"Homophobia" at Seton Hall University: Sociology in Defense of the Faith
Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D.
Like many other Catholic institutions of higher learning, Seton Hall University
has recently had to confront the issue of whether or not to officially recognize a student
group on campus at odds with the Catholic faith as understood and defined by
magisterial teaching. In the specific case in question, the student group was a
homosexual organization named "Wilde!" To its credit, the university administration to
date has refused, arguing that such recognition would not be consistent with the
mission of Seton Hall University as a Catholic institution and as the official institution
of higher education of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. In doing so, the action
of the Administration of Seton Hall University is consistent with the thinking of the
Doctrinal Congregation's Letter to Bishops, "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons."
As the Letter declares:
All support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the
teaching of the Church, which are ambiguous about it or which neglect it entirely. Such
support or even the semblance of such support can be gravely misinterpreted. Special
attention should be given to the practice of scheduling religious services and to the use
of church buildings by these groups, including the facilities of Catholic schools and
colleges. To some, such permission to use church property may seem only just and
charitable; but in reality it is contradictory to the purpose for which these institutions
were founded. It is misleading and often scandalous (Ratzinger, 1986: 382).
The purpose of this essay is twofold. First of all, it is to present a brief
description of the Seton Hall University controversy. More importantly, it is to provide
a sociological analysis that both debunks the homosexual agenda vis-a-vis Catholic
higher education and offers support and insight for those faithful college
administrators intent on keeping and strengthening the orthodox Catholic nature of
The Controversy in Brief
The controversy under discussion can be reviewed by examining the student
newspaper, . It started with a letter to the editor written by an avowed
homosexual student, Jonathan Samarro (October 1, 1992). He starts by claiming to
observe that "on utilizing the public restrooms of this campus, I was originally shocked,
though now comprehend, the amount of anonymous homosexual activities that take
place." He continues by declaring that "high percentages of . . . (Seton Hall) . . . students
are homosexual and bisexual, including students in the School of Theology." Samarro,
later to be the first (unofficial) president of Wilde!, concludes by suggesting that "a gay
and lesbian union would effect the opportunity for healthy homosexual contact, as well
as stifle or end the amount of exhibitionist, yet underground extreme sex acts in our
Two weeks later, the paper featured a headline story written by Editor-In-Chief
Maria M. Perotin entitled, "Students Propose Gay Rights Group" (October 15, 1992). The
two students involved were Jonathan Samarro and Paul Bogan, the latter identified as a
"straight" student. The article noted that Bogan had just recently "approached the
Student Senate about the procedure for starting a new student organization" and that
Samarro intended to name the organization Wilde! "after the Irish poet, dramatist, and
novelist Oscar Wilde . . . (who faced) . . . homophobia to the full extent." This edition
also contained a short piece on "National Coming Out Day Celebrated by Gays" and a
viewpoints exchange between Perotin, supporting official recognition for Wilde!, and
Setonian Associate Editor, Larry Karg, arguing against the granting of such
Perotin's next article, "Student Senate 'Wilde' About Gay Rights Group" (October
29, 1992) informed the Seton Hall community that "the Student Senate decided Tuesday
to recognize Wilde!, an organization to promote awareness about gay, lesbian, and
bisexual issues, with a secret ballot vote of 9-6 with three abstentions." The piece also
stated that the 13 member group elected Samarro as President, Bogan as Vice-President,
and Jean-Marie Navetta as Secretary. Philip Kayal, the chairman of the Department of
Sociology and Anthropology, was named Faculty Advisor. The article also noted that
"the group cannot officially become a recognized organization until it receives approval
from the university administration." Of additional importance were the claims made by
the homosexual activists that they had been harassed by students since attempting to
create the organization, that the atmosphere at Seton Hall is hostile to homosexuals,
and that Wilde! will do nothing to promote homosexual activity.
The January 21, 1993 issue included another article by Perotin, "School Rejects
Wilde!," in which the administration rejected the request of the homosexual group to be
formally recognized. As Perotin reported, the Reverend Thomas Peterson, University
Chancellor, "said the Executive Cabinet did not recognize the organization . . . because
the group planned to remain neutral on the issue of the acceptability of an active
homosexual lifestyle." The Chancellor, who informed Wilde!'s founders of the decision
before winter break, is quoted by Perotin as follows: "In terms of the clear teachings of
Catholicism, an active homosexual lifestyle is unacceptable. Consequently, for a
Catholic university to say that it could approve an organization that would be neutral
on this is something that I could not square with the commitment of the university."
