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Marquette Univeristy Withdraws job offer to Lesbian Dean Candidate: Controversy erupts

mattwion's picture

From the moment that Marquette University president Father Wilde's decision to rescind a job offer for Dean of College of arts and letters made to Jodi O'Brien went public, Marquette has erupted in ideological warfare

There are those, well-represented in my philosophy department, who immediately decided that Dr. O'Brien was discriminated against because of her sexual orientation (O'Brien is an out lesbian), and on the basis of that began at once to write letters, make phone calls and engage in public protests. Fair enough. The anger over this recension is quite understandable. To be quite clear, I agree that the recension of the job offer to Dr. O'Brien was, without qualification, deeply unjust. Protests are a good way of fighting this unjust decision.

Then there are those who represent, in their mind at least, "traditional catholic values." This Group has blogged, and written letters supporting Father Wild (Some had called for his immediate resignation) and expressing their concern that the "protesters" do not value catholic mission and christian identity. At its worst some members of this group are just plain homophobic and using the banner of their faith to legitimize their bigotry. Just see former Marquette Prof. Chris Wolfe's rather vile Op-ed on the subject

For detailed expression of the views and arguments of both sides, I refer my readers to Bento, at the Word Warrior and John McAdams over at Marquette Warrior. Among the issues disputed are (1) was Jodi O'Brien truly the best candidate or a "diversity" hire? (2) was the offered rescinded because of her sexual orientation or because of certain themes in her scholarly work? And (3) is it appropriate for a private Catholic University to hire or not hire for administrative positions based on Catholic teachings on human sexuality, and (4) did forces outside the University pressure Father Wilde into rescinding the offer.

Here, for what it is worth, is my analysis:

We now know the answer to (4). The Archbishop of Milwaukee did ask Wilde to rescind the job offer. He has admitted as much. Another claim, widely circulated among the student body - and originally speculated by the leaders of the protest groups - that wealthy conservative donors threatened to take their money away if O'Brien was hired has not been substantiated and remains mere speculation.

As to (1), I am no expert in who would count as the best candidate. From what I can tell Dr. O'Brien was qualified. Some have argued that her scholarly work wast not as good as other candidates. I do not have the expertise to examine such claims. I see no reason, however, to suspect the search committee failed to do their job. Some of the voices questioning O'Brien's scholarly ability seem to have an issue with what she writes about, that is mere bias, and irrelevant to her actual accomplishments. Furthermore, it is standard procedure for someone like Father Wilde to trust the judgment of his search committee. The claim by some, most notably John McAdams, that O'Brien was a "diversity" hire is nothing more than an ideologically motivated speculation.

Looking at (2). I firmly believe that Father Wilde did not rescind the offer because of sexual orientation. The recension was indeed based on passages in O'Brien's work. I do not think Father Wilde is a "nasty homophobe." This is, of course, merely my impression of the man, but there it is for what it is worth. Of The Archbishop's motives, I could only guess. Guessing is not helpful here, so I won't. On a side note, I think some of the criticism of Father Wilde and demands for his immediate resignation seem to me too extreme. He must indeed answer for his actions, but must he be vilified? Is that fair? Was he "caving to bigotry"? Or honestly doing what he thought best for Marquette - though, I stress that his actions were actually what is worst for Marquette!

Number (3) is the most difficult to address. There is certainly nothing wrong with a catholic college hiring in accordance with a catholic mission. Would O'Brien's hire really go against catholic mission? That is a highly charged theological query, which is beyond the space of this post. I will note however that catholic clergy, laity, and theologians are quite divided here. This makes the matter very difficult to assess from a catholic perspective. The present Catholic Church is in a state of slow and painful transition on matters of human sexuality.

Speaking as a non-catholic Christian, I will say that I do not personally believe homosexuality to be a sin or any kind of wrong-doing. I see neither same-sex marriage nor other aspects of the work O'Brien has written on to conflict with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Message of Jesus is to feed the hungry, heal the afflicted, forgive our fellows, soothe the brokenhearted, and champion the oppressed and down-trodden. Issues of human sexuality are, it seems clear to me, outside of that Gospel.

