form saying they are in compliance with this non-discrimination policy. As Vanderbilt+Catholic’s leadership board, we would like to briefly explain why we have made the decision not to be a RSO next year and why we have been left with no other option. Our decision to be a non-registered student group next year is not one that we made lightly. However, after many hours of prayer and discussion, it has become clear that to sign this affirmation form, we would have to either lie to the university or compromise our integrity as an authentically Catholic group. Neither of these are things that we can do in good conscience.
    Faith-based qualifications for leadership in Vanderbilt+Catholic are fundamental to our identity as a Catholic organization. As Catholics we believe that faith in Jesus Christ and the truths that He has revealed to us through the Catholic Church are fundamental to our identity as Catholics and our mission in this life. Likewise, as a Catholic student organization, Catholic faith and practice precede all else that we do. We are an open and welcoming community that people of all faiths can join, but we require our leaders to share this Catholic faith and practice. A student group led by those who do not share these things might be a very worthwhile and beneficial organization, but it would not be Catholic in the fullest sense of the word. These faith-based requirements for leadership are as important to the integrity of our organization as musical range is for a choral group.
    Although it is true that we are a Vanderbilt organization, we are even more so a Catholic organization. When Catholic students come to Vanderbilt, they have a right to know that its Catholic group is in fact Catholic. They have a right to know that it truly is a group that supports the mission of the Church, and a place in which they can grow in their Catholic faith.
    However, an important question to ask, and one that we discussed at great length, is “why can’t we just leave it to those who select our future leadership to use their own individual beliefs about what should be required of our leaders?” If we did this, it is true that we could ensure that future leadership would most likely be practicing Catholics. However, we are not an organization made up of people who all just happen to be Catholic. We are a Catholic organization. We are Catholic not just as individuals, but as a group, so just as we declare ourselves individually to be Catholic, we must declare ourselves collectively to be Catholic. And part of what this involves is requiring those who lead us and serve as our representatives on campus really believe the faith they are representing.
    The Constitution that we would submit and the affirmation form we would have to sign to remain a RSO are more than just pieces of paperwork. They are statements of who we are as an organization. So, to sign this affirmation form would be to say that we really don’t have faith-based qualifications for leadership. It would be to lie to the university and to ourselves about who we are.
    At least for next year, we will not be a registered student organization, but we still intend to strive towards our mission of proposing Jesus Christ and forming his disciples here at Vanderbilt. We are not sure exactly what that will look like for us as a non-registered student organization, but we are looking forward to working with the administration in order to stay as active as we can on campus. We still welcome all students to any of our events, and we hope that those who come will continue to find these events and this community to be authentically Catholic.

    —The Vanderbilt+Catholic Board:
    PJ Jedlovec, President
    Max Jones, Vice President
    Cara Welker, Internal Secretary
    Katy Biddle, External Secretary
    Maddie Gray, Treasurer

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