No one would criticize the Yves St. Laurent company for dismissing a part-time salesman who was also managing a store selling inferior clothes called Yves St. Laurence, or the Tommy Hilfiger company for letting go a junior executive who also ran a knock-off clothing company named after a Tommy Hilfinger. Everyone would understand their desire to protect their name and brand.
It’s the prudent thing to do, especially if you think you offer the world something worth protecting. People understand this when looking at ephemeral and trivial items like fashionable clothing, yet many people will not grant the Catholic Church the same ability to protect its name and define its brand. They take to themselves the authority to say what is and is not Catholic.
Last Thursday an annoyed columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News complained that Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic college in the suburbs run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, had let go an adjunct religion professor who served as a pastor in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of America. James St. George was, she wrote, a great teacher, loved by students, so why would the college fire him? The Philadephia Daily News ran a news story yesterday indirectly suggesting (by giving the last six paragraphs of the article to his supporters, for one thing) the same point.
On Friday, the latter reported, “the college issued a statement accusing him not only of being gay, which it called contrary to traditional Catholic doctrine, but also of misrepresenting before he was hired that he was a member of an independent branch of Catholicism.” (That “which it called” is another of the indirect suggestions.)
The college seems to have acted in response to an e-mailed complaint from a local lawyer, who pointed out that “Having someone like Jim St. George teach theology at a Catholic college perpetrates a fraud on parents who send their daughters and sons to Chestnut Hill for a Catholic education.” He sent it to Cardinal Rigali as well as officials at the college and the Daily News’ columnist.
St. George says that he told the college about his church but not his sexual behavior when he was first interviewed, though he did not try to hide it. In an official statement, the college’s president says he didn’t tell them about his church and that they didn’t know about his homosexuality.
St. George’s group is one of those many little groups that splinter or flake off large bodies like the Catholic Church, keeping some of the substance and many of the trappings—its seminary is called “Immaculate Conception”—but making adjustments to the difficult parts, almost invariably the moral teachings. This one has just seven parishes, though it features one archbishop, two bishops, one monsignor, two “very reverends,” and two plain “reverend fathers,” some of whom in addition to St. George have “partners.”
It does not seem to be part of the mainline Old Catholic movement. (“Old Catholicism was born not in Alexandria, Constantinople, or Rome, but out of ancient churches of Caesarea, Glastonbury, and Utrecht,” according to the “vision statement” on the group’s website.)
The group’s website as well as those of its churches feature words like “acceptance” and “inclusion.” St. Miriam’s describes itself as “a vibrant, dynamic, multicultural and inclusive community,” and I am fairly sure the governing term in that list is “inclusive,” the inclusivity touted primarily of the sexual variety.
There’s really no doubt that St. George is hostile to the Catholic Church and promotes a competitor. “I often say that the Roman Catholic Church is so bent on rules that they’ve forgotten about the grace and the love of God,” he told the Philadelphia Gay News in an interview run last February. (Did no one at the college know about this interview?) “When you come in to the church, right there on the bulletin board is a statement that basically reads, ‘If you are gay or lesbian, transgender, divorced, non-Catholic . . . etc, you are welcome here.’ There’s a whole list; pretty much anyone who would be rejected by the traditional Roman Catholic Church.”
A running banner on St. George’s church’s home page reads “Come and Experience Saint Miriam and see what being Catholic is really all about!” What it’s really about, you are supposed is realize, is not what the Catholic Church is about—it’s more about what the Catholic Church is not about.
One hopes the college is telling the truth in claiming that they did not know about St. George’s membership in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of America and his sexual choices, though if they are, at the very least they did not do their due diligence, as lawyers put it. These, and especially the first, are hard things to miss.
Someone ought to have asked him of what diocese was he a priest and at which parish he served. It’s one of the obvious ice-breaker questions one would ask at the beginning of the interview, while getting the coffee. He received his M.Div. degree from a Protestant seminary and—someone must have seen his resume in order to find his academic qualifications for teaching college classes—this itself should have raised questions. But apparently not.
However he was hired, with whatever degree of knowledge or ignorance, the college should be praised for not hiring him again. St. George runs the local branch of an enterprise dedicated in part to drawing people away from the Catholic Church into what it claims is real Catholicism, and doing so by looking as much like the Church as possible. The kind of Christianity into which it draws people is one the Church knows to be spiritually and morally destructive.
Not rehiring someone like St. George is not just a matter of protecting the brand, to put the matter in secular terms, though the Church has to be much more careful than Chestnut Hill College was to make sure that her identity and her message remain clear, if she wants people to know what they’re getting and avoid the imitations and knock-offs. It is a matter of proclaiming the life-giving truths she offers the world in a way that will be seen and heard in a world filled with groups offering partial and incomplete and misleading gospels, gospels marketed as if they were the real thing.
What those truths are and who may join in proclaiming them is something for the Church, not annoyed newspaper columnists (and vexed editorials are likely to follow, I suspect) to decide.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.