Tag Archives: O’Brien

Embracing Contradictions: Why Gay Catholics and Religious Academics need leaders like O’Brien now more than ever

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University. The design of this chapel is based on the metaphor of "A Gathering of Different Lights," which "describes Seattle University's mission" as well as "St. Ignatius' vision of the spiritual life as comprising many interior lights and darknesses, which he called consolations and desolations." (SU chapel website).

It has been a Wild-kind of month for faculty, staff, and students at Marquette University and Seattle University. After President Wild of Marquette University tore up a signed job contract with a woman who would be their first “out” Lesbian administrator (Jodi O’Brien, of Seattle University) many faculty, staff, and students on both MU and SU campuses have been left in turmoil.

Although Marquette has managed to “resolve” this conflict with a negotiated settlement, President Wild’s actions call into question a number of basic academic assumptions including: 1) the honesty of Marquette University’s statements on commitments to diversity and anti-discrimination, 2) the assumption that GLBTQ people are welcome community members within Jesuit institutions (unlike conservative Catholic and Evangelical Protestant institutions, Jesuits are known for their tolerance, encouragement of fearless intellectual curiosity, and commitment to social justice), and 3) the assumption that University faculty have the rights and responsibilities of sharing the governance of their institution.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, a key player in convincing Marquette President Wild to tear up his job contract with Jodi O'Brien

The recommendation to hire Dr. O’Brien as Dean of Arts & Sciences at Marquette came after two years of committee searches, interviews, and deliberations. The President and Provost of Marquette also met with committee members and all job candidates, and signed on with the decision to offer the job to O’Brien. This extensive vetting process was obliterated after two local conservative Catholic leaders (neither of them faculty or staff members at Marquette) caught wind of O’Brien’s hire. Somehow, unbelievably, these two men (Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and Father Paul Hartmann, the archdiocese’s judicial vicar) were able to trump the entire academic administrative vetting process at MU. The search committee and was abruptly informed that their input — as well as O’Brien’s administrative leadership skills — was neither needed nor welcome.

Despite the strong suspicion among many that this is a clear case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, President Wild has maintained throughout the aftermath of his rescinded offer that this is simply about a mismatch between O’Brien’s scholarship and Marquette’s mission. Wild has yet to adequately specify how and where O’Brien’s scholarship is anti-Marquette, anti-Jesuit, or anti-Catholic, but Father Paul Hartmann (one of the two local church officials who complained) explains that O’Brien investigates a particular “subject matter” that may create “dichotomies,” “tensions,” and “contradictions.” According to the Milwaukee Sentinel (May 12, 2010):

“Hartmann sent a March 3 letter  to the chair of the search committee that said the gender studies professor “pursues subject matter that seems destined to actually create dichotomies and cause tensions (if not contradictions) with Marquette’s Catholic mission and identity.”

As long-time colleague, mentee, and friend of Jodi O’Brien, and as a former lecturer at Seattle University (a place I still hold near and dear to my heart) I am very familiar with O’Brien’s work, as well as her commitment to Jesuit education. Ironically, what the conservative church leaders fear is actually what makes O’Brien a successful Jesuit scholar and administrator. Namely, O’Brien’s ability to embrace (rather than denounce or deny) contradictions and tensions– may in fact be a pinnacle Jesuit model of intellectual and spiritually complexity.

In her 2009 Presidential address to the Pacific Sociological Association, Professor Jodi O’Brien describes the personal growth that comes with wrestling religious and spiritual contradictions:

My research with queer Christians led me to understand and define the social self as a process of wrestling contradiction. We are in a constant state of becoming. This “becoming” is shaped through processes of interaction and revealed through the internal dialogues in which we observe, feel, comment on, and try to make sense of our own complexity. The process of self-understanding is a dialectical process of definition, a continual interplay between personal experiences and attempts to fit experience into existing conceptual categories and representations. All of us struggle to make sense of ourselves, to find ways of self-expression, and to be heard and understood. Our sense of self undergoes constant revision as it encounters friction, contradiction, and conflict along the various boundaries that constitute meaning (O’Brien 2009, Pp. 15–16).