Chancellor Peterson, furthermore, indicated that he would establish a task force of
administrators, faculty members, and students to address homosexual issues "in a way
that doesn't compromise the commitment of the university." He indicated that the Task
Force "would address what he considers Wilde's . . . (stated) . . . objectives: prevention
of harassment of gay and lesbian persons and the education of the campus
community." Samarro indicated that he was "considering whether to file suit against
the university and that he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to see if it is
interested in the case." Kayal, for his part, asserted that "the decision not to recognize
Wilde! . . . makes it apparent that gay and lesbian students are not welcome at Seton
Hall. It's a terrible form of discrimination."
The February 11th issue of included a piece, "Senate Forms
Strategy for Wilde!," by Perotin indicating that the Student Senate "decided this week
on a seven step strategy, including a petition campaign and an organized protest, for
obtaining formal university approval of Wilde!, the gay awareness organization that
was rejected by the administration last semester." While deciding to continue support
for Wilde!, the Student Senate reprimanded the organization for contacting a local T.V.
station, WPIX, without prior consultation.
The February 11th issue also contained two student written letters-to-the-editor,
one in favor of and one against officially recognizing Wilde! More significant, however,
was a much longer letter to the editor written by Philip Kayal, chairperson of the
Department of Sociology and Anthropology and (unofficial) Faculty Advisor to the
homosexual club, entitled "Professor Reframes Wilde! Issue, Questions Double
Standard of Morality, Rejects Proposed Task Force." Among numerous other points and
allegations made, Kayal argued that "homophobia _ not homosexuality _ remains a
certified mental illness and this is what we need to address. The . . . (Chancellor's
proposed) . . . Task Force would deflect attention from the real issue of Wilde!'s
legitimacy and the right of gay and lesbians to establish a safe haven free of abuse on a
campus that is supposedly their own . . ." A small notice, "Senate to Meet With
Chancellor" authored by staff writer Lisa Cantwell (March 4, 1993), indicated that the
Reverend Thomas Peterson would soon be meeting with members of the Student
Senate to discuss the controversy over Wilde!
The next issue of the student paper contained an article by Perotin entitled
"Chancellor discusses Wilde! with Senators" (March 11, 1993). The story started by
exposing a sharp difference of opinion between Chancellor Peterson and Student
Senator Chris Evans. Father Peterson informed both the Student Senate and Wilde! that
"they can accomplish nothing through confrontation." Evans responded that Peterson
was "insulting our intelligence" arguing that "the civil rights movement and the success
of Martin Luther King proved confrontation is effective . . . That's what this country is
about . . ." In this same issue, the Chancellor explained that "when Wilde! was under
discussion, there were some events that created problems for me . . . There were
indications that what Wilde! was asking for was not what it was seeking." The
Chancellor continued, citing three examples of "the organization functioning as though
it exists, when it does not have university recognition." There was a T.V. appearance on
"The Jackie Mason Show" by Samarro and Navetta, the distribution of flyers on campus
inviting students to a New York City based AIDS dance-a-thon, and an interview
offered by Samarro and Bogan to WPIX, T.V. News. The Chancellor, furthermore,
argued that "he has tried to meet Wilde's primary objectives of providing education
about homosexuality and bisexuality and preventing harassment of gay students by
establishing a Task Force to address the issues . . . The Task Force, which was
scheduled to have its first meeting this week, has three missions . . . They are to
develop and recommend educational programs, to come up with procedures that
would guarantee that gay and lesbian students would be free from harassment, and to
develop avenues of dialogue."
As the (May 17, 1993) indicated, Chancellor Peterson instituted the Committee
on February 24, 1993. The Task Force members included Dr. William Toth, School of
Theology and Chair; Father Paul Bochiccio, Director of Campus Ministry; Ms.
Michelline David, Student Government Association (later replaced by Don Osmanski,
also of the S.G.A.); Dr. Richard Hunter, Faculty Senate; Ms. Karen Merguerian, Faculty
Senate; Ms. Sue Kurtyka, President of the Seton Hall Parish Council; and Mr. Jonathan
Samarro of Wilde! The committee met four times during the Spring, 1993 Semester
before issuing its final report.
The final report of the Task Force is a short four page, double-spaced document
that provides a number of recommendations aimed at rejecting "acts of discrimination
based on an individual's sexual orientation at Seton Hall University" (p. 1). The limited
focus of the Task Force's recommendation reflects the fact that the Task Force was
specifically charged by the Chancellor with formulating an appropriate University
response to acts of homophobia on campus and not with the specific issue of whether
any gay rights group should be officially recognized on campus.
