Dispute Over ‘BLM’ and ‘Pride’ Flags at Mass. Jesuit School Highlights Need to Communicate Catholic Identity

The school has rejected a request from Bishop Robert McManus to take down the flags, which he said promote some things that are not compatible with Church teachings.

Nativity School of Worcester, a Jesuit middle school in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, is risking its Catholic status by refusing to remove certain flags from its flag pole, per the request of the local ordinary, Bishop Robert McManus.
Nativity School of Worcester, a Jesuit middle school in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, is risking its Catholic status by refusing to remove certain flags from its flag pole, per the request of the local ordinary, Bishop Robert McManus. (photo: Joe Bukuras/CNA / Joe Bukuras/CNA)

WORCESTER, Mass. — A dispute in central Massachusetts between a bishop and a Jesuit school that is flying the “Black Lives Matter” flag and a rainbow flag is an example of how dioceses would benefit from developing and publicizing detailed policies about what Catholic institutions can and can’t do, an expert on Catholic education said.

“I try to look at these issues from both sides. And I think the only way we’re going to resolve the growing distance between our Catholic culture and what the Church believes is if our Catholic schools are much more clear as to what the beliefs are that they should hold to and what the policies are that they should follow,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a Virginia-based organization that promotes and defends what it calls “faithful Catholic education.”

Reilly told the Register people who run and work at Catholic institutions need to know “the expectations that the Church has and why it has them.”

“Unfortunately, when there is not a policy, it can look like it is a personal decision, or it’s an arbitrary decision, when in fact I would argue that the bishop is upholding Catholic teaching,” Reilly said. “But today we need to do a better job of explaining that.”


The Flag Flap

In January 2021, Nativity School of Worcester began flying a “Black Lives Matter” flag and a rainbow flag beneath the American flag outside its school building.

A public conflict over the flags erupted earlier this month, after Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester directed the school to take down the flags.

Bishop McManus acknowledged that people differ over what symbols mean, but he said the two flags are incompatible with Catholic teaching.

“While the Catholic Church joins with our nation in teaching that all lives are equal before God and the law and that all lives demand our respect regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, the flag with the emblem Black Lives Matter has at times been coopted by some factions which also instill broad-brush distrust of police and those entrusted with enforcing our laws. We do not teach that in our schools,” Bishop McManus said in a written statement April 3. “And, while we teach that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God, gay pride flags are often used to stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman.”

School officials maintain that the flags are appropriate and consistent with the religious mission of the school. 

“The Black Lives Matter and Pride flags fly below the American flag at our school to remind our young men, their families and Nativity Worcester staff that all are welcome here and that they are valued and safe in this place. It says to them that they, in fact, do matter and deserve to be respected as our Christian values teach us. That is the purpose of flying these flags,” the school said in a written statement provided by email to the Register.

But the bishop has questioned whether a school that flies such flags can still call itself Catholic.

“Is the school committing itself to ideologies which are contrary to Catholic teaching? If so, is it still a Catholic school?” Bishop McManus said in the April 3 statement. “As the Bishop of this diocese, I must teach that it is imperative that a Catholic School use imagery and symbols which are reflective of that school’s values and principles so as to be clear with young people who are being spiritually and morally formed for the future. While our role in a school is not to convert those who are not Catholic, nor is it our role to deny our Catholic identity.”

The School

Nativity School, founded in 2003, is an independent Catholic school operated by the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus. It occupies an approximately-20,000-square-foot building on a pie-slice-shaped lot of about five-eighths of an acre on Lincoln Street, right across from Interstate 290, which slices north-south through the city. It’s in a gritty part of Worcester, a city of about 200,000 people that is the second-largest in New England and in the bottom 10th for per capita income in Massachusetts.

The school serves 61 boys in grades 5 through 8. According to the school, 46% are African or African American, 33% are Latino, 20% are mixed race or other, and 2% are white. All would qualify for free or reduced lunch at a public school because their family income is so low. (The average income for a new family is about $36,000.) None pay tuition, which would otherwise be $24,000.

