18 March 2012


Would the Catholic chaplaincy serving Vanderbilt University be turning away from our mission if we did not seek registered student organization status for the upcoming year?

At first glace, the answer is yes. Registered status is the way to go to be a student organization at Vanderbilt. To fail to register is to turn away from our responsibility to reach out to the students. Don't we risk making ourselves even more irrelevant to the life of the ordinary student if we are not a registered student organization? It would be downright odd.

On the other hand, the newly defined non-discrimination policy that religious organizations have to abide by undermines our mission. There are numerous problems for a Catholic organization in the non-discrimination policy. The most obvious is the exclusion of religious criteria for membership and leadership. We are, after all a religious organization! It seems plausible that applying the teaching of the Theology of the Body, for example, could be found in violation of the provisions on sexuality and gender. Who knows? Single sex Bible studies clearly are a violation. Want to look for more?

Taken as a whole, the policy is at odds with our mission as a Catholic organization. We serve not only Vanderbilt but the Catholic Church. For example, am I as a priest here to serve an organization of food, fun, and fellowship? No. I am here to serve the spiritual and sacramental needs of the students, which includes teaching the fullness of the Catholic faith. I am responsible to the administration of Vanderbilt; but first I am responsible to my bishop, who connects us to the Apostolic teaching.

Being unregistered would make the Catholic chaplaincy different. But we are different. We are Catholic. We think that the Catholic faith should inform every aspect of life; that is, we should live by what we believe. What else does "catholic" mean but whole, entire, and universal? That goes for our lives.

The non-discrimination policy represents a more narrow view. Life is to be lived according to nice bureaucratic policies. Can we cram the fullness of truth into the cramped quarters of Vanderbilt's non-discrimination policy? Truth is wild and free! It does not always play nice. It claims and requires things that are at odds with the world and at odds with ourselves. By signing the non-discrimination policy we domesticate the transcendent. How can that be a fulfillment of our mission?

Vanderbilt's new non-discrimination policy actually contradicts a university's mission to seek and to follow the truth. A priori, the university is ruling out the possibility that religion offers truth. Religion can be tolerated only if it gives up claims to truth. We are doing Vanderbilt a favor by pointing out how narrow this policy makes the university.

But back to practicalities. How can we live the fullness of the Catholic faith and offer it to students if we are not a registered student organization? Through institutions and policies? Yes, to the extent we can; but better through witness of life! We are always free to do that. How can we do that on campus? The same way we will do it in life. There will not be a Catholic chaplaincy at your workplace or where you work out or socialize -- maybe not even in your neighborhood. You will let your light shine in your life and with your friends in the faith. Others will be attracted, and you will invite others. The Church, I hope, will be there to offer a rich sacramental and spiritual life. But you will have to work at it!

Could we not do that here? Might that not be better training for real life discipleship? Are we being called out into the deep? It is scary, indeed; but it is also exciting! It is nothing less than an adventure. Does Jesus really mean what He says to rely on Him? Let's find out.

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