It is regrettable that the opportunity was missed for a voice other than
Chancellor Peterson's to reaffirm the Catholic identity of the university. As it turned
out, it appears to many that the Chancellor "takes the heat" with the implication that the
decision to deny official recognition to Wilde! reflects yet another example of heavy-
handed, repressive clerical leadership that lacks any significant support in the
university and scholarly community.
As reported by Anthony Morano in the April 29, 1993 issue of ,
the university's newly elected Student Senate could not have been too impressed with
either the idea or functioning of Chancellor Peterson's . As its very first
order of business, it passed a revised organizational constitution for Wilde! Jonathan
Samarro claimed that "all the complaints that Father Peterson made about the original
constitution were changed exactly in the new one." The revised constitution, it was
reported, 1) "recognizes the Catholic Church's stance on homosexuality" and refuses to
"sponsor activities contrary to Church teaching or advocate a sexually active
homosexual/bisexual lifestyle," 2) promises "not to present its views as those of the
University" and "to include a disclaimer on all its literature making clear that the
organization is not representative of the University's view," and 3) agrees not to
sponsor any programs without the approval of the Administration, Campus Ministry,
and Counseling Services."
Lisa Cantwell's May 6, 1993 notice in the paper indicated that Chancellor
Peterson would meet today with Wilde! leaders to discuss its proposed revised
constitution. Jonathan Samarro declared that "if the chancellor denies Wilde! official
university status, the group will hold a protest and invite the media. He also said the
issue would be pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union and would be handled
by the Student Government Association Executive Board in September."
The September 2, 1993 issue contained an article by Jerry Carino, Associate
Editor, that indicated that Chancellor Peterson had rejected the revised organizational
constitution of Wilde! on two grounds: 1) that "any group that would make acceptable
an active homosexual lifestyle would not be in keeping with the University mission
statement," and 2) "because the Special Task Force he assigned to deal with the subjects
of homosexuality and homophobia on campus had succeeded in carrying out the
education which Wilde! had emphasized." At a very practical level, the article
contained some other very important news: "with Samarro graduating and Bogan and
Navetta transferring, the future of the group was uncertain . . ."
The Chancellor, according to a September 30, 1993 story by Lynnea Pruzinsky,
then formally presented his rationale to the Student Senate, noting the
institutionalization of the activities and programs outlined in the (May
17, 1993). One of these involved myself as a speaker at a "University Forum on
Homophobia," held on November 10, 1993. As the article informs the readership,
"members of the Senate, who were invited to question Peterson, did not ask any further
questions about Wilde!"
University Forum on Homophobia
I was asked to make one of four presentations at the forum which took place on
November 10, 1993. The other three speakers were Dr. Judy Glassgold, visiting
Professor of the Rutgers University Graduate School for Applied and Professional
Psychology; Economic Historian Jeff Escoffier, Ph.D., Editor of , and Patricia
Natali, Director of the Department of Human Concerns of the Archdiocese of Newark.
Glassgold and Escoffier declared their active homosexuality during their talks about
homophobia. Natali is a Ph.D. candidate writing her thesis on liberation theology.
In retrospect, at least, it is clear that my latent function at the forum was to
provide some "balance" to the proceedings. However, my manifest and specific
sociological assignment was to provide reflections on the issue of homophobia in
American society that could, by implication, shed some light on the situation of
homophobia at Seton Hall University.
The distinctive sociological approach taken in both my lecture and in this essay
combines both the "debunking" perspective of one of my early mentors in sociology,
Peter L. Berger, as well as my own developing ideas in the area of the relationship of
values to the sociological research enterprise. It is my stated hope that my analysis of a
specific case, i.e., a particular controversy at Seton Hall University, can be useful to
faithful Catholic leaders in handling similar controversies at the institutions of Catholic
higher education in which they administer.
Values and the Sociological Quest for Objectivity
As I have argued elsewhere (Varacalli, 1992a; 1992b; 1993c), the sociological
quest for objectivity necessarily entails the attempt to take into account precisely how
the values of the individual researcher impact on all aspects of the research process.
