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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Faithful to the Mission? An Open Letter to the President of St. John’s University

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Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., 18th President of St. John's University Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., 18th President of St. John's University

At the end of April, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., the new president of St. John’s University—an ostensibly Catholic institution—sent the following email to faculty and staff, under the subject line “LGBTQ+ Climate Assessment”:

Earlier this semester the Office of Equity and Inclusion engaged the Transgender Training Institute to conduct an LGBTQ+ climate assessment. As I read the survey results, I was disheartened to learn about the many negative experiences of our LGBTQ+ students, employees, and alumni: a lack of support, neglect, ignorance, bias, and prejudice. As the report indicates, our non-binary and transgender members have experienced acute distress, and the lack of BIPOC participants leaves gaps in our knowledge of the oppression experienced by those who hold multiple minoritized social identities. It is clear, both from the climate survey and my own observations, that much work needs to be done to transform St. John’s into a place that is equitable and inclusive for LGBTQ+ people.

As the new president of St. John’s, I want everyone to know that I embrace the LGBTQ+ members of our community and that I am committed to leadership that will help to create a climate that realizes our mission to love and respect every individual as made in the image and likeness of God. Our LGBTQ+ members have enriched our community in many ways. We are grateful for the contributions you have made to shape St. John’s for generations, nearly always without proper recognition and at great personal risk. We must all work together to create a campus that is more inclusive, respectful, affirming, and loving…

Part of this work will be breaking the culture of silence described in the survey. While we were the first university to sign onto “God Is On Your Side: A Statement from Catholic Bishops on Protecting LGBT Youth,” it is clear from the report that we are failing to communicate love and acceptance in ways that appropriately counteract decades of very different messages, and that are meaningful to our community. I have learned that this culture of silence extends beyond affirmation of LGBTQ+ community members, and it is a culture I am actively working to disrupt. Some of the tenets of Catholic moral teaching create challenges for making LGBTQ+ people feel fully included and embraced…

As publisher of a 54-year-old Catholic newspaper, I’m perplexed by the mixed messaging coming from the head of this prestigious Catholic institution. And if I’m perplexed, as a lifelong practicing Catholic, I can only imagine how it must be for the LGBTQ+ community. It would seem that Father Shanley is either being deceptive to the LGBTQ+ community, or he has taken it upon himself to dispense with certain infallibly defined moral teachings of the Catholic Church in order to appear more politically correct. 

Having no obvious way of determining which it is, I have written the following open letter to Father Shanley in the hope of receiving clarification.

Michael Matt's Open Letter to President of St. John's University

Dear Father Shanley:

As president of a Catholic university, surely you accept the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings as binding and true. So, when you lament the fact that “tenets of Catholic moral teaching create challenges” for LGBTQ+ people, several obvious questions present themselves:

  • Do you as a Catholic priest believe that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?
  • Do you as a Catholic priest believe that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?
  • Do you as a Catholic priest believe that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?
  • Do you as a Catholic priest believe that homosexual acts can “under no circumstances be approved,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?

If you answered in the negative to any of the above questions, then is it not incumbent upon you to resign your position in protest against what you would naturally regard as a homophobic Church?

If, on the other hand, you answered in the affirmative to any of the above questions, how is it anything other than a violation of Christian charity not to share this vital information with the LGBTQ+ community at St. John’s University?

In the Catholic schools of our childhood, we were taught to keep all the Commandments of God and the precepts of His Church. Is this no longer necessary at St. John’s University when it comes to homosexual acts? If not, why not? What has changed?  

Do practicing Catholics everywhere not deserve pastoral clarification on this matter, given that the laws against homosexual acts have never been rescinded and are still very much on the books and catechism that Pope John Paul II himself authoritatively promulgated?

On the books, Catholics are taught that the infallible doctrines of Faith and Morals can only be questioned in peril of the soul. Yet you seem to be suggesting that the opposite is true, that inasmuch as such doctrines “challenge” inclusivity and tolerance at your university, they more or less should be questioned.

Well, which is it?

In the Catholic schools of our childhood, we were taught to keep all the Commandments of God and the precepts of His Church. Is this no longer necessary at St. John’s University when it comes to homosexual acts? If not, why not? What has changed?  

As children in Catholic school, we were told to prepare to die rather than commit “mortal sins” which remove God’s life from the soul. Is this no longer the case at St. John’s University? If not, why not? What has changed?