She continues to describe how the intellectual process of finding connections in the face of conflict provides an opportunity for personal as well as professional transformation:

Isn’t this what we’re doing as sociologists when we strive to practice scholarship that matters: finding connections, revealing patterns, striving to bridge seemingly contradictory perspectives by offering deeper, richer frameworks of understanding? My suggestion is that when we experience fully the contradiction, conflict, and pain of engaging with our own teaching and research, we can’t help but be transformed  …. This produces an epistemology of contradiction that, together with the principles of the “sociological imagination,” enables us to navigate through complex personal and professional terrain in ways that both resonate and inspire (O’Brien 2009, P. 20 )

Rather than embracing the powerful teaching moments of such everday contradictions, Marquette University officials have chosen to rescind them, putting themselves closer to the edges of rigidity, fear, and fundamentalism, rather than intellectual curiosity, creativity and, I would argue, spiritual vitality.

I will leave it to Jodi O’Brien to describe the nuances and evolution of her thinking throughout her illustrious scholarly career. However, for those interested in reading more about how stereotyping and prejudice works, O’Brien’s own social psychology textbook, The Production of Reality is a great resource.  In this text as well as in the dozens of lectures she’s given to churches and universities around the country, including other Jesuit Catholic universities, O’Brien teaches us about  the subject matter of  ”permissible prejudice” – in other words, prejudice that is deemed ok if those in positions of authority justify it as such through their actions or non-actions.

And it is this critical perspective on prejudice and power that is the deeper “subject matter” at hand. This is the kind of subject matter that creates critical reflection on all forms of power relations, including but certainly not limited to that pertaining to religious institutions. This is precisely why those invested in maintaining an uncritical stance on particular power relations within the larger Marquette community needed her to leave; this is also precisely why Gay Catholics and religious academics need leaders like O’Brien now more than ever.

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Referenced and recommended sources:

O’Brien, J. (2009) “Sociology as an epistemology of contradiction.” Sociological Perspectives 52, 1, 5-22.

O’Brien, J. (2007).”Queer Tensions: The Cultural Politics of Belonging and exclusion in same gender marriage debates.”” Pp. 125-149 in Interdisciplinary Readings on Sex and Sexuality. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

O’Brien, J. (2005).  The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings in Social Interaction, 4th Edition. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press (Sage).

O’Brien, J.  (2002).  “Heterosexism and Homophobia.” Article length entry for the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences.  Oxford: Elsevier Publishing.

Jaschick, S. “Stained Glass Ceiling.” Inside Higher Education. May 11, 2010.

While this case underscores timeless clashes between religion and sexuality—particularly in the form of gay and lesbian “permissible prejudice” within religious institutions — some argue that this discrimination is rising in a backlash movement against the fight for equal rights by gays and lesbians. For example, On March 6, 2010, the Washington Post reported that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican, advised Virginia’s public colleges and universities to revoke policies protecting employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

See also the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force statement on ending job discrimination.


Related posts on Sexuality & Society:

http://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2010/05/12/in-annuling-contract-with-obrien-marquette-can-assume-its-missionary-position/

http://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2010/05/10/marquette-rescinds-job-offer-to-sociologist-and-sexuality-scholar-jodi-obrien/

In annuling contract with O’Brien, Marquette can assume its Mission(ary) Position

Administrators at Marquette University have found themselves in an awful mess this week after revoking a job offer to Jodi O’Brien, their top candidate  for the position of Dean of Arts & Sciences. (See our earlier post for details on the case).