There are, at least, five such areas of impact: 1) or, perhaps, , 2) choice of , 3)
employed, 4) , and 5) proposed solutions. My
approach consciously attempts to provide a third way between the prevailing two
dominant camps within sociology, i.e., and . While
agreeing with the former that objectivity in social research is the goal of the scholar,
, my approach demurs from the positivist claim that the sociological
enterprise can ever be "value free." While agreeing with the latter that values intimately
affect research, my approach denies the post-modern claim that objectivity in social
research is not only an elusive goal but actually represents the attempt of the guardians
of the status quo to suppress the utopian impulse. My position assumes not only that
there is a "truth out there" that may be temporally and spatially conditioned, but also
that there is an objective moral order that can be grasped through the exercise of a
reason that, albeit conditioned by culture, can ultimately transcend any ideological
moorings. Again, the quest for objectivity in research must take into account the
influence of cultural values.
A somewhat analogous argument about how values affect reporting in
America's mass media has been proposed by both representatives of conservative
thought (Rusher, 1988) and of the radical left (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). Both ends
of the political spectrum argue that news reporting is not objective but is saturated by
uncritically accepted mainstream liberal values, (which in the case of the radical left are
seen as essentially defending the existing social system). The relevance of this for our
present purpose is to suggest not only that the actual difference between social
scientific analysis and professional journalism may be less than supposed but that a
critical focus on how homophobia is dealt with by the news media is a legitimate issue.
One could, indeed, apply my analysis of how values affect sociology and journalism to
forms of rational thinking, from that of the professional social activist to that of
the average citizen. Such an exercise, however, would take this essay too far away from
its focus on the machinations employed by those who consciously desire to secularize
Catholic higher education.
Sociology and Debunking
In his influential (1963),
Peter L. Berger makes the argument that sociology is intrinsically a "debunking"
discipline. By this he meant that it is a principal task of the sociologist to challenge, by
systematically investigating through the use of reason and empirical evidence, certain
cognitive claims about social existence that many individuals in any society accept "at
face value," as "taken-for-granted," or as "common sense." It is important to point out
that the debunking sociologist in question should not be assuming that what is
apparently taken to be the case will automatically be falsified. The goal of the
sociologist is to ascertain to what degree and under what conditions what is defined as
real is actually true (or false).
Some Basic Sociological Questions
The "apparent" claim made by the "pro-homosexual" forces at Seton Hall
University that aspire to be eventually accepted at "face value" and to the status of
"taken-for-grantedness," "common-sense" and "what everybody knows" is that
homophobia exists today as a serious issue in American society-at-large and,
derivatively, at the university. By combining my concern for the impact of values on
the sociological research process (and, more generally, on all forms of rational
discourse) with Peter Berger's more general debunking motif, I hope to provide some
very basic questions that would be essential in any even-handed attempt to analyze not
only the charges about homophobia made by homosexual activists and their
sympathizers but also those purported "scientific" studies that allegedly document
them. My expressed hope is that the following list of questions with their "debunking"
implications may be of use to Catholic administrators and personnel in responding
intellectually, honestly, humanely, to such charges. That the
homosexual community has made great strides in their agenda for Catholic higher
education can be no better illustrated than through reference to the debacle that took
place at Georgetown University (Dannemeyer, 1989: 181-182), as a gay organization
was given official university status after a prolonged confrontation.
What is the motivation or, perhaps, the ideological agenda behind those activists
and those academic studies which claim that widespread homophobia exists at both
Seton Hall University and within the society-at-large? Is it out of fear that homosexuals
are being physically assaulted or might even be murdered? Or is it a response to the
perception of the blatantly unequal treatment of homosexuals? On campus this would
mean such things as discrimination in terms of faculty grading, admission to the
university and to specific courses, the granting of financial aid, and in the allocation of
student housing. In the society-at-large this would mean such things as discrimination
in employment and a denial of basic civil liberties. Or is it a reaction to the perceived
increasing verbal abuse launched against homosexuals on the part of a significant
percentage of university faculty, staff, and students and, in the society, of the general
citizenry? Or is it a reaction to the belief that officially recognizing a homosexual
organization on campus is absolutely vital to the "pro-homosexual" cause given a
dearth of such organs in the general society? Or is the motivation to try to gain the
sympathy of the average college student and American in order to eventually further
the agenda of normalizing homosexual activity? Or, is the motivation to purposely
exaggerate the effects of "homophobia" in order to extend the scope of the "sexual
harassment industry," as discussed by Gretchen Morgenson (1991), which would
further strengthen the economic, political, and status interests of assorted social
activists and therapists? Or, finally, is the motivation to try to force the Catholic Church
_ as of now the last great roadblock for the sexual modernists _ to change its teaching
Choosing a Social Problem or a Research Topic
An interesting question is why, in the first place, did the Seton Hall University
Chancellor and his Task Force decide to sponsor an academic forum in response to the
charges levied by the supporters of "Wilde!"? Did they really think that any significant
amount of homophobic behavior exists on the campus? Is discrimination against
homosexuals, , a great problem? For instance, is discrimination
against homosexuals at Seton Hall greater than, say, that against the black underclass of
Newark, New Jersey that borders one end of the campus? Are all prejudices equal and
deserving of equal attention? (Gates, 1993). Even more to the point, why academically
address, within the university, the issue of possible widespread homophobia and not
the issue of the widespread ignorance of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith on the
part of the Catholic component of the student body? Or, for that matter, why not
convene a university-wide forum on the degree to which Seton Hall University is
faithfully carrying out the vision set forth in (1990)? Is it because
the administration considers the homosexual community to be more immediately
relevant as a force to be contended with than is John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and
the weight of Magisterially defined Catholic tradition and law?
