BOSTON — When headlines announced that a Boston Catholic school denied admission to a student because his parents were lesbians, the Boston Archdiocese scrambled to contain the damage.
The superintendent of Catholic schools, Mary Grassa O’Neill, insisted there had been a mistake and vowed to locate another parochial school for the child. The executive director of the Catholic Schools Foundation warned that subsidies would be withheld from any school that discriminated against such students.
The quick turnaround earned approval from homosexual-rights groups, media commentators and many local Catholics in Massachusetts, where same-sex couples can legally “marry.”
Privately, though, Church administrators acknowledge that their public response sidestepped the key role of pastors in school admissions decisions, and even suggested that the policies of fundraising entities, like the Catholic Schools Foundation, trumped the traditional chain of command.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley had been out of the country, accompanying Pope Benedict XVI on his pilgrimage to Fatima, when the story hit the news. Cardinal O’Malley posted a response on his personal website, CardinalSeansBlog.org, that backed the pastor, acknowledged the Church’s tradition of welcoming children from many backgrounds, and pledged to establish guidelines on school-admissions policies.
The cardinal expressed his regret for news stories that featured “undue criticism” of Father James Rafferty, the pastor who made the admissions decision.
“After consulting with the school principal, exercising his rights as pastor, he made a decision based on an assessment of what he felt would be in the best interests of the child. I have great admiration for Father Rafferty; he has my full confidence and support,” stated Cardinal O’Malley.
The skirmish surfaced in the wake of a similar admissions controversy in Boulder, Colo., that produced a somewhat different outcome. Cardinal O’Malley noted that the Denver Archdiocese’s policy, which “calls into question the appropriateness of admitting the children of same-sex couples,” would “be seriously considered” in his own review process.
When the Boulder story first broke, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver quickly backed the pastor’s decision, and then issued a statement presenting the controversial judgment as a painful but necessary step to protect the mission of his schools.
“If parents don’t respect the beliefs of the Church, or live in a manner that openly rejects those beliefs, then partnering with those parents becomes very difficult, if not impossible,” Archbishop Chaput wrote in a statement issued in early March.
“It also places unfair stress on the children, who find themselves caught in the middle, and on their teachers, who have an obligation to teach the authentic faith of the Church,” he said.
Both stories, though differing in tone and emphasis, confirm that the growing prevalence of nontraditional households poses new conundrums for Catholic educators. Once, they denied admission to students from broken families; now they struggle to articulate Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality before students from widely diverse homes.
Maureen Huntington, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the epicenter of the homosexual-rights movement, sums up the challenge posed by a variety of domestic arrangements — from homes headed by single mothers or unmarried couples to parents that have been married multiple times.
“The teachers must present the doctrine of the Catholic Church,” Huntington said. “That is the goal: living according to God’s plan. Still, they need to be sensitive and respectful, and not make the child feel bad that they are responsible for the situation at home.”
The advent of legal same-sex “marriage” in a handful of states like Massachusetts has only deepened classroom tensions. Last year, during an interview at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, Cardinal O’Malley noted that archdiocesan CCD teachers had reported a sharp rise in classroom disputes regarding the morality of same-sex “marriage,” with more public-school students opposing Church teaching.
At the same time, parochial school administrators must continue to deal with budgetary issues that force them to seek support from corporate and community leaders who may not wish to be associated with controversial Catholic practices.
When the Boston story surfaced in the news, superintendent Grassa O’Neill sought to balance the needs of students with the mission of Catholic education. She said that parochial schools “welcome children based on their parents’ understanding that the teachings of the Church are an important component of the curriculum and are part of the students’ educational experience.’’
However, the Catholic Schools Foundation issued a letter, which warned local pastors supervising parochial schools that any exclusionary practices would provoke a withdrawal of subsidies by the foundation.
The letter, written by Michael Reardon, the foundation’s executive director, stated that the denial of admission was “at odds with our values as a foundation, the intentions of our donors, and ultimately Gospel teaching.” St. Paul Elementary School in Hingham, where the child was denied admission, does not receive subsidies from the funding group and thus was unaffected.
In a subsequent interview, Reardon described his organization as a separate but “related entity” to the archdiocese. “Cardinal O’Malley is our chair,” said Reardon. “We raised $8 million last year, and that goes mainly to inner-city schools.” He noted that when the group first began to target corporate donors and other city leaders 20 years ago, they raised just $100,000.
Since the Catholic school system first emerged as a powerful alternative to public education, Church leaders have sought to balance a deep compassion for families on the fringes of society with a prudent exclusion of applicants that threatened to disrupt the schools’ fundamental mission.
In the early 20th century, New York’s Catholic schools transformed the Irish immigrant experience, drawing gang members off the streets and into the classroom, sharply reducing high illegitimacy rates and juvenile delinquency. A similar, if less dramatic pattern, is still repeated today in many inner-city parochial schools that provide an oasis for students who live in chaotic, drug-infested neighborhoods with few positive male role models.
Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York for almost three decades, acknowledged that school administrators continue to address a host of social issues, but he “could not recall” a controversy over an admissions decision regarding a child with a same-sex couple as parents. In any case, he added, pastors and principals typically decide these matters, and high-powered donors largely applaud the schools’ distinctive religious identity.
Canon law invests local pastors with considerable authority for administering parish schools, and when the controversy erupted in the Denver Archdiocese, Archbishop Chaput quickly backed the authority of a local pastor.
In a statement published in March, Archbishop Chaput confirmed that the “main purpose of Catholic schools is religious; in other words, to form students in the Catholic faith, Catholic morality and Catholic social values.” That religious mission took priority over secondary issues, including the sensitivities of students in nontraditional households.
Francis Maier, the chancellor of the Denver Archdiocese, echoed the key principles that forged Archbishop Chaput’s public stance: “The only reason Catholic schools exist is to fulfill their religious mission. Catholic parents who send their children to parochial school are already paying a financial penalty. It is unjust to deny their children a fully Catholic education and not teach them the truth. We are not out to offend anybody, but we are insisting that Catholic schools need to teach the full truth.”
Maier said that the archbishop’s response had prompted a largely positive reaction from pastors, administrators and teachers, but continued to fuel some controversy among parents.
But he expressed frustration that some critics sought to “impose an arbitrary rigidity that has never been the case for school admissions. The pastor has to have a certain freedom of action within the larger obligation of ensuring that this is a Catholic school. Given human nature, there are always circumstances when the pastor has some degree of latitude.”
Each year, a number of students are asked to leave the system, he said, “for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with homosexuality. The idea that we do this to isolate homosexuals is false. Nobody hears about these cases because it’s none of their business, and we don’t want to embarrass families.”
James Flynn, vice chancellor of the Denver Archdiocese and a canon lawyer, said that two canonical principles shaped Archbishop Chaput’s response: “The pastor is the administrator of the parish and, with some exceptions, it is his prerogative to decide these issues. Second, the parents are the child’s primary educators, and the school is their partner.”
“If that partnership isn’t going to work out because the two aren’t aligned on human sexuality, human dignity or doctrinal teachings,” Flynn concluded, “that partnership can’t continue.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.