The official reason for this radical breach of academic, professional, and legal decorum is still murky, coded in terms like “marriage,” “family,” and “the Catholic mission.” President Wild and Marquette spokesperson Mary Pat Pfeil claim that the reversal had nothing to do with the fact the O’Brien is a lesbian. Indeed, since she was “out” during the entire process, this might be true. Indeed, Marquette’s website includes several specific references to the idea that discrimination based on sexual orientation is not acceptable. Below is one example:

As a Catholic, Jesuit university, Marquette recognizes and cherishes the dignity of each individual regardless of age, culture, faith, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability or social class … Through our admissions and employment policies and practices, our curricular and co-curricular offerings, and our welcoming and caring campus environment, Marquette seeks to become a more diverse and inclusive academic community dedicated to the promotion of justice. (Marquette University’s statement on Human Dignity and Diversity.)

So if O’Brien wasn’t disqualified because she is gay, per se, what is “really” going on? Maybe it’s just the sort of gay she is, the sort who likes to talk openly about sexuality, and moreover to discuss it critically within the context of social institutions such as religion and family. An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides a few more clues in this direction:

Officials haven’t provided more detail about what writings might have raised red flags. But Wild told members of the dean search committee last week that there was an article in which “sex positions” and “sex toys” were mentioned, and that the passage could be interpreted as autobiographical, said psychology professor Stephen Franzoi, who served on the committee. O’Brien’s work includes a sociological study of vignettes on lesbian sex. Franzoi said members of the search committee reviewed the work again and did not believe the passages were autobiographical and that the article was a scholarly work.

So let’s get (or make) this story straight:

  1. Jodi O’Brien has worked and lead for 15 years in a Jesuit institution (Seattle University), and is an enthusiastic proponent of the Jesuit mission (e.g. see her cover letter to Marquette).
  2. Marquette’s interpretation of the Jesuit Mission is to NOT discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. 
  3. Marquette and O’Brien agreed that their union would be mutually beneficial.
  4. After Marquette proposed a job offer and O’Brien accepted, leaders in the Marquette extended family became concerned about O’Brien: In particular, her critique of the patriarchal family and her open discussion of non heteronormative sexuality. These previously unnamed members (today named as two Milwaukee archdiocese leaders, judicial vicar Paul Hartmann and Archbishop Jerome Listecki) became suspicious that O’Brien’s writings were not purely intellectual, but could be actual autobiographical and public representations of a sexual life led outside of heteronormative boundaries.

Simply stated, my conclusion is this: This is not a conflict between O’Brien’s lesbian identity and Marquette’s Catholic Jesuit Mission. This is about conservative, Milwaukee-based Church officials needing to divert the attention (of parishioners, as well as of media) away from critical sexuality scholarship and back toward its (silent) missionary position.

O’Brien’s critical sexuality scholarship is threatening to conservative Church leaders because it calls into question the utility of silence around discussing sexual matters. This is much more than just about an Archbishop’s distaste for sex toys: this is about a distaste for discussion of the great sexual variance found within the human species and analysis of how heterosexist family formations are not universal and “natural” but are created, regulated, and enforced by social institutions such as the Catholic Church.

Make no mistake, there are many people living and working within Catholic and Jesuit instituions who live their lives outside of heternormative married couples and families. The very core of Catholicism is based on elevating these non heteronormative models in the form of priests and nuns.

Unlike some religious traditions, Catholicism offers women and men a legitimate option to REFRAIN from marriage and to join vibrant homosocial communities. But the Marquette situation illustrates that this freedom from marriage and heterosexuality may be delicately balanced upon a strict code of silence. Even if a Marquette faculty or staff member has no personal interest in marriage or heterosexuality, the lesson learned here is that they must only discuss these views and practices in distinctly NON-SEXUAL ways. Although invisible on Marquette’s website, the consequence of violating the code of sexual silence is real. O’Brien got dis-invited to lead the Marquette family not because she crossed a line of heteronormativity, but because she discussed these matters publicly.

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Related Sexuality & Society blog posts:

Dworkin, S. and Lerum, K. “Marquette rescinds job offer to sociologist and sexuality scholar Jodi O’Brien.” May 10, 2010. 

Lerum, K. “Catholic Priests, Sexual Abuse, and Learning how to talk about sex in church.” Sexuality & Society March 29, 2010.