Regarding the larger society, why is the claim of homophobia taken more
seriously than that, say, of anti-Catholicism? Is it that the homosexual community is
well-organized, disproportionately upper middle-class (with a concomitant amount of
wealth, status, and power) and well-represented in the society-defining public sphere
institutions of government, education, the mass media, and the arts? Conversely put, is
it the case that it is open season for Catholic bashing given, first, the widespread
dissent, disorganization, and apathy that presently characterizes the internal state of
affairs of the Catholic Church in the United States and, second, the hostility afforded
Catholicism on the part, primarily, of a modern-day secular gnostic class and, to a
much lesser degree, of the remnants of a once dominant Protestant mentality?
Choosing Some Conceptual Apparatus
The choice of the theoretical lens used by both the social scientist (or professional
journalist, social activist, etc.) is also influenced by the philosophical framework of the
individual in question. The issue of homophobia in American society can be studied by
applying frameworks as fundamentally different as "functionalist" and
"power/conflict" perspectives. The former argues that any society is primarily held
together by some consensually agreed upon set of values. Historically and up until the
present, heterosexuality has been a key American value. Homosexuality, from such a
perspective, would therefore be considered off the norm or "abnormal," and, as such,
an instance of societal "deviance." Note should be taken that such a functionalist
argument is not the same as a natural law perspective, the latter rooting the idea of
pathology as a violation of an objective moral order structured into both the individual
and social existence itself.
Many other sociologists, especially those formed in the mid-1960's onwards,
would interpret homosexuality from a power/conflict perspective which
fundamentally denies that morality is consensually derived; rather it is the outcome of
which group can impose its social definitions of reality over the society at large. From
such a perspective, homosexuality can only be "labeled" as deviant by some ruling elite.
Even further removed from natural law thinking, morality or "right" is seen simply as
reflecting "might." The report, (1992), distributed by
Professor Philip Kayal certainly shares this perspective. As the document flatly asserts,
"Homophobia and heterosexism are manifestations of a larger system of oppression.
Other manifestations of this system include sexism, classism, racism, anti-Semitism,
disability oppression and ageism" (p. 3).
Part of the general secularization of Catholic higher education since Vatican II
has included the abandonment of the attempt to incorporate a natural law perspective
in the social sciences. Such an attempt would counter the various forms of secular social
science, almost all of which derogate the moral through their contextualist and
reductionist biases (Haynor and Varacalli, 1993). Only recently, in 1991, has a group of
Catholic scholars attempted to resurrect the idea of Catholic social science through the
formation of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (Krason and Varacalli, 1992;
Varacalli, 1993a, 1993b).
Made relevant to the campus controversy, the question centers around Seton
Hall University's self-understanding. Does the university represent a consensually held
understanding of itself as a Catholic institution in which active homosexuality and its
promotion are necessarily seen as wrong? Or does the university define itself so
broadly and so inclusively that "anything goes," or more realistically, as a naked arena
fostering an interest group mentality in which whatever group organizes most
efficiently and shouts the loudest wins the game of "king of the hill?"
