I first came to know the Catholic Studies department at the University of St. Thomas while on its undergraduate Rome program. I was trying to claw my way out of depression during that semester. The year before, I had been kicked out of my dorm at Notre Dame because of a confusing same-sex relationship, and also banned from attending Mass in that dorm’s chapel. I was nineteen, I was confused about how to live my sexuality in an integrated way as a gay Catholic committed to Church teaching, and I was kicked out of my campus home. So I went to Rome. After I came out to a Catholic Studies student in Rome and was received with kindness, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school at St. Thomas. I felt that Notre Dame had rejected me but that the Catholic community at St. Thomas would want me.
After college, I went to St. Thomas to pursue a joint degree, a J.D. and an M.A. in Catholic Studies. I loved it. I got two fellowships. In the Masters program, I maintained a perfect GPA. In law school, I helped rewrite a course’s curriculum and contributed to an award-winning book on legal professionalism. In my free time, I accepted speaking gigs around the midwest to share the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and my efforts to make sense of it in my own life. I interned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and two corporate law departments.
In the spring of my first year of law school, a Catholic Studies professor sent me an email, asking me to consider an internship through St. Thomas. For six months (possibly extending to a full year), I would work for the Holy See at the United Nations in Geneva. He laid out the great experiences had by the current intern. He wanted to know if I was interested and wrote:
“As the nature of the internship has become clearer, I cannot think of a better candidate for next year than yourself. You have all the requisite talents, solid intellectual credentials, and, what they are especially interested in, a sound faith that is engaged in the issues that face the Church.”
We set up a brief meeting, but I didn’t need much convincing. I loved travel, I loved the Church, and I loved the thought that I could apply my studies to real-world issues while serving the Holy See. I turned in my application to the Catholic Studies department chair the following week. I thought it the perfect next step for me, both as an upcoming attorney and as a passionate Catholic. Within the Church I thought the sky was the limit, but I failed to see the glass ceiling waiting for me.
Shortly after, I sat down with the department chair in his office. I thanked him for sending my application to the Geneva papal nuncio for review and said that I did have one matter I wanted to disclose before moving forward. I told him that, as I’m sure he knew, I was gay. I shared my commitment to Church teaching and that I had spoken and written publicly defending the Church’s position on homosexuality. I just wanted to disclose this so that the Holy See heard it from me, rather than from an article someone might forward to them.
The chair told me that he appreciated me sharing this. “My understanding is that, rather than challenging Church teaching, your work is focused on thinking creatively about these matters,” he said. I was flattered that he knew even a little about this work. He was a big deal in the Catholic community, a co-founder of the Catholic Studies program and a man idolized by many of my peers. I still consider him one of my best professors. He told me this would not be a problem.
So I announced to my friends that I had applied for the internship and that final details were being worked out. I told my parents about how serving the Holy See could open up other opportunities working for the Church in the future. I told my roommates that, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be living with them the following year.
A couple of weeks later I received an email from the department chair:
“After a conversation with the nuncio it was decided that it would not be a good time for you to take the internship. The UN in Geneva has been in a highly politicized situation about issues of sexual identity, reflected most directly in the recent committee report demanding a fundamental change in Church teaching in these areas. The nuncio is concerned that it would be an injustice to you to insert you into this situation.”
He expressed that he was very sorry about this and would be happy to speak about it when he returned from his trip to Rome.
I promptly responded: “Thank you for your message. I certainly understand. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you find another candidate, and enjoy your time in Rome.” I didn’t realize the extent to which I had been deflated by the situation. I put that experience into a box, shut the lid on it, and shoved it deep under the bed of my emotional room. I didn’t open that box for years.
The Company Man
During that time, I was a Company Man. As a Company Man, you work hard. You keep your head down, unless you’re defending the organization. You put the company’s needs ahead of your own. If something looks wrong, you give the company the benefit of the doubt, or you tell your superior and trust that they’ll take care of it. You don’t make a public fuss.
A friend ended up taking the internship. They didn’t know what I’d been through, though a former staff member for the nuncio had found out what happened to me and reached out. They shared that they were gay. They weren’t out, but they said that what happened to me made them feel that their former role for the Holy See had been invalidated.
