"Here at Holy Cross academic freedom is a foundational principle, as it is for all academic institutions," Margaret N. Freije, provost and dean of the college, wrote in an email sent to Holy Cross faculty on Tuesday. "Moreover, freedom of inquiry and the search for truth are foundational to our mission and to the Catholic intellectual tradition," she wrote. "We will continue to reiterate our commitment to academic freedom and our mission."
The writings have been controversial on campus since the work of Tat-siong Benny Liew, holder of the Class of 1956 Chair of New Testament Studies in the Religious Studies Department at Holy Cross, was featured in an article in the Fenwick Review, a conservative student paper. A Fenwick Review reporter read scholarly publications by Liew written before he was named in 2013 to the New Testament chair at the college.
In a 2009 article cited by the paper, Liew wrote that Christ in the Gospel of John might be perceived as a cross-dresser of indeterminate gender, whose Passion can be viewed in a homoerotic light, and whose bodily penetration on the cross suggests a masochistic sexual relationship with God the Father.
Liew's article, "Queering Closets and Perverting Desires: Cross-Examining John's Engendering and Transgendering Word Across Different Worlds," demonstrates "the centrality of sex and gender to his way of thinking about the New Testament," Fenwick Review reporter Elinor Reilly wrote.
The article in the student publication was later cited on conservative news sites and sparked controversy during Holy Week.
Worcester's Catholic bishop, Robert J. McManus, described the notions advanced by the Holy Cross theologian as "highly offensive and blasphemous." Members of the class of 1956 that endowed the college's chair in New Testament studies said they may seek Liew's removal from the position.
The president of Holy Cross, the Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, released a statement describing Liew as a "dedicated teacher" and "man of faith," and defending the freedom of scholars to "push boundaries on widely accepted thought."
However, Boroughs added: "I strongly disagree with the interpretation of John's Gospel, as described in the Fenwick Review, and I find it especially offensive in this most sacred of all weeks in the liturgical calendar."
The college released a statement last week on the controversy. "The decade-old work referenced in the Fenwick Review article was not intended for an undergraduate classroom, nor has it ever been assigned at Holy Cross," read the statement released by college spokesman John Hill. "It was an intentionally provocative work, not a statement of belief, meant to foster discussion among a small group of Biblical scholars exploring marginalization. No one has made a complaint about the content of Professor Liew's classes in his four years at Holy Cross."
The Telegram & Gazette emailed Hill to ask whether the professor's interpretation of John's Gospel was an issue when Liew was appointed to the Class of 1956 Chair five years ago. He declined to respond.
Liew has not replied to email or phone requests for an interview.
The Fenwick Review reporter, a Holy Cross senior, also declined an interview request, as did the Review's editors.
The paper's faculty adviser, David L. Schaefer, professor of political science at Holy Cross, said: "I would be inclined to guess that this is the biggest scoop the Fenwick Review has run in 28 years."
He said the paper's editors in recent years have been particularly concerned with religious and theological topics.
"They are taking these issues seriously and I think they did uncover a major problem here," Schaefer said. "I'm Jewish, so, as the saying goes, I don't have a dog in this fight, except indirectly as a longtime faculty member concerned with the reputation of the college. Speaking as an outsider, I can only make the analogy as a Jew: I would find it astounding (if) I were an alumnus of Yeshiva University and they had hired somebody to teach the things about Moses that this theologian says about Jesus. I found it astounding.”
Liew's 1997 doctoral thesis at Vanderbilt University, which examines the politics of Roman colonial occupation reflected in the Gospel of Mark, "moves literary criticism of the Gospels further into the socio-political struggle for liberation," according to the publisher's description when it was released in book form two years later.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Liew was interim academic vice president and dean at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, before coming to Holy Cross.
More than 80 former Pacific School of Religion students signed a letter of support for their former professor of New Testament Studies that was sent to Holy Cross' president. An organizer of the letter, the Rev. Eric Atcheson, pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Longview, Washington, posted the text to his website.
"Beyond simply being entitled to the protections of academic freedom as a tenured professor in spite of his scholarship, Professor Liew's work as an educator has, in fact, done great good," the letter states. "He has tangibly contributed to the well-being and spiritual and intellectual enrichment of his students over the years — and not just cisgender or heterosexual students, but LGBTQ students, as well. And we want all of our voices to be heard in support of Professor Liew."
At the same time, a conservative Catholic website, TFP Student Action, claimed nearly 16,000 supporters as of Tuesday for its petition asking Boroughs to remove Liew for "outright blasphemy."