Sexual Orientation

What we have found out about conversations relating to sexual orientation at CSB and SJU:

Sexual orientation, we would suggest, is for today’s undergraduates what civil rights was for the college students of the 1960s. Over the course of their lifetime, they have experienced an earthshaking transformation of social attitudes. Though the revolution is far from over, it is no longer polite to express anti-gay sentiments openly. Moreover, gays and lesbians have effectively framed their cause in the “rights” language that is a common vocabulary for all Americans. In this context, the Catholic Church’s adamant opposition to gay marriage, coupled with its recent moves to restrict even celibate gay men from ordination, is a source of puzzlement if not scandal.

The situation is nicely illustrated with some results from a survey of administered to 53 students enrolled in our campus laboratories. At the beginning of the semester, nearly two thirds of these students said they knew what the Catholic Church teaches about sexual orientation, while fewer than half said they could explain why. Our classroom observations, moreover, suggest that some of those who thought they knew why were familiar only with the anti-homosexual texts in the Bible, not with the Church’s natural law arguments regarding sexual orientation. At the same time, a whopping 87% said they could explain why some people might disagree with Catholic teaching. This figure, interestingly, does not necessarily reflect sophisticated knowledge of the issue, for only about half of the students were familiar with scientific research on sexuality or with the lived experience of gays and lesbians. For many, the Church’s teaching is suspect simply because it conflicts with the self-evident American truth of equal rights. It is no wonder, therefore, that fewer than a third said that they take the Church’s teaching into account in forming their own views on this issue (see Table 48, What Students Say They Know About Sexual Orientation).

These statistics make sexual orientation a very appealing classroom topic—indeed, virtually all of the professors participating in our research were eager to include this topic in their syllabi. Professors can sharpen students’ analytic skills by inviting them to explore the natural law arguments embedded in official church documents on sexuality. At the same time, they can complicate the monolithic image of the Catholic Church by assigning articles by liberal Catholics who embrace the human rights argument or who use recent findings on the genetic basis of sexual orientation to frame natural law arguments for gay rights. And they can use a variety of films or guest speakers to invite students to consider what this means for real people in the real world.

Students are generally receptive to these pedagogical moves. Yet in our observations of classroom discussions of sexual orientation, we have almost never seen students openly defending the Church’s position, and we have never seen gay or lesbian students openly acknowledging their identity to their classmates. Evidently, the culture of politeness that surrounds this issue only goes so far. Students who support the Church’s position, as well as students who are ambivalent about sexual orientation but inclined to trust Church authorities, do not know how to express their views without violating campus norms of politeness. Yet politeness alone is not enough to reassure gay and lesbian students that it is safe to come out in the classroom. Indeed, the silence of the students who support the Church’s position may actually make them appear more threatening in the minds of gay and lesbian students, since silence is readily experienced as icy rejection.