Events in the Church over the last couple of years have caused many Company Men and Women to rethink our posture towards the Church as an institution. My rethinking came somewhat before the abuse crisis. As the Pennsylvania grand jury report made its way through the American laity, devoted Catholics experienced shock that clergy would put the reputational and financial stability of the Church ahead of the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health of its members. I wasn’t shaken, because I had already experienced this personally, albeit under much less traumatic circumstances.
Stepping away from my role as Company Man has allowed me to ask clarifying questions. How would my situation have been handled if the decision were made because the applicant were a person of color? Or a person with a disability? Or a woman? Some nations have refused to take women delegates seriously at the UN and fierce debates over women’s issues abound in the international sphere, but women had held the position in the past. I didn’t understand the gravity of the decision until years later, when I reframed the question in those terms. Certainly, those fully committed to the the dignity of the human person would have told the nuncio: “We will not tolerate unjust discrimination in the selection of candidates, and if you will not accept this extremely qualified student, we will not continue our involvement with this internship.” Surely my friends in Catholic Studies who knew about the situation would have been angrier (or angry at all). Surely someone would have brought up the Catechism’s paragraph 2358.
The Catholic Studies department could reasonably be considered a co-conspirator in unjust discrimination. The department discussed the decision with the nuncio, conveyed it to me without objection or a full consideration of the principles of justice, and then went out in search of a non-gay candidate to provide to the Holy See. But the nuncio and the Catholic Studies department did not only agree to refuse me a job opportunity because I was gay. To add insult to injury, the reason for the decision was framed as something done for my own good: they alleged that it would be unfair to put a gay man to work for the Holy See when issues of sexuality are being hotly debated. It did not seem to occur to anyone involved that the person best suited to confront issues related to homosexuality and the Church might actually be a gay Catholic. Nor did anyone ask me whether, given the current political conditions, I felt I could carry out my duties as an educated and trained professional. If they thought it best for me to avoid working actively in spaces where my sexuality was a source of controversy, they should have just asked me to stop being Catholic.
People ask me: How could you stay in a Church that treats you this way, in a Church that so often doesn’t want you? Some have said it’s like remaining in a relationship with an abusive partner. Perhaps. I think of it more as having a family member who suffers from mental health issues. The Church suffers from something like a mental disorder, a spiritual and intellectual disorder. What else could you call it, when one unjustly discriminates against another, and then says the discrimination was done for the other’s benefit? We must call the disorder for what it is.
While recognizing the disorder, I remain Catholic because I will not let a disorder dictate the terms of my Catholicity. I am not just in a relationship with their Church. This is also my Church.
The nuncio and the department treated me badly in this matter. Professors and administrators permitted and participated in a conspiracy of discrimination. I now feel that I had been sacrificed in order for my school to maintain reputationally-important relationships. Rather than enjoying a jump-start to a career working for the Church, I worry about carrying for the rest of my life a skepticism about fair employment in the Church, as well as a disillusionment about those whom I might want to believe are great Catholics.
Catholic discrimination against gay persons isn’t always because of a violation of Church teaching. Sometimes, it really is just because you’re gay. Many of my friends idolize the now-former chair of Catholic Studies and would undoubtably want to canonize him. I can’t. Like Notre Dame, St. Thomas has left me wondering at times about whether I am truly a full member of its community. In at least one employment opportunity the department had agreed to the position: gay persons need not apply.
But even if their actions were inexcusable, I’m grateful for other things. I grew from and am grateful for what they did offer me. Catholic Studies fully funded my degree, provided a phenomenal education, and facilitated the cultivation of deep friendships. One odd thing about Catholic educational institutions is that the best ones will give you the tools to engage them both thoughtfully and critically. Catholic Studies did this for me. In a way, even this critique grew out of the program. I continue to support Catholic Studies, and I modestly donate to the department from time to time. My support for Catholic Studies, like my support for the Church, continues because I truly believe it can do better than it did to me, and because despite that incident (and a few others like it, at least one of them worse) Catholic Studies has done much good in my life.
I love the program in the way you love a family that hurts you sometimes. You still love them. But you name the harm for what it is and demand they do better. That hurt resulting from that experience still tortures me from time to time. I don’t know what to do about it, except to do what I can to create the future for someone else that I was never permitted to have. I think that starts with sharing what happened to me. We can’t underestimate the power of our stories. If you have one, I hope you’ll share it too.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.