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Does P.E.A.C.E Have a Chance? [New Updates]

A Diversity club and two planned LGBT events have roiled UST this spring.  But an LGBT student club called Pursue Excellence And Cherish Everyone has been operating on campus since 2015.

Update: In an email to faculty sent June 21, UST President Richard Ludwick responded with an open letter to the UST community. See photo below.

When UST junior international studies major Samaria Herbert arrived at the Student Government Association’s club allocation meeting on April 16, she thought her budget would be approved as easily as the other student organization requests. Herbert is vice-president of the new campus Diversity and Inclusion organization; along with typical line items such as leader stipends and food expenses, her $38,000 DIO proposal included events such as black history and women’s history talks, a Lunar New Year lantern festival, a Latino dance night, and an event for first-generation college students.

Senators were about to pass her budget until several zeroed in on a $2,000 line item for two “LGBT events” slated for the 2019-2020 academic school year. Discussion ensued, controversy erupted over the unspecified nature of the events and whether such events belong at a Catholic university, and voting on the item was tabled.

“I walked out of that meeting feeling very defeated,” Herbert said. “I was so mad I had smoke coming out of my ears, and I realized that this is hard…My friend who identifies as LGBT was with me after the meeting, and I turned to her and said, ‘I can only imagine how you feel on a daily basis, and I commend you.’”

Days later, UST’s in-house counsel Gita Bolt addressed SGA in a closed-door meeting;  afterwards, DIO was allocated $1,500 for the LGBT events with the requirement that UST’s Campus Ministry and Catholic Identity Committee be involved in the planning process.

By this time, however, news of the planned events had spread to the Concerned UST Alumni Facebook page (participants reacted with a mix of concern, disgust and enthusiasm) and then to the Catholic website LifeSiteNews, which frequently targets what it calls “the homosexual agenda.” An online petition to stop the University from “funding pro-LGBT events” was started June 18 and appeared to have 5,190 supporters at press time.

[Update: the petition reached 18,742 supporters on June 22, despite clarifications from Ludwick that any LGBT events would be conducted in line with Catholic teaching, along with the observation that  a “distortion of the truth” had been “circulating.”]

With her two LGBT line items, Herbert, a Catholic, had stumbled onto an active minefield: the fraught relationship between the LGBT movement and Catholic teaching, and the much-debated role of LGBT support groups at Catholic institutions such as UST.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and that they cannot be approved under any circumstances. Like all people, “homosexual persons are called to chastity,” it states. At the same time, the Catechism notes that men and women with same-sex attraction “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”  

Whether “acceptance” simply entails affirmation of the innate, personal dignity of all LGBT people as human beings created in God’s image, or extends to support for LGBT culture, lifestyles and events, has become a growing point of debate in Catholic circles. In 2013, Pope Francis stunned the world with his now-famous press-conference remark, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reports growing acceptance of LGBT individuals among religious congregations since 2006.

At UST,  located in the heart of Houston’s Montrose area, which is known for its historically open LGBT community, different forms of acceptance are growing as well. Even before DIO was created this year, an LGBT club called Pursue Excellence And Cherish Everyone was operating on campus.  Along with other organizations, P.E.A.C.E. will help DIO host the two LGBT events next school year, according to Herbert.

Founded in 2015 by UST alumnus Travis Jackson, the University’s P.E.A.C.E. club aims to operate under the doctrine of the Catholic Church, according to its president Patrick Stoner.

UST’s website states that the club’s mission is to “enhance the mandate of the Catholic Church, to respect all human dignity, and supporting the diverse UST community.” The website also states that the club “holds on-campus events to create awareness and provide information on human rights issues” and aims to “advance the University’s mission and acknowledge the human dignity of every UST student.”

However because the University’s website does not include the letters LGBT in its description of the club, many on campus are unaware of the club’s nature. UST’s sophomore marketing major Jorge Escoto, for example, identifies himself as a member of the LGBT community; he said he’s upset he was unaware of the club’s existence before being interviewed for this article, but that he looks forward to joining it in the future.

Stoner said the P.E.A.C.E club focuses on sexual identity issues.

“We talk about LGBT history, we talk about what to do if you’re coming out or if your friend is coming out,” he said. “We’re not in there telling people how to get a boyfriend…All we’re trying to do is educate people that just because someone is gay, bi, trans, or lesbian, it does not mean there is anything lesser, or broken or wrong about them.”

Although the club’s relationship to Catholicism is complicated because of differing views and beliefs, Stoner said he wants to remind critics that the majority of the club’s members are Catholics who abide by Church teaching. At the same time, he said he wants to educate people to recognize that LGBT individuals have the same dignity as any other person.

“Someone being gay is not bad or evil,” Stoner said. “There is a view that if you’re gay, then inherently there’s something wrong, which isn’t the case at all.”

Both Stoner and Jackson said being LGBT is not a choice.

“I didn’t choose to be attacked and in fear of my life everyday,” Jackson said.

Stoner, meanwhile, said, “A lot of people say it’s a phase or it’s a struggle, but it’s not; it’s who they are, it’s a part of their identity just as much as anything else is a part of their identity…God created me as a bisexual man and there is nothing that could change that.”