Another key issue involving the value-laden nature of any conceptual
framework entails the basic issue of definition, in this case, over the very meaning of
"homophobia." Obviously, homosexual activists have it in their interest to define the
term so broadly as to refer to any sentiment or behavior that disapproves of the active
homosexual lifestyle. An orthodox Catholic definition, to the contrary, would define
the term in a more limited manner. Father John Harvey (1987, 1989), for instance, has
defined it as any "unreasonable fear" or insane reaction to homosexuality. As Father
Harvey clearly states, "In all cases the genuine Christian condemns the intolerant,
violent, murderous attitude toward the homosexual person. But it does not hesitate to
condemn homosexual acts, nor does it shun its duty of protecting persons, especially
youth, from being victimized by homosexual activists or a homosexual culture" (1989:
126). Congressman William Dannemeyer makes a similar distinction and plea to
America's Judaic-Christian community: "We must hold out the hand of fellowship to
homosexuals, but we cannot compromise in our condemnation of homosexual acts"
(1989: 117). From a Catholic frame, homophobic behavior, like assault and verbal abuse
against homosexuals, is condemned in no uncertain terms. On the other hand, and in
terms of religious status, chaste homosexuals are to be treated indistinguishably from
chaste heterosexual Catholics while any active homosexual behavior is considered
immoral and an unnatural and disordered act. The Church, as it is often said, loves the
sinner but never condones the sin. When making their decisions about such
controversial issues, University leaders will hopefully be conscious about the
importance of theoretical frameworks and of the politics of language in any form of
The Interpretation of Data
There are, indeed, some a priori theoretical grounds for expecting some sort of
increase in homophobic behavior on the part of some sectors of the American
population. As will be suggested, however, sociologically speaking, these are not the
most powerful sectors of American society. All claims made by pro-homosexual forces
arguing that the "data" indicate blatant and widespread discrimination against
homosexuals must take this social fact into consideration. "Homophobia," at least to a
considerable degree, is not only purposely blown out of proper proportion but also can
be considered a "yuppie sin."
Homosexuals as a minority group, approximately 2% to 3% of the population
(not the purposely inflated 10%), are presently "coming out of the closet" attempting to
gain society-wide recognition as a legitimate "alternative life-style" and, even as some
conservatives fear, as a candidate for an affirmative action categorization. Societal
reaction to this attempt varies, although, in general, the "gay movement" has been very
successful in institutionalizing its agenda over the past couple of decades (Hale, 1987). I
will provide four ideal-typical responses.
The first response, located at one end of the continuum, is one of direct and
unequivocal approval. This response is overrepresented in many powerful high socio-
economic sectors of American life, among college professors, government bureaucrats,
and those in the mass media and the arts. One indicator of the political "support" given
by these sectors to the homosexual community is the atypical way in which the
infectious disease, AIDS, is being handled (e.g., underplaying the risks of casual
transmission, supporting the AIDS patient's "right to privacy" over procedures that
would protect the public such as mandatory testing and contact tracing, fostering
pansexuality in sex education courses in public schools, etc.) (Antonio, 1987). Such
support, contrary to the natural law, not only threatens American civilization but,
ironically, is well on its way to completely destroying the homosexual subculture itself
(Dannemeyer, 1989; Harvey, 1987). Speaking of the situation in higher education in the
U.S., Jerry Z. Muller is quite blunt: "With a rapidity attributable in large part to a total
lack of articulate resistance, homosexual ideology has achieved an unquestioned and
uncontested legitimacy in American academic life" (1993: 24).
Next comes the "it's not cup of tea, but if it's O.K. with you, it doesn't
bother me" reaction. This response is strong among the moderately progressive element
of the American middle class, the sector that, as the philosopher Allan Bloom (1987)
and the sociologist John Cuddihy (1978) have argued, has accepted, respectively, the
philosophy of moral relativism and that of offering "no offense."
Next comes the typical response of that segment of the American middle and
working classes that is still in tune with the historic Judaic-Christian heritage. The
reaction here is that homosexual acts are both immoral and unnatural and should not
be granted societal legitimation. However, this camp follows, homosexuals should not
have to fear for their lives or be subject to various forms of physical or verbal abuse. As
the 1976 Pastoral of the NCCB, has put it, "Homosexuals, like everyone else, should not
suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect,
friendship, and justice" (quoted in Harvey, 1989: 126). Similarly, as the even more
definitive Doctrinal Congregation's Letter to Bishops, "The Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons," states:
It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice
in speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors
wherever it occurs . . . But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual
persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When
such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned or when
civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable
right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted
notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase"
(Ratzinger, 1986: 380-381).
