Sister Jane Dominic: one strike and she’s out?

[“Ditto” for other orthodox Catholic teachers and lecturers in similar circumstances?]

Sister Jane Dominic: one strike and she’s out?

By Phil Lawler | April 07, 2014

We still don’t know exactly what Sister Jane Dominic Laurel said at Charlotte Catholic High School to provoke such an angry reaction. No recording has been produced; no text of her talk has been released. We have only second-hand reports. We do know that the school and the Charlotte diocese have apologized, and now Aquinas College, where Sister Jane Dominic teaches, has announced that she will be cancelling her speaking engagements and talking a leave of absence.

Did Sister Jane Dominic Laurel do or say something wrong? If not, why is there any need to apologize for her talk? Why should she stop making public appearances?

As Jeff Mirus has pointed out, Charlotte Catholic was right to apologize for not having informed parents beforehand about the nature of the presentation Sister Jane Dominic would give. But that’s a complaint against the school, not the speaker.

An official of the Charlotte diocese, after saying that most of the sister’s presentation was “excellent and fully in line with the Catholic faith,” added that toward the end of the talk Sister Jane Dominic, who is trained as a theologian, included some sociological observations which could be debated. “Because of the ongoing debate,” said Father Roger Arnsparger, “it would have been better if these studies and data were omitted from the presentation to the students.” Sister Mary Sarah, president of Aquinas College, made a similar observation:

In her presentation, Sister Jane Dominic spoke clearly on matters of faith and morals. Her deviation into realms of sociology and anthropology was beyond the scope of her expertise.

Are we to believe, then, that a theologian should not use any sociological data? That high-school students should not be introduced to thoughts that are debatable? No, another sort of complaint is at work here. Aggrieved students and their parents said that the information presented by Sister Jane Dominic was offensive and/or hurtful.

Now it is possible that a theologian, venturing into the field of sociology, might present arguments awkwardly, and thereby give offence. If Sister Jane Dominic Laurel were an inexperienced public speaker, that might be a viable hypothesis to explain this sad incident. But in fact she is quite experienced, and generally acclaimed.

A look at Sister’s speaking calendar (which, unfortunately, is now hard to find on the web) shows that she gave 13 presentations last November, to audiences in New York, Oklahoma, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In December she spoke at 14 parishes in Florida. If any of those presentations sparked complaints, I didn’t hear of them. She has no history of offending audiences.

Maybe she had a bad night in Charlotte. Maybe she introduced some new material that she didn’t know how to present properly. Or maybe—just maybe—she ran into an audience that was prepared to take offense at a clear presentation of Catholic teaching. I don’t know the truth, and unless some more hard fact become available, I doubt the truth will ever be clear.

But this much is clear: After one contentious presentation, an effective speaker has been sidelined. Sister Jane Dominic Laurel is now labeled, perhaps forever, as a “controversial” speaker. Whenever she does resume public speaking, some audiences will view her with suspicion, and her critics will be ready to pounce.

It’s bad enough that a Silicon Valley executive can be hounded out of an executive position because he dared to defend marriage. But if a Catholic theologian can suffer a similar fate, that’s intolerable.

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