In short, I side with the protesters in thinking that Dr. O'Brien, once picked by the search committee and offered the job, should have been hired with no fuss (and by the way, many of those concerned with "Catholic mission" agree on this point as well, they are not all opposed to Dr. O'Brien). I think also that the voice of the Archbishop should not have prevailed on Father Wilde.

But I want to make a plea to those who share my view that Dr. O'Brien was deeply wronged.

Several faculty members have voiced their concern that Catholic mission and Christian identity is being brushed aside in favor of political correctness. I do not claim that this assertion is true. I do not know enough about the inside players to enter that dispute.

I am concerned, however, that anyone who writes in favor of Catholic mission, or against some of the tactics of those protesting the rescinding of O'Brien's offer are dubbed by a few parties as "homophobes" who are peddling "the traditional catholic agenda." Some have seen these faculty members as mere "bigots." In certain cases that is probably true.

But I cannot and do not believe that all of those writing about their concern for catholic values and catholic mission are raging homophobic bigots. And I do not think we gain much from writing them off as such.

There is a deep divide at Marquette. There are those committed to Catholic faith, or at least Christian faith broadly construed, who see that faith threatened by groups pushing a secular agenda on campus. This may very well be a false perception on their part, but they do feel this and it is worth trying to figure out why they do. Even if totally wrong, and they may be, their concerns come from somewhere, and not all people with such concerns are mere "bigots."

Like it or not, Marquette University is a Catholic Institution and Catholic identity is a factor that should be central in University life. This does not, of course, mean Marquette must slavishly enforce Rome's theology, but it does mean that the concerns of certain parties regarding what they perceive as the down-playing of catholic mission can be take seriously, can be listened to and dialogued with.

Simply staging walks outs and shouting in megaphones is not always as effective as dialogue, listening, and open struggling with conflicting positions.

I must ask my friends protesting what they are trying to accomplish. Are they hoping to take the university forward? Are they hoping to bring about positive transformation? Do they think their tactics will accomplish this? Is nothing to be gained from an attempt at dialogue with those who value "catholic mission"?

Real progress, real transformation, these are what we should work toward.

Written by Mat Wion


Submitted by Owen Goldin (not verified) on
I would add two points to your fine analysis. 1) The question of what is core to Catholic theology is one that Catholics need to decide. I, you, and Dr. O'Brien really need to stay out of it. Suppose that, internally, the Church decides that traditional teachings concerning family are stable and central to Catholic ethics. Suppose that we find such teachings ethically reprehensible. Then we should leave the university. A parallel situation: for a while the Mormon church had a racist theology. Were I on the job market then, I would not be able to teach at Brigham Young in good conscience. But why should a Jew be the one to say what is authentic LDS teaching? 2) I think that if MU had offered the position to a gay activist arguing for his position from within the Cathiolic intellectual tradition -- someone like Mark Jordan -- this would have been a courageous move, and I'd be out there with the protesters if the appointment were rescinded. But MU has been moving away from being grounded in this tradition (one I honor and learn from). The O'Brien appointment was double pronged stick in both of the eyes of MU's Catholic identity -- its historical intellectual tradition, and Catholic teachings. Her scholarship represents that of nontheistic mainstream scholarship in the humanities -- where values are human creations, grounded neither in nature nor the Divine. And it takes her places where she attacks teachings apparently central to the church -- such as the natural basis of the family. Her appointment as dean was the reductio ad absurdum of the idea that scholarship at MU should be indistinguishable from that at secular universities. The most public face of Arts and Sciences would have been one whose scholarship encourages Catholics to invent their own sexual identity and accept fluid family arrangements for children. I suggest that MU find a wealthy donor to allow it to offer her an endowed chair for a couple hundred thousand a year, and then find a traditional Catholic intellectual as dean. Such a move could bring everyone together and heal the damage. Owen Goldin Dept. of Philosophy Marquette University

Submitted by Matt Wion (not verified) on
Thank you very much for your comment Dr. Goldin! I am honored that you read my post on this matter and I deeply appreciate your comment. I think you are a perfect example of those who respect Marquette's Catholic Identity and mission that I had in mind. Dialogue is key on this matter. Thank you again!

