Are Catholic leaders jittery about protests, exercising free speech and community organizing?
In the last few weeks, several Catholic institutions have reaffirmed their rights as private organizations to control what kind of speech is allowed in parishes and on campuses. Critics say that position impinges on the Catholic tradition of lively debate and spirited protest. From the rancor of the 2016 election to the ongoing debate about how police treat African-Americans, how people express their views in Catholic settings is up for debate itself.
Here’s what’s happening:
• Student athletes who engage in protest during the national anthem could be suspended in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., a reaction to San Francisco Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest incidents of police brutality against African-Americans.
• Schoolteachers in the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., have been asked by the diocese to use the term “same sex attraction” rather than the more colloquial “gay” or “lesbian” when discussing homosexuality in classrooms. They’ve also informed students that they could be disciplined for organizing around L.G.B.T. issues.
• After an election guide created by a group of left-leaning Catholic organizations found its way into a parish bulletin, the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., reminded its pastors that only materials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are permitted in parishes and schools.
• And a Jesuit university in New Jersey opened the academic year without a student newspaper after it was shut down last semester because of articles the administration found unfit for a Catholic campus.
“Free speech...is not a guaranteed right”
Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem has inspired student athletes to follow suit.
Anticipating that some of its students may want to join the protest, the Diocese of Camden’s superintendent of schools, Mary P. Boyle, sent a memo to principals and athletic officials earlier this month warning students that they could be suspended from play or even kicked off the team for taking a knee.
“Our schools are founded on the teaching of respect and honor; respect and honor for God, country and duly appointed authority,” she wrote.
“It is expected that our administration and coaches as well as our athletes will show respect during prayer, pledges and the playing or singing of the National Anthem.”
The memo noted the the diocese’s schools are not public, and thus, “free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests is not a guaranteed right.”
A spokesman for the diocese called the memo a “precautionary notice” that simply called attention to existing policies.
“It has always been the policy of our schools to show respect and honor for God and country,” Michael Walsh said in a statement released to America. “However, in light of the actions we’ve seen around the country, we wanted school administrators to know they had specific disciplinary options at their disposal if any incidents occurred.”
M.T. Dávila, a professor at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, in Newton, Mass., said she found it troubling that the ability to protest is being squelched by the diocese.
“Protests that some may see as disrespectful may be necessary in order to lift up human dignity,” she said.
Concerns about who gets to call themselves Catholic
The 2016 election has been particularly divisive, and at least one Catholic diocese wants to keep some of the politics out of its parishes.
But an election guide compiled by a group of politically progressive Catholic organizations found its way into a parish bulletin in the Archdiocese of Newark, leading to complaints from a conservative writer who felt the materials favored Democratic candidates.
In response, archdiocesan officials reminded pastors that the archdiocese allows only election materials published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to be distributed on church property, citing concerns about the Catholicity of some outside groups.
“People can call themselves Catholic even if they aren’t in communion with the church, so parishes need to do due diligence” and reach out to the archdiocese if they have any questions, vice-chancellor James Goodness said.
But Patrick Carolan, the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, which helped write the voting guide, said he found it “disappointing” the archdiocese banned the document from parishes. “Our nonpartisan voter guide was put together by a coalition of faithful Catholic advocacy organizations to echo the clear message of the Holy Father and centuries of Catholic teaching.”
Goodness rejected the notion that the archdiocese’s policy restricts the speech or organizing capacity of Catholics. “It’s not infringing upon anything,” he said. “We’re simply saying that the best materials to be used are those that the U.S.C.C.B. makes available every election cycle.”
Guidance on how to talk about gay issues
In Little Rock, teachers at Catholic schools were given suggestions by the diocese about what kind of speech to use when it comes to homosexuality, and students are being warned that Catholic schools are not the places to protest church teaching.
A policy introduced at the start of the academic year asks teachers to use the church-sanctioned phrase “same-sex attraction” when talking about gays and lesbians, calling it “a more appropriate description in accordance with the truth of the Catholic faith.”
Students, meanwhile, “may not advocate, celebrate, or express same-sex attraction in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities or events.”
A 2016 graduate of a diocesan high school said that he tried twice to form a group for gay students on campus but was turned down both times. Tyler Gibbons said he felt that Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock was a safe place for him, allowing him to bring another young man to prom as his date. But he worries the policy could impinge upon current students being able to express themselves.
“Going to a Catholic school in the Bible Belt can feel like a slap in the face if you're any part of the L.G.B.T. spectrum,” he said. “They make it seem like we we’re out to get the Catholic faith and that’s not what it was.”
The diocese published a document on Monday clarifying the new guidelines, noting that they prohibit bullying and saying that L.G.B.T. students could form student groups but only with permission from the principal and if they promised not to promote changes in church teaching. Deacon Matt Glover, the diocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs, said that the policy isn’t meant to restrict speech, but provide guidance to principals about how to handle changes in law and society.
Some Catholic high schools have gay-straight alliances, groups that offer support to L.G.B.T. students. Glover said he wasn’t aware of the model, but noted that even with the new policy, “There’s nothing to preclude L.G.B.T. students from coming together formally or even informally.”
“Now if L.G.B.T. students wanted to form a local A.C.L.U. chapter or a local Human Rights Campaign chapter at the school on these specific issues,” he continued, “that could obviously be problematic.”
Freedom of the press absent at a Jesuit college
When the student editors of St. Peter’s University in New Jersey published a Valentine’s Day issue with articles including “Foods that Make you Frisky” and “I Should Be Allowed to Like Sex,” administrators pulled the plug on the paper, leading to cries of censorship from some at the Jesuit institution.
The paper’s faculty advisor concedes the school was within its rights to stop funding the biweekly publication. “The students at private schools don’t have the same kind of First Amendment rights as students who go to a public school,” Ernabel Demillo said.
Demillo said she hopes the school sees the experience as a learning opportunity and gives students full editorial control when the publication is relaunched later this fall.
Earlier this month, however, the College Media Association censured the university for its decision.
Demillo was originally asked to step down as the faculty adviser to the paper, although she has since been become the coordinator of the school’s digital media studio. Even though the university plans to relaunch the newspaper, with new digital features and an ability to earn academic credit, she said that going eight months without a newspaper has hurt the student’s ability to express themselves.
St. Peter’s, meanwhile, said in a statement that the school “has a rich history of promoting free speech and educating students on the ethics and standards of professional journalism while simultaneously upholding the core values of the institution.”
Catholic social teaching or U.S. law?
With the election heating up and cultural polarization showing no signs of abating, battles over speech in Catholic settings could become more common.
Dávila, who is active in Catholic social justice circles, said that allowing people to express themselves is important part of Catholic tradition. She argues that while U.S. law may support the rights of dioceses and Catholic schools to restrict expression, that doesn’t mean they should.
“It’s like Catholic hospitals and colleges that are saying because of the establishment clause, that they don’t have to respect the rights of workers to unionize,” she said.
Instead, she continued, “let’s look at Catholic social teaching and ask why we can’t guarantee freedom of speech in a Catholic school, in a Catholic setting. Why can’t we guarantee the right of workers to unionize?”
“It seems like some Catholic leaders latch onto a very specific and particular reading of U.S. law,” she continued, “in order to get away with not respecting what is Catholic social teaching.”
Michael O’Loughlinis the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.Wyatt Massey, an O’Hare Fellow at America, also contributed to this report.