Our friends at Catholics United issued a press release yesterday announcing that they had dropped off a petition at the chancery offices of the Archdiocese of Boston. The petition reads simply: “To His Eminence Cardinal Sean O’Malley, We, the undersigned, believe that every child should have access to a Catholic education. We respectfully ask that you ensure that Catholic schools within the Archdiocese adhere to this value, and do not discriminate based on children’s family backgrounds.” The petition was signed by 5,000 people.
The words are innocuous enough, but the petition drive is misguided and it made me think of the petition drives directed against Notre Dame’s Father Jenkins last year. I fear that the petition will not help achieve what Catholics United wants to achieve. Catholics United was founded in the wake of the 2004 election when many people were repulsed by the treatment afforded John Kerry by some conservative Catholics, including some prelates. They have helped provide a necessary counterweight to conservative Catholic groups like the Cardinal Newman Society, the American Life League and others who seem more concerned in carrying water for the GOP than applying Catholic social teaching to the nation’s problems. Catholics United’s critics would argue that they suffer from the same kind of problem, albeit from the other side of the ideological spectrum, namely, that they start with their politics, not their theology, and look for religious rationales to justify political positions already arrived at. It is certainly the case that anyone can use papal decrees or passages of Holy Writ to justify whatever stances they seek to defend.
But, the school case in Boston is not about politics. Better to say, the most important thing is to make sure that it doesn’t become about politics. I am sure that for every one of the 5,000 signatures Catholics United got for its petition, a conservative group can marshal an equal number of signatories urging Cardinal O’Malley to take the opposite course and ban the children of same-sex couples from attending catholic schools. A pastor has an obligation to keep his flock together as much as possible. I do not see how petition drives, the counter influences they elicit, or any of the accoutrement of contemporary politics will advance the cause of unity among the faithful.
In the statements from the Archdiocese of Boston, it has been clear that their objective is not to fight another round of the culture wars in this situation. As the Superintendent of Schools at first, and later Cardinal O’Malley when he got back to Boston, both stressed in their statements, the governing consideration should be what is best for the children. In the press release that announced the petition drive, Catholics United stated, “The archdiocese initially signaled strong opposition to such discrimination and promised to craft a policy to preempt future controversy. Recent statements from Cardinal O'Malley and other archdiocesan officials, however, appeared more supportive of the school's admissions decision.” This is wrong in two regards. First, the initial statement from the archdiocese explicitly did not overrule the local pastor, nor question his decision, but stated that they would help the parents find a different school and that a new policy would be forthcoming. Second, Cardinal O’Malley clearly felt the need to reaffirm his own confidence in the pastor and did so, without in any way prejudicing the policy that will be devised. But both the first and the later statements were at pains to emphasize that the good of the children would be the principal concern.
I confess that I do not understand how the pastor in Hingham came to the conclusion that it would be best for the child not to be in a Catholic school. Certainly, I can see that any student whose family lives at some variance from the Catholic faith in its fullness will feel challenged at school when he confronts that faith in its fullness. He or she will say, “Hey, that doesn’t sound like my family.” But, I am also quite certain that this sense of challenge comes to us all because there is no one who lives up to the fullness of our faith. That’s why we have confessionals.
I am also quite certain that there are many in the Church who tend to reduce religion to ethics, indeed that is the dominant historical quality of American religious expression. It derives both from the Calvinism of the mainstream culture and from a certain Jansenistic sensibility in Irish Catholicism which so dominated the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The phenomenon exists on both left and right, with the left tending to reduce Catholicism to its social justice witness and conservatives tending to reduce the faith to its teachings on sexual morality. But the Church is not founded on its social progressivism or its sexual conservatism. It is founded upon the claim that the Crucified Lives. If the Church is going to admit the children of Jews or Muslims or Protestants to our schools, it makes no sense to me to deny admission to a child whose parents deviate from a moral precept of the Church. Our moral teachings flow from our dogmas not the other way round.
America’s is a diverse society, and part of educating children is to prepare them to engage that diversity in a healthy way. Having a Muslim child in a Catholic school may be a challenge but it is also a great opportunity to teach everyone about respect for people who hold different beliefs. Having the child of gay parents certain could present challenges also but the Church is quite clear that gay people are to be respected and their dignity defended, so a decent teacher could certainly navigate those challenges and turn them into a profound lesson about the Church’s commitment to oppose bigotry even while we defend traditional marriage.
It is certainly unfair to the pastors of Boston or elsewhere to expect them to come up with policies on the fly and the officials in Boston and elsewhere are well advised to put a clear policy in place. But, they won’t do it because they got a petition. They will do it because they think it is the right thing to do. I just hope that the efforts from left and right to turn the Boston case into a culture war will be resisted and that, as the Cardinal stated, nothing but the good of the children will govern the policy that will be forthcoming. He and I may disagree about what the good of the child dictates, but I am confident that his focus, and that of the school officials, will be solely on that good. I apprecizate the good work done by our friends at Catholics United, but here they have put a foot wrong.