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July 8, 2002

The Jordan rules

By Eric Rangus

Don’t be fooled by the pensive look on Mark Jordan’s 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. That’s definitely been the case recently, when one of his primary research interests—sexuality in the Catholic Church—has dominated the headlines.

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 spring’s 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, Jordan’s mannerisms are light. He has a gloriously deadpan sense of humor. His speaking voice never varies much from an airy, storytelling quality. It’s 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 don’t want to be shrill like the National Enquirer: ‘Sex Lives of Priests on Display!’ And you don’t want to be weighed down with melancholy even though a lot of the material is very difficult. A lot of people are hurt. What you’ve got to do is find some way of looking at it honestly, but keeping your hope up that it’s 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 Emory’s offer of a chaired professorship in 1999. Notre Dame matched Emory’s package, but when the university’s administration refused to include sexual orientation as a protected category in the school’s nondiscrimination clause (Jordan’s 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, Jordan’s 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 Catholics—especially those who had been in religious orders or in the seminary—the 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 me—just reflecting on my own history—is how many priests and bishops live double lives for such a long time without going crazy.

“To have a partner for 20 years—as many of them do—and then to get up on the pulpit and have to attack gay people or refer to gay people as ‘they’—how do you do that every day? I couldn’t,” 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 direction.

Born to parents who were Unitarians, Jordan converted to Catholicism when he was 15. He went to seminary and graduated from St. John’s College, which had campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., and eventually taught at the nation’s 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 didn’t think about that clearly enough and what that would mean. I also thought, like most pious Catholics, that my feelings would go away in time—if I prayed hard enough and fasted hard enough. I went in search of a ‘cure.’ It didn’t 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 President’s 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 2000–01 academic year, and the leaderless commission drifted for several months before Jordan was asked to take over for 2001–02.

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, what’s next?

Jordan offered a lot of directions. Some fall under the auspices of the commission, some don’t. Emory’s 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 marriage—the sitcom marriage—in 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.”