Inside Higher Ed: College suspends courses by gay priest

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

February 28, 2011

Chestnut Hill College, a Roman Catholic institution, last week told a gay priest who had been a popular adjunct there for several semesters that he was no longer welcome to teach the two religion courses he had been offered for the term starting this week.

The college acted shortly after a Philadelphia man sent a letter to the archdiocese complaining that Chestnut Hill was employing Reverend James St George, the gay priest. Father St George actually has no problem reconciling his sexuality (and a long-term partner) with his faith, as he is part of the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of the Americas, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s over a number of issues. Today, it practises many Catholic rituals and shares some Catholic theology, but also permits priests to be married or gay.

After several days of discussion of the case last week in Philadelphia area publications, Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of the college, issued a statement in which she objected to reports that Father St George has been fired, saying instead that she was trying to “clarify the conditions of our college’s decision not to issue a new part-time teaching contract to Jim St. George”.

The statement said that when he was first hired, “he presented himself as Father St George and openly wore a traditional Catholic priest’s collar”. The college now knows, the statement continued, that he is the pastor of a church that “allows priests the option to engage in same-sex partnerships. This is contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.”

The statement went on to say that “[i]t was with great disappointment when we learned through St. George’s public statements of his involvement in a gay relationship with another man for the past 15 years...While we welcome diversity, it is expected that all members of our college community, regardless of their personal beliefs, respect and uphold our Roman Catholic mission, character and values both in the classroom and in public statements that identify them with our school.”

Father St George, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, disputed several parts of the statement. First, he noted that just before being relieved of the courses, the college had sent him a contract that he was to turn in – and scheduled him to teach two classes. So he said he was fired. (He also shared emails from the college with the contract, consistent with his statements.)

Furthermore, Father St George said that he was open with Chestnut Hill officials that while he is a priest, he is not a Roman Catholic priest – and that he asked if that was an issue when he was hired. He said he was reassured by college officials, and told that many faculty members at the college are not Roman Catholic. In addition, he said that anyone who did a Google search on him would have found that the church where he is a pastor is an “Old Catholic” church.

He noted that even though the college knew he was the pastor at St Miriam Church, and even though the Roman Catholic archdiocese in Philadelphia last year informed all Catholic institutions in the area that St Miriam is not part of the Roman Catholic Church, no one ever raised any concerns. His church’s website has numerous references to “Catholic”, but also many to “Old Catholic” and lots of clues that suggest that the church doesn’t follow Roman Catholic teachings on sexual orientation and the priesthood. For example, there is a link to Father St George’s interview about being a gay priest with The Philadelphia Gay News.

Local news accounts have stressed how open Father St George has been about his sexual orientation (even if he and the college agree that he never talked about it in class), raising questions about how the college could claim to have been surprised to find out that he is a gay priest in a parish that is not Roman Catholic. A college spokeswoman declined to answer those questions, or how the college could say that Father St George hadn’t been fired when he was previously offered contracts for the semester. She said that the president’s statement would be the college’s “only participation” with this article.

A columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News reported that Father St George’s student evaluations were better than those of any other of the 56 adjuncts in his department. Among the student comments on the evaluations: “Your global justice class has changed my life”, “I thank God for this course” and “I would trade any class I have just to be in another one of your classes.”

Father St George, in the interview with Inside Higher Ed, said that the college was being unfair in implying that he had fooled its officials into letting him teach there, when he was open about his non-Roman Catholic status. He also said that he saw many others of a variety of faiths who teach at the college and who do not follow church teachings. “The college has divorced people teaching. The college has people using contraception teaching,” he said. “This is the 21st century so of course it does, but I’m being singled out.”

He said he was particularly upset that the college president would admit in the Chestnut Hill statement that part of what made him unacceptable to the college was that he had a long-term relationship with another gay man. “I’m very sad,” he said. “I’m sad that they would display such hatred and obvious bias, and I’m sad that they felt and still feel that being gay is so easily maligned that they could put it in writing.”

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