Not all Catholics would agree. The Independent reached out to several Catholic UST professors for this article via email, phone and Facebook. Requests for comment went unanswered with one exception. [Ed. note: We have since received emailed comments from UST professor emerita of philosophy Mary Catherine Sommers, the former director of UST’s Center for Thomistic Studies. Some of those comments have been included at the end of this updated article.]

UST philosophy professor Theodore Rebard declined to be interviewed, but offered to write an open letter to the Independent and the UST community, which we have published as a Letter to the Editor.

“So, what about ‘inclusivity/diversity welcoming events?’” Rebard asks at the end of his letter. “Both because of the deliberate vagueness of the terms themselves, and because of their metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological, ethical, and political modern pedigree, to approve such events, and to carry them out, implies a prior and implicit ratification of their premises – a weak, dubious,  dangerous, and highly ambiguous undertaking.”

UST’s Campus Minister Nicole Labadie said in an interview earlier this year that she considers herself an ally of the LGBT community and the P.E.A.C.E. club.

“I love the idea of P.E.A.C.E. and I think they’re doing a really great thing, because at the core of what the Church teaches is that human beings are called to relationship,” Labadie said. “We are made in the image of likeness of God who is relationship, and we have this desire for communion with other people.”

She stressed that discrimination against homosexuals is unjust, and noted with the Catechism that those with same-sex attraction are also called to fulfill God’s will in their lives.

“If we look to the example of Christ, He welcomed people as they were, but He challenged them to grow in their relationships with God and others,” she said.

At the same time, Labadie said that because “the sexual act has been revealed by God to be both unitive and procreative,” sexual intercourse between same-sex couples is considered sinful by the Church, just like premarital sex or invitro fertaliziation.

“Identifying as gay, lesbian, or bi isn’t what’s at issue,” she said. “You’re created with a certain kind of attraction, but what is sinful is acting on it.”

Sexuality entails “a call to growth, holiness and chastity,” Labadie said. “The right ordering and expressions of sexuality drives us to new [ways of relating to others].”

She also noted the difference between a sacramental marriage and a same-sex union.

“Marriage is divinely revealed by God to be between a man and a woman only,” Labadie said. “A sacramental marriage between a same-sex couple will never happen and can never happen.”

Labadie’s support for the P.E.A.C.E club represents a shift in the relationship between the club and the University. According to founder Jackson, the club’s approval process in 2015 was slow and difficult, but he and fellow members persisted.

“We didn’t give up because we believed, why doesn’t the University have this club?” Jackson said.

Jackson said the student Council of Clubs supported the club’s formation but could not continue the approval process without authorization from UST’s administration, then under President Robert Ivany.

“After months of meetings, administration accepted the club, but emphasized the club had to be under the jurisdiction of Campus Ministry,” Jackson said.

At the time, Jackson said, Campus Ministry did not support the P.E.A.CE. club; he is glad its current leadership does.

UST’s chaplain and current Director of Campus Ministry the Rev. Chris Valka, CSB, who is also superior of the Basilian residence at UST, said he appreciates that the P.E.A.C.E club is trying to reach students at a personal level.

“The difficulty with this issue is that it is very personal, and we talk about it very publicly, and that’s what makes it so hard,” Valka said. “We keep making homosexuality an ‘issue’ rather than [about] a person.”

Like Labadie, however, he affirmed that Catholic teaching forbids extramarital sex.  “Any intercourse outside of marriage is not appropriate, and that is true of heterosexuals and homosexuals, so in that regard it is the same… Homosexuality as far as expressing one’s relationships is not a problem because that’s who you are and you can’t change that.”

Members of the P.E.A.CE. club say they feel welcomed by its personal approach. A female UST student who belongs to the club and asked to remain anonymous said UST and P.E.A.C.E have provided an environment where she feels safe to reveal her bisexual feelings.

“Living in a Catholic family always made me feel like I was hiding a big part of myself,” she said. “A lot of people are really accepting even though we are at a Catholic university.”

Escoto, too, said most people on campus are accepting of him, but said he wishes the school would show a greater outreach toward the LGBT community.

 “I’m just really surprised that we’re on Montrose, two streets from gay bars and clubs, and there is not a larger amount of openly LGBT students on campus,” Escoto said.

Valka said the Church and society in general are doing more to support the LGBT community, but that the Church still has a long way to go.

“We demonize and ostracise and tell them, ‘You’re abnormal,’ instead of saying, ‘Your gifts are great and we want them to be fully shared,” Valka said.

“My focus is more on, what does this gift of self allow you to do, instead of what it doesn’t allow you to do.”

Meanwhile, according to an email sent to faculty by Ludwick on June 21, DIO’s planned LGBT “event” will be conducted with help from the Rev. Raphael Salzillo, OP., who will join UST’s philosophy department and Center for Thomistic Studies in Fall 2019.

Saltillo is a speaker for Courage, a Catholic ministry for “men and women who experience same-sex attractions and who have made a commitment to strive for chastity.”

In an email to the Independent, Sommers wrote that “Fr. Raphael is a fine man, a good priest and an excellent scholar. UST is blessed to have him.”  She noted that the P.EA.C.E. club “has been at UST since 2015 and is a spiritual outreach to gays trying to live their Christian faith,” and that “in these general terms, there would be no reason why it could not operate at UST…

“However,” she added, “ I look forward to the possible revival of the UST Courage chapter, because the organization has a longer history and a national presence. With Fr. Raphael Salzillo…this revival could happen.”

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