Therefore, a highly selective form of legal and just discrimination is acknowledged by
the Church as necessary to protect society's legitimate self-interests. As Monsignor
William B. Smith states, "not only is it licit to limit objectively disordered conduct, it
can be obligatory to do so for the common good" (1993: 60). Such cases might include
barring active homosexuals from participation in the armed forces or guaranteeing the
right of homeowners not to be forced to rent to active homosexual couples or granting
the right of parents to protect their children from teachers who are active homosexuals
and who unabashedly promote homosexual activity (in some cases, as Dannemeyer
[1989: 17] points out, going so far as to actually instruct young people how to perform
homosexual activity). As Cardinal Ratzinger, in the Doctrinal Congregation's Letter,
"Responding to Legislative Proposals on Discrimination Against Homosexuals," has
Recently, Legislation has been proposed in various places which would make
discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. In some cities, municipal
authorities have made public housing, otherwise reserved for families, available to
homosexual (and unmarried heterosexual) couples. Such initiatives, even when they
seem more directed toward support of basic civil rights than condonement of
homosexual activity or a homosexual lifestyle, may in fact have a negative impact on
the family and society (Ratzinger, 1992: 175).
This Judaic-Christian sector of American society may soon start to witness the
addition of defections from the aforementioned second category, as some parents, with
typically liberal attitudes, nonetheless have to frankly confront the consequences of
normalizing homosexual activity, especially as it impacts on their own children. A
"neo-conservative" has been defined by one wit as a "liberal mugged by reality." There
are not an inconsiderable number of contemporary liberals in American society ripe, if
initially for no other than utilitarian reasons, for a conversion to political neo-
conservativism (and, perhaps, eventually someday, to various forms of religious neo-
The final reaction, overrepresented in the lower socio-economic class and among
the most religiously conservative or fundamentalist religions, consists of those who
find it impossible to countenance homosexuals and their behavior in any shape, way, or
form. Discrimination against homosexuals tends to be sanctioned across the board with
a desire for this anti-homosexual sentiment to be codified likewise in law, stopping
short only of condoning and legalizing physical violence and other forms of serious
abuse. This group is clearly the least powerful nationally, although it may be
disproportionately stronger in certain localized areas.
With needed qualifications, the first and second categories and the third and
fourth categories, respectively, are in an uneasy alliance with each other and stand on
different sides of the barricades in what Carlin (1993), Hunter (1991), Dannemeyer
(1989) and Varacalli (1987) have referred to as America's current "culture wars." It is
clear that, at the present moment, the first two categories are more influential _ indeed,
are winning the war _ in American society with, as such, positive political ramifications
for the pro-homosexual cause. Homosexuals are strong in American society where "it
counts," from the Clinton administration on down. Egregious examples of homophobic
acts occur less in cosmopolitan areas where homosexuals congregate and when such
acts do occur, they are dealt with swiftly. Broad definitions of homophobia are now
accepted as part of "politically correct thinking." Laws treating homosexual couples as
the functional equivalent of heterosexual marriages exist in some of America's major
urban areas. Open and active homosexuals tend to migrate into those geographic areas
and into those professions where they are, minimally, less discriminated against to
those, maximally, in which preferential treatment is afforded; the latter an example of
the age-tested maxim that "people take care of their own" and that "networking makes a
Regarding the situation at Seton Hall University, the questions asked under the
previous section, "Motivation/ Ideological Agenda" are relevant. Are homosexuals
being murdered on campus? Attacked physically? Verbally abused? Discriminated
against in admissions, grades, financial aid, student housing? Should the fact that a
Seton Hall University student expresses disagreement with the homosexual act qualify
as an example of "homophobia" that the administration should be concerned with?
Were the "rights" of homosexual students violated by the refusal of the Administration
to officially recognize a group in a university that has forthrightly expressed its positive
allegiance to the Catholic heritage, correctly understood, and where entrance into the
Seton Hall University community is a purely voluntary act? Does, for that matter, the
Archdiocese of Newark have the "right" to be itself, i.e., to be "Catholic?"
Just as there is an interdependent relationship between theology/philosophy
and sociological analysis, so is there one between sociological analysis and possible
social policy implications. Put another way, just as sociology is semi-autonomous from
theology/philosophy, social policy is semi-autonomous from sociology. While there
exists a certain latitude in social policy _ Catholics refer here to the virtue of prudence _
social policy cannot stand in a completely arbitrary fashion to the social scientific
analysis from which it draws.
Rationally speaking, social policy regarding "homophobia" depends on the
nature and scope of the phenomenon as depicted by sociological/social scientific
research. It is fair to say that no humane civil society wants homosexuals denied life or
the right to basic fundamental guarantees to live not only a decent material existence,
but one devoid of harassment. Beyond this minimalist proposition, the debate begins
based on divergent analyses of social life rooted in what is most likely irreconcilable
theological/ philosophical differences.
