On July 31, the Paulist Fathers — an independent order of Roman Catholic priests — observed their final mass at the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Situated near the heart of The Ohio State University’s campus, the Newman Center has housed the university’s student Catholic organization, Buckeye Catholic, since its formation in 1956.
For more than six decades, the Paulist Fathers built a ministry known for good old-fashioned friendliness.
But on June 30, one month after his installation, the thirteenth Bishop of Columbus Earl K. Fernandes announced that the Paulist Fathers had been dismissed from the Newman Center, and would be replaced by a diocesan priest and a renewed focus on vocational recruitment.
Now some parishioners are questioning the process behind the Bishop’s decision, suggesting that Fernandes may have targeted the Paulists in response to their relatively progressive ministry — and a recent display of public support for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth.
‘God is on your side’
In January, 2021, the Paulist Fathers added the order’s name to God is on Your Side: A Statement on Catholic Bishops Supporting LGBT Youth.
The statement was released by the Tyler Clementi Foundation — whose 18-year-old namesake died by suicide in 2010 after being outed as gay — and was signed by just 11 of the Catholic Church’s more than 5,000 Bishops.
The document offers spiritual support and encouragement to at-risk LGBTQ+ youth, which is not common in Roman Catholic faith communities. The Newman Center also asked that its name be included in a list of individual Catholic parishes that support the statement.
Fernandes has publicly denied any connection between the Paulists’ endorsement of the document and their dismissal, claiming the Paulists were dismissed as part of “pastoral priority” — according to a spokesperson for the diocese who talked to The Columbus Dispatch earlier this month.
Fernandes also said the dismissal was not part of his two-year Real Presence, Real Future plan and that the Fathers were given the opportunity to remain at the Newman Center, reporting directly to a new diocesan priest.
Uncomfortable with answering to the diocese as an independent order, the Paulists declined Fernandes’ offer.
The Paulist Fathers have a “liberal” reputation
Similarly, Diocese of Austin Bishop Joe Vasquez dismissed the Paulist Fathers from their service on campus at the University of Texas Austin in 2020, ending 112 years of ministry.
Though the Paulists are Roman Catholics, their relatively progressive approach to social issues frequently garners harsh criticism from more conservative Catholic media outlets — the same outlets that have largely celebrated Fernandes’ decision to dismiss the Paulists.
Considered “liberal” by more conservative Catholics, the Paulist Fathers’ parish included out LGBTQ+ members.
In contrast, and consistent with Catholic teaching, Fernandes called called queerness “inherently disordered,” and queer sexual and romantic relationships “sinful,” in a 2014 column for The Catholic Telegraph.
Fernandes also authored a 2011 paper asserting that aspiring priests with “homosexual tendencies,” are not capable of experiencing love, commitment or family in the same ways that heterosexual people do, and are therefore unsuitable candidates for the priesthood.
Big changes at the Newman Center
Opus Dei — which gained notoriety in secular culture with the popularity of Dan Brown’s best-selling book, The DaVinci Code — is a largely secretive Catholic group, founded in 1928. With more than 80,000 members across 80 countries that include Mother Theresa and Saint Oscar Romero, the group is most commonly known for its endorsement of ritualistic self-harm.
The second organization, Courage International, is an anti-LGBTQ+ Catholic organization founded in 1980.
According to their website, Courage is “a group of Catholics who experience same-sex attractions and who are committed to helping one another to live chaste lives marked by prayer, fellowship and mutual support.”
Via their Facebook page, Courage also mentions “ministering” to “people who experience same-sex attractions and/or gender dysphoria.”
Because the end goal of Courage International’s programing is not to change a person’s sexual orientation, but rather to repress it by “living a chaste life,” the group does not technically practice conversion therapy or “reparative” therapy.
However, The Southern Poverty Law Center notes Courage on a list of perhaps hundreds of new anti-LGBTQ+ religious groups that cropped up in the 1980s.
The oldest living Paulist Priest, 101-year-old Father James Lloyd, C.S.P., heads a chapter of Courage International at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, and has publicly spoken about his involvement with the program.
Under the Paulists’ ministry, a sign outside the front entrance to the center read, “ALL ARE WELCOME.”
Just weeks after the Fathers observed their final mass at the center, that phrase — not commonly used in Catholic faith communities — had already been removed.
Some parishioners push back
LOVEboldy is an affirming, interdenominational faith-based organization operating in Westerville, Ohio.
According to their mission statement, the organization welcomes and facilitates difficult conversations about faith, gender and sexuality, and “exists to create and develop spaces where LGBTIA+ people can flourish in Christianity.”
On August 30, LOVEboldy released a statement in support of the Paulists — expressing deep concern over the possibility of a new Courage International chapter forming at the center:
“While Courage International officially does not require or refer members to reparative or conversion therapy, there are nevertheless deep ties between Courage and the discredited work of reparative therapy proponents including Joseph Nicolosi,” the notorious California psychologist who helped popularize the pseudoscientific practices of “conversion therapy” and “reparative therapy.”
LOVEboldy’s statement also called for the elimination of Courage International meetings at every church in the Diocese of Columbus, citing the anti-LGBTQ+ ideology as “dangerous.”
After the Paulist Fathers left the center at the end of July, Bishop Fernandes observed mass at the Newman Center himself.
In the coming months, parishioners are bracing for major changes — and even searching for new Catholic faith communities that better embody the Paulists’ culture.
“With the coming changes at the Newman Center, I’m looking for other parishes where a progressive Catholic would feel welcome,” wrote one Reddit user, who said the Newman Center was the only church they had ever attended in Columbus.
In a separate post, the same user said the Paulists made the center a “very welcoming,” community.
“It’s very sad for a lot of us who haven’t always felt welcome in other parishes.” 🔥