Some of these offenses against God and nature, categorized as peccata clamantia, were considered so egregious in the eyes of God as to cry to Heaven for vengeance.  We were made to understand by priests, nuns, parents, popes, and catechisms that the “sin of the Sodomites” was, in fact, one of these. Is this no longer the case at St. John’s University?

Today, as your directive makes clear, that same sin has lost its social and moral stigma. So, which Catholic Church are we to follow, yesterday’s or today’s?   How can a sin which “cried to heaven for vengeance” yesterday—which was condemned by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica as "the unnatural vice” and the “greatest of the sins of lust”—today be regarded as no sin at all? 

My questions are rooted not in idle curiosity but rather in fear of a gradual erosion of belief within individuals and throughout the whole Church if clarity is not achieved.  

And if the most grievous of yesterday’s sins can become non-sins today, then ultimately what happens to the very idea of sin, the Ten Commandments, the theology of heaven and hell, the particular and general judgments? If there is no sin, then what is the point of practicing virtue or frequenting the Sacraments? If there is no sin, what’s the point of the Church?

My questions are rooted not in idle curiosity but rather in fear of a gradual erosion of belief within individuals and throughout the whole Church if clarity is not achieved.  

My questions are also asked for the benefit of the LGBTQ+ community.  Because we are all sinners, and we must all know what the Church teaches and what it is that, before God, we must believe in order to save our souls.

I seek neither to judge nor condemn anyone, especially those who struggle with an inclination to this sin that yesterday “cried to Heaven for vengeance” and today is merely another “lifestyle” to be, as you put it, embraced. Missing from your directive is any pastoral encouragement that the practitioners of the gay lifestyle should guard against that which, according to Scripture and the teaching of your own Church, leads to the everlasting damnation of the soul. 

With all due respect, I blame you for failing to tell them what the Church teaches.  Herein lies the problem: the ecclesia discens is divided and confused because the ecclesia docens is silent or, worse, accommodating in the name of ill-defined buzzwords such as “tolerance” and “inclusivity”. 

Instead, you advocate that we embrace them, and I agree that we must love the sinner. But does this include an admonishment that they repent? If so, I must tell you that I see no admonishment in your words, and I wonder how hiding from them what the Church teaches does not violate Christian charity.  

I don’t blame them, Father. With all due respect, I blame you for failing to tell them what the Church teaches.  Herein lies the problem: the ecclesia discens is divided and confused because the ecclesia docens is silent or, worse, accommodating in the name of ill-defined buzzwords such as “tolerance” and “inclusivity”. 

Father Shanley, surely you sympathize with my quest for clarification when it was in yesterday’s Catholic schools that I was educated in these points of Catholic moral teaching—moral teaching which, again, has never been rescinded. Can you not recognize the urgent need to either publicize the Church’s dogmatic prohibition of homosexual acts, or announce to the world that the Church no longer accepts the teachings of her own popes and catechisms?  

Your call for charity is laudable but without clarity on what the Church actually teaches on the moral question of homosexual acts, it is also counterintuitive in that it fails to address the root cause of why some Catholics  take a dim view of other Catholics flagrantly violating the moral law of the Church. So, the question is: Does the Church’s moral law still apply at St. John's or not?  

And I stress acts—not inclination—with purpose and foresight, since I quite agree that those struggling with same-sex attraction must be given the same pastoral care and loving catechetical instruction that all sinners have come to expect from a Church made unique by her Confessionals as well as her Altars.

If, as we were taught in Catholic school, unrepented homosexual intercourse—not the mere inclination, mind, but the act itself—leads to everlasting damnation, then how can it be pastoral, merciful, or charitable to withhold that teaching from those thus inclined?

To cut to the chase, does St. John’s University’s president hold that a Church which endeavors to charitably admonish the sinner is a Church wanting in tolerance and inclusivity?  How can a Spiritual Work of Mercy -- to Admonish the Sinner -- fail in inclusivity and tolerance?

This is illogical on its face, and perhaps analogous to the man obsessed with hugging a child caught in the tracks rather than attempting to remove her from the path of the oncoming train. Without an attempt to carry the child out of harm’s way, compassionate hugging—or accompaniment—is not only futile but criminally negligent.

