I’m going to summarize the story here for you so I can move on to raging at its very existence. The Saint Joe’s Alumni Association is having a contest wherein couples who met at the university tell their story and share a photo. The Association posts them all to Facebook and whichever couple’s story gets the most “likes” wins a $100 restaurant gift card. Megan Edwards and her fiancée Katie McTurk tried to enter but, after contacting the Alumni Association, they were told that the “Catholic church does not recognize same-sex marriage.” I graduated from Saint Joe’s in 2005. I take pride in where I went to college. Hence the raging.
The ladies were obviously disappointed, saddened, and angered, and they posted about it on Facebook. 300 likes and over 400 shares later, the Alumni Association has relented, backpedaling with a strange mixture of “we’re Catholic and real Catholics don’t let same-sex couples marry” and “we’re liberal and all-inclusive.” Notably, I contacted the University’s Communications Office and was told that the school shares the Alumni Association’s position on the matter. Edwards and Turk are now very far ahead of all the other contest entrants, (ironically) probably as a result of the negative press the misstep won for the Association and the University. But the damage is done, not only to the faith of the women in question in the people running their alma mater, but to the faith of many Hawks in their Alumni Association.
The debacle was noted on Jezebel, where Anna North pointed out that while we can’t expect a Catholic university to lobby for same-sex marriage rights (and other civil rights unconstitutionally denied to the LGBT community), a $100 Valentine’s Day contest seems like a good, low-stakes way to stretch those liberal Jesuit muscles. The truth is (the school and some of my family may not be happy about this) that it was the education I got at Saint Joe’s that led me to the realization that I don’t believe in “God.” Really, I just realized that it shouldn’t matter whether there’s a God, that shouldn’t change how people treat one another and the world around them. At the same time, I embraced the humanism I found there, and despite “losing God” at college, I learned so much there about how to be a truly good person.
I don’t expect Saint Joe’s, the school, to openly support gay marriage. The Jesuits are a Catholic order, and Catholicism is, like many religious traditions, firmly founded on a set of “must-believes.” Unfortunately, one of those must-believes for “true” Catholics is still that not all people deserve civil rights. I remember being involved in the Gay/Straight Alliance at Saint Joe’s, a student organization that probably wasn’t very happy to hear the story I’m writing about. While they don’t have a web page of their own, they still appear on the University’s list of student organizations. I always found the University supportive of the group, which required approval and some funding from the University to form in the first place. That makes it all the more sad that, while campus may be getting more and more open and accepting of “non-traditional” couples, the University’s public face and that of the Association purporting to represent its alumni remain in the political dark ages.
And that reminds me, it’s not that Saint Joe’s is evil and hates LGBT people, or scared the Pope will strike them down if they answer this outcry with a welcoming smile instead of too-little-too-late press spin. The truth is that Saint Joe’s is a private university, and no doubt there are very wealthy people willing to donate to the school whose generosity would wither in the face of progressive opinions on same-sex marriage. More to the point, perhaps, is that this debacle is a signal that the University and the Alumni Association that fundamentally misunderstands social networking generally and Facebook specifically. This isn’t a newsletter or a television commercial: people on Facebook engage. That’s why it’s so powerful in the right hands, and so dangerous in the wrong ones. The mistake the Alumni Association made here suggests that their social media strategy is very much in the wrong hands.
At the end of the day though, allowing two engaged women to participate in an alumni Valentine’s Day contest isn’t exactly an official announcement of support for federal same-sex marriage rights legislation. The Alumni Association could have made the morally correct decision and let them in without a second thought, and, really, no one would ever have known, not donors, not the press, not disappointed blogger-alumni. Instead, they made the wrong the decision and now everyone knows. It’s a twenty-four hour news cycle these days, and the worst of the public relations backlash is over. But I can’t look at the Saint Joe’s logo quite the same way anymore, and that’s not something anyone can fix with a half-hearted, passive-aggressive attempt to smooth things over.
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