April 2014 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
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North Carolina: Nun on the Run after Divisive Remarks at Catholic High School Assembly

Charlotte Catholic High School (NC) was the scene of a controversy following a March 21, 2014 address by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, a nun of the Dominican order, who angered some students and parents with her remarks about sexual orientation, divorce, and single parenting. Sister Jane has taken an unplanned sabbatical in the wake of parent protests over her sex education ‘lessons.’

The nun, an associate professor at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, told a student assembly at Charlotte Catholic High that children raised by single parents had a greater chance of becoming gay or lesbian than children raised by a married heterosexual couple. Her talk, billed as "Masculinity and Femininity: Difference and Gift," upset many students and parents.

Sister Jane holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome; her remarks were based on a series of instructional videos she created for Aquinas College.

Although there is no video or audio recording of Sister Jane’s remarks, students who attended told their parents that she said studies exist to prove that gays and lesbians are not born with same-sex attractions, and that correlations exist between masturbation and homosexuality.

An online protest petition with over 3,000 names resulted from Sister Jane’s appearance. Some Charlotte Catholic High parents called for a protest letter-writing campaign. The nun’s supporters responded with their own petition in favor of her viewpoint, which they said was consistent with traditional Catholic teaching. Supporters acknowledged her intent to teach male students “that by partaking in masturbation [it] will lessen your masculinity and that through the absence of a parent in the home will also make a greater risk for homosexuality.”[1]

At Salon.com, staff writer Mary Elizabeth Williams editorialized to a national readership:

“If you’re curious about the nun’s [teachings] you’re welcome to peruse her videos on ‘The Rich Gift of Love’ from the Newman Collection. [A quiz at the end of one video lecture] asserts as ‘true’ that ‘Oral sex is not part of the natural love between a man and a woman. It was actually imported by the homosexual culture’… If you, as a conservative Catholic educator, want to peddle a narrow and traditional view of the roles of men and women and say that’s how God wants you to roll, that’s bad enough. If however you’re telling teenagers flat out nonsense, pushing a fictitious view that, for instance, gay people are gay because they were damaged in childhood, you do not deserve to call yourself an educator. You do not deserve to get up in front of kids and talk to them. This isn’t about morality or opinion or advice; it’s about straight up intellectual dishonesty.”[2]

With the nun’s distortions exposed to public scrutiny, Charlotte Catholic High scheduled a town hall on April 2, 2014 to give parents an opportunity to express their concerns. Nearly 900 people filled the school’s gymnasium. Some parents expressed support for Father Matthew Kauth, the school’s chaplain who had invited Sister Jane to lecture to their teens. But many others were highly critical. While some critics were angry about the divisive details of Sister Jane’s message, others were simply upset that Chaplain Kauth had scheduled a student assembly on the topic of sexuality and not given parents prior notification. Participants who wished to speak at the town hall were allotted three minutes each, but the moderator frequently had to remind speakers to control their emotions and limit their time at the microphone.

The first parent to speak said her child came home after the assembly feeling ashamed and embarrassed. "Where was the trust? Where was the communication?" she asked Kauth. "It is trust. It is respect. It is confidence. I have lost confidence. I do not trust your judgment and I do not respect [you]." Another told Kauth, "You have divided parents, you have divided students, and we’ve lost respect for you." Such comments drew loud applause.[3]

A parent who said she was representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning students who attend Charlotte Catholic said that Sister Jane "pounded home the message" that if these students are questioning their sexual identity, they had better stay in the closet. She said that effect of the student assembly had been to create an unsafe environment for the school’s LGBTQ students and their allies. Another parent said he advised his child afterward that it would have been best to walk out of Sister Jane’s assembly in protest. "We all need to recognize that there are gay and lesbian students at Charlotte Catholic High School," he said.[4]

Father Kauth apologized to parents during the town hall, as did Father Roger Arnsparger, diocesan vicar of education. Other Charlotte Catholic High administrators also said they regretted not notifying parents about the assembly in advance, as has been done for other assemblies in the past.

Father Arnsparger explained that Sister Jane had

"…been invited to give this presentation very many times throughout the country in many dioceses and with great interest and success. Many said that the first part of her presentation at Charlotte Catholic High School was excellent and fully in line with the Catholic faith. There was unfortunately a misunderstanding about the content of the last part of the presentation. In that part, I understand that Sister used data from the Linacre Quarterly, a reputable journal, and from other sources. That data can be debated and, in fact, is debated back and forth by scholars who are researching the areas of human sexuality. Because of the ongoing debate, it would have been better if these studies and data were omitted from the presentation to the students."[5]

Father Kauth, too, defended Sister Jane's presentation on same-sex attraction as consistent with Church teaching, but joined Arnsparger in cautioning about the social science data she quoted. Parents demanded to know why he had not intervened to correct this during the student assembly. He replied, "I was stunned as anyone…I didn’t know she had inserted this other piece. That piece [on homosexuality] is something that I wouldn’t have presented.”[6]

Some parents tried coming to Father Kauth’s defense but were shouted down by others. Several thanked Kauth for the positive effect his chaplaincy has had on students. "I trust the administration here and it has brought very good and energetic talk into our household," one parent said, to loud boos.[7]

Parent arguments continued into the school's parking lot after the end of the two-hour forum, and even reverberated in Charlotte’s local Catholic congregations the following Sunday. At St. Ann Catholic Church, Rev. Timothy Reid told parishioners that some parents and students had committed sins by protesting Sister Jane’s speech with an "utter lack of charity and vicious disrespect . . . in this fight." Reid acknowledged that parents "have a right to know beforehand when such delicate matters are going to be discussed in such great detail," and said he would personally have preferred that boys and girls hear about sexuality in separate assemblies.[8]

Reid also addressed sexual orientation, telling his congregation that those "who suffer from same-sex attraction" must be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity; and that because the Church teaches that homosexual acts are always wrong, gays and lesbians are called to lives of chastity. The Charlotte Catholic High School controversy, he said, "has revealed that a large number of… our students and parents either do not know the Church's teaching on homosexuality or, worse yet, they reject it outright -- even misusing papal comments to do so."[9]

Sister Jane, meanwhile, canceled all of her subsequent speaking engagements and decided to take a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College. College president Sister Mary Sarah issued a statement that Sister Jane had veered from "the scope of her expertise" during parts of her speech at Charlotte Catholic High School.[10]

The college president defended the nun, insisting that Sister Jane “spoke clearly on matters of faith and morals,” and called her qualified to do so as a theologian trained at a Pontifical University. But, she conceded, “her deviation into realms of sociology and anthropology was beyond the scope of her expertise…There are no words that are able to reverse the harm that has been caused by these comments.”[11]

 


[1] Mary Elizabeth Williams, “Controversial nun had a long history of anti-gay remarks,” Salon.com, April 8, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at http://www.salon.com/2014/04/08/controversial_nun_had_a_long_history_of_anti_gay_remarks/#

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Exum and Patricia L. Guilfoyle, “Angry parents condemn Charlotte Catholic student assembly on sexuality,” CatholicNewsHerald.com, April 8, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tim Funk, “Priest says sins were committed in Charlotte Catholic High School 'fight',” CharlotteObserver.com, April 8, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/04/08/4826902/priest-says-sins-were-committed.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tim Funk, “Nun at center of Charlotte Catholic High controversy goes on leave,” CharlotteObserver.com, April 8, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/04/07/4825299/nun-at-center-of-charlotte-catholic.html#.U0NKfMd-cXc.