When the Rev. Warren Hall called a reporter for the gay sports website Outsports.com last week to discuss his firing as director of Seton Hall University’s campus ministry, there was a certain logic to his move.
Hall was, after all, both a sports fan who had ministered to student athletes and an advocate for tolerance who had posted messages on Twitter about current events like Indiana’s religious-freedom law and the Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner’s decision to make the transition from man to woman.
But during the conversation about how Seton Hall, a Roman Catholic institution in South Orange, New Jersey, had fired him this month, Hall dropped a bombshell: He declared that he was gay.
“I said, ‘You do know that you just told a reporter you were gay — and it wasn’t off the record,’” the reporter, Cyd Zeigler, said. “He said, ‘I understand. It’s okay.’”
By coming out — in a gay publication, no less — Hall placed himself at the center of the Catholic Church’s internal debate over how to relate to gay parishioners. The process has been complicated by recent statements by Pope Francis, who has argued that the Church should, within limits, welcome gay men and women. One measure of the challenges the issues presents is that the Archdiocese of Newark, which operates Seton Hall, released three separate statements about Hall in the past few weeks.
In the first two statements, James Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Hall’s job at the campus ministry had been scheduled to end next month and that his removal was unrelated to his advocacy.
But after Zeigler’s story broke, the archdiocese revised its message, saying that while sexual orientation did not in itself prohibit service as a priest, Catholic priests were required to live in “chaste celibacy” and to “respect and obey the authority of the Church.”
Hall, 52, declined to comment for this article, but in an interview this month with The Setonian, Seton Hall’s student newspaper, he gave his account of the events surrounding his removal from the university post.
He said that last autumn, after attending an event in New York meant to draw attention to the bullying of gay teenagers, he posted a photograph on Facebook in support of the No H8 campaign, which promotes civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. He said in the interview that he knew the Church did not support such unions.
Hall said colleagues at Seton Hall had mentioned the photograph to university officials, who asked him to take it down. He said he did so and heard nothing more about the matter until a few weeks ago, when the archbishop of Newark, John J. Myers, told him he was being removed from his position.
Goodness said in an email that Hall’s Facebook post had inspired university officials to “clarify” the campus ministry director’s job description — “in particular, to make more explicit the extent of the director’s accountability to the university and the archbishop.”
Hall has asked for a leave of absence before taking a new role as a priest, Goodness said in a second email.
“Archbishop Myers is considering this now,” Goodness said.
A native of Jersey City, Hall received both his bachelor’s and master of divinity degrees from Seton Hall. He was ordained in 1989 and subsequently served as a priest and a teacher at parishes and schools in New Jersey, Delaware and Florida.
In 2011, he resigned as president of Hudson Catholic Regional High School in Jersey City after he was charged with driving while intoxicated after being involved in a traffic accident.
Before he was dismissed from Seton Hall, Hall taught a course called “Spirituality and Sports,” which explored the Catholic tradition through athletics. He is enough of a sports fan to have posted on Twitter, shortly after revealing that he was gay, “Thanks guys! It was actually tougher to Come Out that I’m a Jets fan than this. THAT was embarrassing!”
Although the archdiocese has denied that Hall’s removal had anything to do with his expression of his beliefs about homosexuality, the Facebook post last fall was not the only time he made public comments related to gender- and gay-rights issues.
In March, for instance, referring to the religious freedom law in Indiana, which was widely seen as permitting discrimination against gay people, he said on Twitter:
The @NCAA should move the Final 4 out of Indiana. Legalized discrimination against any one is wrong. The Civ Rights Movement taught us that!
— Warren Hall (@Warrmeister) March 30, 2015
Less than a month later, he posted:
I applaud/support #BruceJenner and all facing this challenge today. The goal of all of our lives is to become who God created us to be.
— Warren Hall (@Warrmeister) April 25, 2015
It was by way of a yet another post on Twitter that Hall announced that he had lost his job. On May 15, he wrote: “I’ve been fired from SHU for posting a pic on FB supporting LGBT ‘NO H8’. I’m sorry it was met with this response. I’ll miss my work here.”
The next day, a group of Seton Hall students created the Twitter hashtag #WeWantFatherHall and started an online petition calling on university officials to reinstate him. The archdiocese’s decision, the petition said, was “in line with neither the teachings of Jesus, nor the words of Pope Francis.”
“Father Hall was a valued member of our community,” said Ethan Kraft, a Seton Hall sophomore who organized the petition drive. “He was constantly encouraging students, especially student athletes. I just think that nobody should be fired for opposing hatred.”
William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a conservative advocacy group, said that although Hall was no longer at Seton Hall, he was unlikely to be defrocked unless he continued to press publicly in favor of same-sex marriage.
“If he does keep speaking publicly,” Donohue said, “he might at some point be called in and told, ‘Look, maybe you’re better suited to be an Episcopalian priest.’”
Donohue said that he did not think Hall’s dismissal was tied to his sexual orientation.
“If Hall had simply been gay and not a gay activist, he wouldn’t have been tossed,” he said. “Once you go public in direct contradiction to the Church’s teachings, that calls for a public response.”
Asked about Hall’s dismissal, Seton Hall said in a statement that it was “committed to the inherent dignity and respect of each person.” The statement added: “The university is a close-knit campus community with a diverse array of students, faculty and administrators who have an equally wide range of views and ideas.”
Seton Hall has an informal group for gay students called Allies. In that way, it is like many Catholic universities, said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the New Ways Ministry in Maryland, which advocates on behalf of gay Christians. Almost two-thirds of the nation’s 200 or so Catholic colleges have some sort of gay outreach program or gay student association, DeBernardo said.
“Young people — even young Catholic people — are already on board with LGBT issues,” he said. “So even as the director of campus ministry, what could Father Hall have done or said that could have influenced them any more positively than they already are?”