Where heretofore Mother Church did not hesitate to rescue her children, today her ministers seem to prefer accompanying them.  But to where?  Is it your position that fraternal correction, the Spiritual Work of Mercy -- to Admonish the Sinner --  has become a violation of St. John's diversity policy? 

To cut to the chase, does St. John’s University’s president hold that a Church which endeavors to charitably admonish the sinner is a Church wanting in tolerance and inclusivity?  

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Was Pope John Paul II failing in inclusivity and tolerance when in his 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, he warned that even the inclination to homosexuality is an “objective disorder” since the act itself is an “intrinsic moral evil”:   “Therefore, special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”

Was Pope Leo XI lacking in due inclusivity and tolerance when in answer to St. Peter Damian’s plea to the Holy Father to “take action against clerics immersed in the grievous moral perversion of sodomy”, he replied with a promise of papal action rooted in urgent concern for the salvation of souls: “Let it be certain and evident to all that we are in agreement with everything your book contains, opposed as it is like water to the fire of the devil. Lest the wantonness of this foul impurity be allowed to spread unpunished, it must be repelled by proper repressive action of apostolic severity.”

Would you, Father Shanley, agree that unrepentant practitioners of same-sex intercourse in the LGBTQ+ community today will also “never possess the kingdom of God”?  If you do agree, then does not mercy itself command you to lovingly tell them so?

Jealously safeguarding the salvation and everlasting happiness of poor sinners, the authors of the Catechism of the Council of Trent write that "neither fornicators nor adulterers, nor the effeminate nor sodomites shall possess the kingdom of God.” 

Would you, Father Shanley, agree that unrepentant practitioners of same-sex intercourse in the LGBTQ+ community today will also “never possess the kingdom of God”?  If you do agree, then does not mercy itself command you to lovingly tell them so?

And if you do not agree with the dogmatic councils of the Catholic Church on this question, how can you continue to serve as president of a Catholic university?

Help me understand how a refusal to share the truth of what the Church teaches does not constitute an injustice to the LBGTQ+ community. Do they not deserve to hear the truth?  

Must even the inspired Word of God Himself be kept from them in the name of inclusiveness and tolerance: “Men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy... Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them.” (Romans 1: 27, 32)

In the name of “toleration” and “inclusivity” will the president of St. John’s University silence even Saint Paul himself? and must faithful Catholics at your university become party to the deception by pretending Scripture’s condemnation of this “grave depravity” is of no consequence?  

The people of God have a right to know the truth: Do you, Father Shanley, uphold as binding and true, the Catholic Church’s constant and authoritative teaching—based on the laws of God and Nature—that homosexual acts are immoral, unnatural and can never be justified? Yes, or no!

Again, the teaching of the Catholic Church on this question has not changed: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”  [CCC, Number 2357]

Again, I believe we all have the right to know, including and especially those inside the LGBTQ+ community:

  • Does St. John’s University still hold that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?
  • Does the University accept that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?
  • Does the University believe that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?
  • Does the University hold that homosexual acts can “under no circumstances be approved,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches?

The people of God have a right to know the truth: Do you, Father Shanley, uphold as binding and true, the Catholic Church’s constant and authoritative teaching—based on the laws of God and Nature—that homosexual acts are immoral, unnatural and can never be justified? Yes, or no!

All men and women on earth—but especially the LGBTQ+ community—have a right before God to know the truth.  They await your answer, as do all Catholics at St. John’s University and beyond.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your reply.

In Christo Rege,

Michael J. Matt
Editor, The Remnant

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Last modified on Thursday, May 6, 2021
Michael J. Matt | Editor

Michael J. Matt has been an editor of The Remnant since 1990. Since 1994, he has been the newspaper's editor. A graduate of Christendom College, Michael Matt has written hundreds of articles on the state of the Church and the modern world. He is the host of The Remnant Underground and Remnant TV's The Remnant Forum. He's been U.S. Coordinator for Notre Dame de Chrétienté in Paris--the organization responsible for the Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres, France--since 2000.  Mr. Matt has led the U.S. contingent on the Pilgrimage to Chartres for the last 24 years. He is a lecturer for the Roman Forum's Summer Symposium in Gardone Riviera, Italy. He is the author of Christian Fables, Legends of Christmas and Gods of Wasteland (Fifty Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and regularly delivers addresses and conferences to Catholic groups about the Mass, home-schooling, and the culture question. Together with his wife, Carol Lynn and their seven children, Mr. Matt currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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