In Memoriam: Michael Mendiola, Professor of Christian Ethics

December 23, 2008

Michael Manuel Mendiola, associate professor of Christian ethics at Pacific School of Religion, died December 18 at his home in Oakland after a battle with cancer. He joined the faculty in 1994 after serving as a visiting faculty member since 1992. He was especially interested in bioethics and sexual ethics, with particular reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. His recent projects included a book on the nature of human suffering and moral reflection, and an introductory book on Christian ethics.

Born in Globe, Arizona, in 1952, Mendiola received a BA in philosophy from St. Mary’s Seminary in Perryville, Missouri, an MA in religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, and a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He earned his doctorate in ethics under PSR professor Karen Lebacqz and served as her research assistant in 1991.

“The first thing everybody noticed about Michael was his infectious laugh and his energy and enthusiasm for the field of ethics,” Lebacqz said. “He was one of the best natural-born teachers there ever was, and part of his gift was that he really loved his subject matter and really loved teaching it.

“Everyone will tell you about his great way with puns, and his wonderful sense of humor. But underneath all that, the most important thing about Michael to me was his ability to inspire others—not just to teach them, but to teach them in a way that made them want to learn more, to spend more time pursuing the work they were doing.”

In 1998, Mendiola founded the seminary’s Bay Area Faith and Health Consortium, seeking to explore the ways in which communities of religious faith and the health care sector might work together to promote human health and well-being. “Michael was a bridge person in this conversation between the sacred and the secular,” said PSR’s dean, Mary Donovan Turner. “With his background in ethics and his interest in medical ethics, he worked with the medical community to help health professionals think through ethical issues related to their work.”

Turner also praised Mendiola as a teacher. “After taking one of his ethics courses, many of our students would say: ‘He’s the finest teacher I ever had in my life,’ Turner said. “He had a way of engaging students that changed many of them forever and helped form many of their ministries.”

Mendiola was also central in the founding of the seminary’s groundbreaking Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) in 2000. “His creativity and his sense of organization and his sense of call for what the center could be was really important in the formation and development of CLGS,” said the center’s executive director, Mary Tolbert. Mendiola served as the first chair of the CLGS executive committee.

“Something evident to all of us,” added Lebacqz, “was what an incredibly loving person Michael was. He and his partner, Paul Gabel, were together for 28 years, until recently without benefit of legal marriage, and had the most loving relationship. If I had a child and for any reason couldn’t raise that child myself, I would have given my child to Michael and Paul. That’s how beautiful they were as people.”

“No matter what the day, you felt better when you saw Michael,” summed up Dean Turner. “He would always come to me after a faculty meeting—especially if it had been a difficult one for me personally—and say: ‘I know that was an awful experience for you today. I want to make sure you’re okay before you go home.’ And always, the last thing he’d say was: ‘Know how much I appreciate everything you do.’”

Michael Mendiola is survived by his spouse, Paul Gabel; by three sisters residing in Arizona, Jo Ann Aguirre, Rosie Baroldy, and Armida Bittner; by many nephews and nieces; and by a family of friends. Contributions can be sent to the Michael M. Mendiola Scholarship Fund at Pacific School of Religion, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley, CA 94709. A memorial service was held on Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 2pm at First Congregational Church of Berkeley.


(updated March 9, 2009)