The situation at Seton Hall University regarding its policy on "homophobia" is
less complex if the administration and its sponsor, the Archdiocese of Newark,
is unquestioning in its acceptance of the Catholic tradition as given coherence by
Magisterial teaching. Assuming a positive answer, social policy is simply to implement
clearly and without equivocation what the Church teaches about homosexuality and
homophobia. This can be done through any number of mediums: a required core
course on "The Catholic Perspective on Human Sexuality" centered around , university lectures, statements made in catalogues and other public relations
material of the University, the establishment of a "Courage" Chapter, and homilies
during mass. If, on the other hand, the University sees itself as a rudderless
multiversity "meeting the needs of all on their own terms," then Seton Hall University
can expect to mirror for the indefinite future what Thomas Hobbes has referred to as "a
state of war of all against all," a condition that the general society is progressively
Two other social policy issues at the campus level should be briefly mentioned.
The first deals with the effect of stressing an orthodox Catholic identity on enrollment
in the University. There is little doubt that such a policy would lose students in the
short run. In the longer run, the effect is debatable. Enrollments might very well rise as
parents and students alike come to realize that Seton Hall University has something
unique to offer in a society in which it is apparently becoming clearer that all roads
lead either to Rome or to secularism.
The second issue is addressed by Professor Jo Renee Formicola, Chair of the
Political Science Department at Seton Hall University, in an interview with Maria M.
Perotin, appearing in the student newspaper, (February 11, 1993).
Formicola is quoted as follows: "Religious institutions cannot have it both ways. They
cannot conveniently choose to be Catholic, fundamentalist, or orthodox. At this point,
they must either be willing to sacrifice federal monies totally when their religious
principles are compromised, or they must be willing to accommodate their immutable
beliefs to national laws or compelling state interests" (p. 4). If true, the orthodox
Catholic response is clearly to reject federal funding. However, no less than a former
federal Deputy Assistant for Higher Education Programs, Kenneth D. Whitehead, in his
(1988), clearly disputes the argument of
Professor Formicola. Whitehead claims that such an erroneous argument is consciously
made in order to intimidate Catholic administrators into regretfully diluting Catholic
identity on campus and to promote the agenda of those who actually desire to
internally secularize Catholic higher education.
It's not easy to be authentically Catholic, anytime or any place (although it's
considerably more difficult at this juncture in time and space). Or at least this is the
case, if it's true as I've argued elsewhere (Varacalli, 1994, forthcoming), that Catholicism
posits a "moderate dualism" that harmonizes such dyadic opposites as grace and
nature, spirituality and materialism, faith and reason, mysticism and intellect, doctrine
and experience, authority and autonomy, prayer and social action, justice and mercy,
and universalism and particularism. Catholicism, in short, represents a delicate
balancing act that tends to be pushed in one direction or another depending on the
nature of the dominant cultural bias of the society in which it is embedded.
At present, the "Americanist" leadership of the Catholic Church of the United
States is allowing the institution to follow the path of least resistance which means
uncritically emphasizing, without sufficient constraint, nature, materialism, reason,
intellect, experience, autonomy, social action, mercy, and particularism over their
respective dyadic opposites, thus tending to collapse the supernatural other-worldly
focus of the faith into a purely this-worldly one. Pope Leo XIII was right on the mark _
contemporary revisionists notwithstanding _ when he issued his famous turn-of-the
twentieth century condemnation regarding the "heresy of Americanism." The Pope's
reflections are even more true in today's post-Vatican II era.
The tepid response of many Catholic leaders today to the exaggerated and
fabricated charges of homophobia (and racism, sexism, ageism, nativism, and other
forms of "politically correct" discrimination) within the institutions that they lead can
best be understood by reference to the selective and distorted understanding of the
faith propounded by those who too easily conform to the spirit of the age. The only
possible solution leading to a resurrected and confident-yet-cautious Catholic Church
in the United States is to teach the historic and developing faith whole and without
adulteration. Individuals like Father Michael Scanlan and Dr. Timothy O'Donnell,
inspired no doubt by the Holy Spirit, have started the counter-revolution in Catholic
higher education at, respectively, the Franciscan University of Steubenville and
Christendom College. It's time for Seton Hall University to jump into the fray in the
attempt "to re-establish Catholic Higher Education in Christ."
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Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D. presently holds the rank of Associate Professor of Sociology at Nassau
Community College in Garden City, New York. A member of the Board of Directors of The
Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, he is the Co-founder, Executive Secretary, and Membership Chair
of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN