Dont be fooled by the pensive look on Mark Jordans
face. Make no mistake, he can be a serious guy when he needs to
be, but for the most part he is as laid back and approachable as
a professor can be.
Sometimes his subject matter requires a light touch. Thats
definitely been the case recently, when one of his primary research
interestssexuality in the Catholic Churchhas dominated
Since January, when the Boston Globe broke the story about
the Catholic Church covering up the sexual misconduct of its clergy,
Jordan, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion, has been the go-to
guy for news organizations seeking expert commentary.
In 2000 he completed the book The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality
in the Catholic Church. It received some critical acclaim (along
with a good bit of disdain heaped on it by several far-right Catholic
groups) upon its release, but the furor soon died down. That was
until reporters began scrounging for sources to discuss this springs
crisis in the church.
Since January, Jordan has appeared on national news networks like
CNN as well as local news programs. The New York Times sat
him down for a Q&A on the subject that ran in May. After a while,
the subject became so overwhelming that Jordan had had enough. He
stopped commenting on it. CNN had asked him to attend the Catholic
bishops conference in Dallas in the spring, and Jordan refused.
I decided at that point I had said everything I needed to
say, Jordan said. There was a lot of repetition and
the accounts were getting more and more inflammatory on both sides.
Despite the unquestionable seriousness of some of his research,
Jordans mannerisms are light. He has a gloriously deadpan
sense of humor. His speaking voice never varies much from an airy,
storytelling quality. Its an approach he attempts to duplicate
in his writing.
I think one of the hardest things is to get the right tone
of voice, Jordan said. You dont want to be shrill
like the National Enquirer: Sex Lives of Priests on
Display! And you dont want to be weighed down with melancholy
even though a lot of the material is very difficult. A lot of people
are hurt. What youve got to do is find some way of looking
at it honestly, but keeping your hope up that its possible
to move forward and to learn from it.
Looking honestly at things is something Jordan has quite a bit
of experience with. A gay man and a Catholic, Jordan came out while
a religion professor at Notre Dame. Controversial at the time (melodramatic
is one word Jordan used to describe the atmosphere surrounding his
revelation), he weathered the uproar and spent more than 14 years
on the university faculty.
He accepted Emorys offer of a chaired professorship in 1999.
Notre Dame matched Emorys package, but when the universitys
administration refused to include sexual orientation as a protected
category in the schools nondiscrimination clause (Jordans
condition for staying), he moved south.
Jordan is a specialist in the history of Catholic theology, particularly
the work of 13th century theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas.
Generally, Jordans research encompasses many of the core teachings
(read: conservative) of Catholicism. For him to come out as gay
was a shock to many of his colleagues, yet the inner turmoil Jordan
grappled with before making his decision was hardly foreign.
The more I listened to stories from gay priests or from other
gay Catholicsespecially those who had been in religious orders
or in the seminarythe more I heard how much of their discovery
of themselves as having gay sensibility was also the story of their
entering religious life, he said.
While working on a project having to do with the history of moral
theology, Jordan realized he could no longer live in silence.
I realized that I had to come out or just stop everything
I was doing because the inner friction was so high that I just could
not go on, he said. And one of the astonishing things
to mejust reflecting on my own historyis how many priests
and bishops live double lives for such a long time without going
To have a partner for 20 yearsas many of them doand
then to get up on the pulpit and have to attack gay people or refer
to gay people as theyhow do you do that every
day? I couldnt, he said.
Jordan said that while much of the inner sanctum of the Catholic
Church could be described as homophobic, many gay men are drawn
to it. That conflict is one of the things that brought Jordan to
researching the church in the first place. Jordan spent half his
childhood in a small village in Mexico, where the Catholic Church
plays a much different role than it does in this country. There,
the church is interwoven in most every aspect of life. It provides
art and intellectualism. It feeds and clothes the poor, takes care
of people when they are sick, and also provides a moral and spiritual
Born to parents who were Unitarians, Jordan converted to Catholicism
when he was 15. He went to seminary and graduated from St. Johns
College, which had campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M.,
and eventually taught at the nations preeminent Catholic-affiliated
university, Notre Dame.
To go [to Notre Dame] as faculty means you have to be the
American Catholic professor, Jordan said. I didnt
think about that clearly enough and what that would mean. I also
thought, like most pious Catholics, that my feelings would go away
in timeif I prayed hard enough and fasted hard enough. I went
in search of a cure. It didnt happen.
While Jordan has long been a campaigner for a better place for
gay people in the church, he also has been active in improving gay
life at the universities where he has worked.
Shortly after coming to Emory, Jordan joined the Presidents
Commission on LGBT Concerns. The commission had been a campus staple
for several years but recently had been struggling to find its direction.
Its chair left the University midway through the 200001 academic
year, and the leaderless commission drifted for several months before
Jordan was asked to take over for 200102.
He righted what had been a unsteady ship. The commission functions
smoothly now, and it has raised its profile not only on the main
campus, but at Oxford as well. Now, as Jordan rolls off the commission,
the inevitable question is, whats next?
Jordan offered a lot of directions. Some fall under the auspices
of the commission, some dont. Emorys lack of an LGBT
studies program or a thriving intellectual community for LGBT faculty
members (many of whom are drawn to the University because of its
forward-thinking policies) were two of the concerns he mentioned.
In addition to his thoughts on these subjects, Jordan is working
on another book as well. This one is on same-sex marriages. Last
month, he went to San Francisco to do some research, as well as
attend a ceremony at City Hall where more than 200 same-sex unions
were performed. The manuscript is due next year.
Pretty much everybody has their first idea of marriage not
from the church or from gay culture, but from advertising,
Jordan said. So the first thing we have to do is cut below
the level of advertised marriagethe sitcom marriagein
order to get down to where what people are really looking for when
they are asking for a church blessing. There are a number of fundamental
questions we are ignoring about why Christians get married at all.