Referenced news articles:

Farden, K. “SU Prof. O’Brien was eager to take Dean position at Marquette.” Seattle University Spectator. May 12, 2010 

Johnson, A, Sharif Durhams, S. and Ferral, K.”Listecki raised alarm over Marquette hiring: Comments are first indication Milwaukee archdiocese raised concerns about O’Brien.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. May 12, 2010.

Marquette Rescinds job offer to Sociologist and Sexuality scholar, Jodi O’Brien

Professor Jodi O'Brien

Last month Marquette University –a Jesuit University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — offered esteemed Sociologist Jodi O’Brien the position of Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. After carefully weighing the vast professional and personal transitions that such a move would entail, O’Brien accepted the offer. She signed the contract and mailed it back to Marquette. She and her partner were preparing to put an offer on a house in Milwaukee. But early last week, after pressure from unnamed sources, Marquette backtracked. The official reason? As Marquette President Father Wild told the New York Times,“We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.”

This abrupt turn away from O’Brien – a job candidate actively pursued by search committees at Marquette for the past TWO years — has left O’Brien’s extensive and loyal network of colleagues, friends, and students vacilliating between complete disbelief and rage. Hundreds of her would-be Marquette colleagues and students are also shocked by this news and have organized several protests. Two Facebook support groups have emerged, one originating from Marquette, one from Seattle University. Marquette Professor of Theology Daniel C. Maguire has written a scathing open letter to Marquette President Robert Wild and Provost John Pauly, calling for Wild’s resignation and for Wild’s successor to re-offer the job to O’Brien.

In this post we will simply list some of the facts of this case. We will provide an overview of O’Brien’s scholarship, as well as the legal and social implications of Marquette’s actions in a follow-up post.

  • Jodi O’Brien has been a leader at her home institution of Seattle University (a Jesuit University) since she arrived as an Assistant Professor in 1995. She quickly became promoted to Associate Professor and has served as Chair of the department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work for seven years. O’Brien was promoted to Full Professor since 2005. In 2007 she received the honor and responsibility of being named the Lewis B. Gaffney Endowed Chair, a two year rotating position that carries with it the mandate of connecting academic and community life with the Jesuit mission.
  • Dr. O’Brien has a long history of leadership positions in national professional organizations including the American Sociological Association and the Pacific Sociological Association. From 2008-2009 O’Brien served as President of the Pacific Sociological Association.
  • O’Brien is the author of dozens of articles and the author and editor of several books, including Everyday Inequalities, and The Production of Reality (now in its 4th edition),  a leading textbook in the field of Social Psychology.

Marquette’s excuse for reversing their offer is not sitting well with many, including those deeply committed to the Catholic and Jesuit mission. In his letter to Marquette University President Father Wild, Professor Maquire is incredulous that although Father Wild and Provost Pauly based their “decision on an interpretation of what was or what was not compatible with Catholic teaching,” they did not consult Catholic theologians in their decision. Maguire scolds:

(Y)ou did not consult the faculty experts on Catholic moral teaching on this campus.  The Theology Department is one of the major theologates in North America, just a few yards away from your offices.

As well, Maguire reminds Father Wild and Provost Pauly that they also ”ignored teachers of ethics in the Philosophy department and professors in Sociology, Dr. O’Brien’s field.”

As professors in Sociology and long term colleagues of Dr. O’Brien, we are most happy to offer our assessment of O’Brien’s scholarship on religion and sexuality. Stay tuned.

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Referenced news articles:

Dillon, S. “Marquette rescinds offer to Sociologist.” New York Times. May 6, 2010.

Durhams, S. and K. Ferral. “Marquette on hot seat for rescinding job offer to Lesbian.” Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin. May 6, 2010.

Finnegan, L. “Marquette Withdraws Job offer to Lesbian Dean Candidate Jodi O’Brien.” Huffington Post. May 7, 2010.

How to not hire a dean.” Editorial. Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Wisconsin. May 7, 2010.