by Pete Mazzaccaro
I like Chestnut Hill College.
In the many years I’ve been covering news in Chestnut Hill, College President Sister Carol Jean Vale stands out as one of the most competent and capable institutional heads in the area. She’s an excellent leader, one who has taken a little all-female catholic college and turned it into a small powerhouse of liberal arts undergraduate study and a broad post-graduate professional school.
I also believe the college’s expansion – its acquisition and development of the Sugar Loaf campus and the growth of its student population – will likely be the best things to happen to Chestnut Hill’s economy and culture in a long time. It is arguably the most important institution in Chestnut Hill.
It is for those reasons that I’m disappointed in the college’s decision a week ago to fire Father Jim Saint George because he was gay. The move is a big step backwards for the college and one that has created a stain on the school’s reputation that won’t easily be removed.
In its statement last Friday explaining St. George’s termination, the college tried to parse its decision in semantics. It did not “fire” St. George, but rather chose not to renew his contract. Also, the school claims St. George was not fired because he is gay, but rather because he made public statements about the fact that he was gay and in a committed relationship of 15 years.
The takeaway from that logic is that at Chestnut Hill College it’s OK to be gay, as long as you don’t let anyone know about it. It’s a Catholic version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a confounding illogical policy that simply brushes patent intolerance under a rug of ignorance.
I can appreciate the fact that such a policy is part of the school’s Roman Catholic identity. But it’s hard to imagine how an institution of higher learning can pursue a mission of open, intellectual exploration – which the college claims to do – while closing the door on public statements by its gay faculty. A gay religion professor, Meghan Sullivan, resigned from the college in 2003 when she was told her public statements about her sexuality clashed with the image the college wanted to project.
How can the college foster real higher learning, an education based on the development of critical thinking, with such a policy?
Finally, the Father Jim story illustrates that, despite progress – the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the decision by the Justice Department that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional – true equal rights for gay Americans remains the last great civil rights struggle in America.
As long as homosexuals can be removed from their jobs and are denied other rights, we fail to live up to Thomas Jefferson’s standard that all men are created equal. The law, right now, does not guarantee that men like St. George or women like Sullivan enjoy the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That must change. And it needs to change across every facet of life, including schools run by religious institutions.
We need to make sure that we hold all of our institutions and leaders to that standard. It is the most basic thing.