In 1990 Pope John Paul II, troubled over the decline of traditional religious views on Catholic campuses, published Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an apostolic constitution that aimed to define and reestablish the identity and mission of Catholic institutions of higher learning.
Among the document’s many provisions was a call for Catholic universities to foster “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.”
Most Catholics would probably tell you it was a fine idea... that never materialized. In fact, three decades later, it’s safe to say the opposite happened: Catholic institutions of higher learning largely shed traditional Church teachings in their new embrace of the social justice creed.
“Rather than embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful, many of the schools have adopted the politically correct fads of secular universities,” wrote Anne Hendershott in a 2017 City Journal article.
Whether one views this development as a good thing or a bad thing depends much on one’s beliefs. But good or bad, most would agree that the results are often farcical.
A case in point can found in Washington state, where a controversy has erupted at a Catholic college—Seattle University—that permits an annual drag show. Via the Seattle Times:
“The photo of the Seattle University student performing at a drag show in a low-cut, sparkly leotard was well lit and captured the performer mid-pose.
The editors of the university’s student newspaper The Spectator say it’s a good photo, one that they don’t regret putting on the cover of last week’s edition.
That puts them at odds with the university’s president, who called the photo ‘obscene,’ and at least one professor, who admitted to removing every copy of the newspaper from the stands at three separate locations on the Capitol Hill campus.
‘At the time we didn’t even discuss or imagine that the photo would be problematic to anyone who saw it,’ said Nick Turner, editor-in-chief of The Spectator and a senior journalism major. ‘Our first line of thinking was that it was a good photo.’”
From a journalistic standpoint, Turner is clearly correct. The photo (depicted below) is quite good, something worthy of an album or movie cover.
The grounds for finding such a photo “obscene” rest primarily—perhaps exclusively—on regarding a drag show as obscene. But if that’s the case, what is a drag show doing at a Catholic university in the first place?
The answer to that question lies with Seattle University President Father Stephen Sundborg, who greenlighted the annual drag show even though—as he told The Spectator—he knew many other Catholic institutions would not have done so.
“As a campus community, we have made a strong commitment to inclusive excellence and working to make sure everyone at Seattle feels a sense of belonging,” Sundborg wrote. “I believe in and remain committed to this important work we began a few years ago.”
That commitment to inclusivity and sense of belonging, however, apparently has limits. Here is how Sundborg described the photo:
“I thought it offended all dignity and respect of sexuality and of persons of bodies,” he told The Spectator in an interview. “I think it was a mistake on the part of the editorial staff to put that on the cover. I was offended by it.”
To Sundborg, a drag show is not offensive to the “dignity and respect of sexuality” of human beings. But depicting someone in drag in the pages of the school newspaper is an egregious offense to our finer sensibilities.
This logic is peculiar, to say the least. Students find themselves on stronger ground, pointing out the absurdity of a university that embraces LGBT values but not the right to freely depict and share them.
“There’s rainbow crosswalks within minutes of our campus,” said Tess Riski, a journalism major and editor of the school’s newspaper. “We weren’t expecting any of that censorship to happen, we weren’t expecting that reaction. To us it seemed like it was a photo of a student at a drag show and nothing more than that.”
Sundborg’s hip if somewhat confused views on sexuality earned him a PR disaster, but few friends. The spat has gained the attention of local businesses, including the near-by Queer Bar, which announced Sundberg and Father David Leigh—the faculty member who admitted to absconding with all the copies at the newsstand—are no longer welcome in their establishment.
The Seattle Times notes “it’s unclear if they were ever patrons” of the Queer Bar in the first place.
To some, the mere suggestion of this probably sounds crazy. But one would have to admit: not as a crazy it would have 30 years ago.
Image Credit: The cover of the Spectator. (Samira Shobeiri / The Spectator)