Submitted by Marquette Senior (not verified) on
Hi Matt, As a senior at Marquette who is admittedly a part of that "traditional Catholic" block, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your post as a breath of fresh air! It's nice to know that there are people who disagree with my view point who do not throw my intellect in the garbage and call me a bigot. If people are curious why this issue hasn't been discussed in such a way on campus before now, perhaps de facto silencing of the opposing view point would be a good place to start. What student in their right mind would counter protest these fellow students? Who would post what they actually think as their facebook status? The answer is sadly very few, because to do so is to be labeled as an anti-gay bigot, a student in lock-step with McAdams, and a blind follower of an "intolerant" religion, even if that religion speaks to the very core of who they are. So sometimes it's better to just fade into the background than to stick up for what you think. And to think, this kind of fear of, are we allowed to call it discrimination?, is prevalent and unchecked at an institution of higher learning. How sad. I agree though, you can't blame a Catholic University for being authentically Catholic. If the Catholic Church has botched what it means to be Catholic (namely, to dehumanize the homosexual), then let's fix that first. Let's talk about the Church's teaching as it relates to accepted Truth, dogma, philosophy and see if the practical application of those concepts makes any sense for our homosexual brothers and sisters. But we have to have that conversation before we accuse Marquette of defying the Church's teaching, because as it stands, it is only sticking up for it. And if that is what these protests are about, then we need to be honest about that. Because I think it is general consensus at this point that this decision was not about Jodie O'Brien's sexuality, but her work, or perhaps some other matter that we don't know. Either way, these protests need to define themselves, because some are still about her sexual orientation, some are about academic freedom, others still are about the Church's position on homosexuals, and still others about some other issue. And it's not fair to protest a laundry list of issues in the name of Jodie O'Brien if the protest is not about Jodie O'Brien. But the problem with all of this is, and in my mind the saddest part about this, is these conversations will never take place in the current campus atmosphere. It can't, when fear of labels silences the traditional Catholic voice and when groups of students who suggest they are speaking on behalf of all students, declare that the time for listening is over. Nothing could be more destructive towards building a campus that embraces Catholicism, the LGBT community, and the value of all the various beliefs of all members of our community.

Submitted by Greg (not verified) on
This is a pathetic article! This masturbatory article is meant to tickle the minds of those with twisted morals, who think that they are entitled to scream immorality within the walls of Christendom without limit. It is narcissism par excellance! The fact that you and those like you won't go start your own lesbian religion proves the sinister motives behind all you do. You are like termites destroying the cultural and social infrastructure of society. Saying that O'Brien's prior institution was Jesuit is joke, just because Seattle U was founded by the order means nothing, it is anything BUT, a Catholic school now which you zealots of the religion of liberalism know well. Here is some more food for thought... Dr / Fr. Don Felix Sarda Y Salvany Liberalism is the root of heresy, the tree of evil in whose branches all the harpies of infidelity find ample shelter; it is today the evil of all evils. (Ch. 4). "The theater, literature, public and private morals are all saturated with obscenity and impurity. The result is inevitable; a corrupt generation necessarily begets a revolutionary generation. Liberalism is the program of naturalism. Free-thought begets free morals, or immorality. Restraint is thrown off and a free rein given to the passions. Whoever thinks what he pleases will do what he pleases. Liberalism in the intellectual order is license in the moral order. Disorder in the intellect begets disorder in the heart, and vice-versa. Thus does Liberalism propagate immorality, and immorality Liberalism." (Ch. 26). Liberalism "is, therefore, the radical and universal denial of all divine truth and Christian dogma, the primal type of all heresy, and the supreme rebellion against the authority of God and His Catholic Church. As with Lucifer, its maxim is, 'I will not serve.'" (Ch. 3). "Liberalism, whether in the doctrinal or practical order, is a sin. In the doctrinal order, it is heresy, and consequently a mortal sin against faith. In the practical order, it is a sin against the commandments of God and of the Church, for it virtually transgresses all commandments. To be more precise: in the doctrinal order, Liberalism strikes at the very foundations of faith; it is heresy radical and universal, because within it are comprehended all heresies. In the practical order it is a radical and universal infraction of the divine law, since it sanctions and authorizes all infractions of that law." (Ch. 3). I will pray for you that you return to sanity and the Catholic Church. Good day.

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