My Church Never Talks About This
I sat there, wedged between an evangelical pastor and a devout catholic student. In front of me sat several students from the campus InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and members of the LGBTQ community. The row behind was a mix of liberal protestant, and catholic administrators and students. The campus priest was in the back too, a cheerful Franciscan who had graduated a decade ago from this very college. Undoubtedly there were many nonbelievers and students from other faith backgrounds in attendance. The event was “Sexuality and the Christian Understanding of the Human Person,” a presentation by two catholic thinkers, Sherif Girgis and James Allison. Each presented a natural law argument. Each disagreed with the other. I won’t bore you with the details. Here is one synopsis.
The gathering was at the largest meeting facility on campus. It was a packed house.
I mention the extensive list of affiliations because undoubtedly people in this audience had informed opinions which disagreed with at least one, and in some cases both, of the presenters. Here we were, an academic community, gathered to hear dialogue and debate about sex, philosophy, and religion. As I noted today perusing social media once again campuses have taken to protest controversy, this time at Yale. One student involved in the incident posted an article to a school paper demanding that a member of the campus faculty “stop instigating debate.” The issues stirring trouble in the hearts and minds of undergraduates at Yale no doubt have merit, and they are surrounding our understanding of race and ethnicity while the event at Saint Mary’s College was on sexuality, yet it is telling that the protesters wanted there not to be a conversation at all. A troubling trend that others have noted.
At the start of the night Zach Flannigan the chair of the Theology and Religious studies department gave a nod to the recent buzz of trigger warnings and safe spaceism by advising that the campus counseling center was on hand for anyone who would need it. No doubt some made use of it, but I observed only one person get up and leave mid-talk, and she returned shortly thereafter.
The next day there was a breakfast with Sherif and a lunch with James, spaces for students to engage in more direct dialogue with each. I was one of only three people at each, but was refreshed to see that these were not hothouses of people talking past each other, liberal minded students brought pointed questions to Sherif about whether the Church’s marriage of infertile couples punched a hole in his argument for bodily union, conservative catholic students really did want to hear how James dealt with the first chapter of the book of Romans. Of course both presenters handled these questions masterfully but that is immaterial. These students didn’t need protecting, they long for engagement.
After each presentation I heard and saw people shaking the presenters’ hands and thanking them heartily for coming. I was proud to be a member of this institution.
“I’m excited,” were the words of one young woman, a college freshman, as the whole InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus chapter walked together across campus that evening to hear the debate. Of everything that night it was her words that surprise me most. Not by the fact that she wanted to hear about the subject, anyone who has worked with young people (I could probably remove “young”) knows that they are interested in sex, sexuality, gender, identity. These terms are the intellectual current they swim in. Not only is it part of our embodied experience, but the educational system and the entertainment industry, both project a view of the world in which these are central issues of our day. But that same culture pillories faith communities which try to teach young people about sex, or offer an image of what virtuous sexuality might look like.
And she was excited not just to listen to people talk about sex, but because it would be about her faith and what it could tell her about her sexuality. Balk all you want, these young people love dialogue.
They are not ashamed that the Church has opinions and has a desire to express and refine and sometimes repent of those opinions. When I told her I was surprised she finished her thought, “Yes, I’m excited! My church never talks about this.” And that silence, I’ve come to believe, is shameful.
Colin Chan Redemer is a lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of California and an InterVarsity chaplain in the Bay Area. His writing has appeared in the Evansville Review, Marooned, Sojourners, and the Tampa Review.