Boys at the school wear white shirts and purple ties — the colors of the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit-run college in Worcester that is the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in New England.

Nativity School officials, in a written statement, call their students “a highly diverse group of underserved boys of many faiths, races and cultures.”

“Drawing upon four pillars — strength, scholarship, character, and service — a Nativity education inspires self-discovery, responsibility, spiritual growth, and a lifelong dedication to learning. The school employs well-tested educational practices in a highly supportive and safe environment that sets the stage for success in high school, college, and life,” the school’s statement says.


Opposition to the Bishop

The bishop has drawn fire since the dispute became public April 2, when columnist Yvonne Abraham broke the news in The Boston Globe — and called Bishop McManus a “throwback with a miter cap and staff” while doing it.

An online petition signed by some students and staff at Holy Cross calls the bishop’s statement “ignorant and bigoted” and asks the college to disinvite him from the school’s May 27 graduation ceremony. The petition had about 550 signers as of April 19, including about 500 students. (Bishop McManus has announced he doesn’t plan to attend the graduation and hasn’t attended in recent years.)

The Worcester Human Rights Commission, an appointed board that (among other things) advises city officials how to achieve “racial equity” by identifying “institutional racism,” has also weighed in against the bishop. Commission members during a public online meeting April 4 pivoted to the flag dispute while discussing ways to resist a new law in Florida that prohibits public schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

Guillermo Creamer Jr., who described himself as “a proud LGBTQ Latino,” said he wants to create “a safe space” in Worcester, referring at one point to “one of our middle schools that fly a pride flag and is now getting some hate for that.”

Ellen Shemitz, another member of the commission, made a motion (subsequently approved) to ask the city to fly a rainbow flag from a flagpole at city hall — something the city does ordinarily at another time in the year. Shermitz cited certain national events, but also said: “Even given what’s happening with some of the news from the Catholic Church, and how that impacts some of the schools in this region, it seems like it could be timely.”

Holy Cross released a written statement representing its president, Vincent Rougeau, the first lay head of the school, acknowledging that the bishop doesn’t plan to attend the school’s graduation.

“More importantly, the president wants to emphasize that the Nativity School and its students remain central to this story,” the Holy Cross statement says. “Our two institutions’ histories are enduringly linked, and we are both proud to serve the people, city and diocese of Worcester. As Jesuit, Catholic institutions, we also share similar values — a founding commitment to the needs and dignity of the less fortunate; and a belief in the worth of each person made in the image and likeness of God. Our work embracing racial healing and seeking justice for the marginalized in our communities is centered on these values — which themselves are at the heart of the Gospel.”

In 2007 and 2018, Bishop McManus clashed with the Jesuit college. In October 2007, Holy Cross defied the bishop’s call to stop a Planned Parenthood/Naral-affiliated “Preventing Teen Pregnancy” conference on campus. In its report, the Register learned that the college referred students to Planned Parenthood. In March 2018, Bishop McManus rebuked the college after it came to light that the Holy Cross chairman of New Testament studies wrote a book that suggested Jesus Christ was a “drag king” who had “queer desires.”

According to Pope St. John II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the University, Bishops ‘should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University’” (28).

Among the few local commentators defending the bishop is C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, who criticized the anti-Bishop McManus petition at Holy Cross.

“More than three dozen professors and administrators at the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross, along with hundreds of students, are now proclaiming that Catholic opposition to flags which affirm the mortal sin of same-sex relations ‘is ignorant and bigoted’ and that anyone who holds such traditional Catholic beliefs — including the Bishop of Worcester — must be excluded, in the name of inclusion, from participating in the public life of the college,” Doyle said in a written statement. “This petition opens a whole new dimension in the concept of chutzpah. Persons holding leadership positions in a Catholic institution — while openly opposing Catholic beliefs — actually believe themselves entitled to publicly rebuke the local bishop for affirming what Catholics have always believed. The audacity is astonishing.”


New Vatican Document

A recent Vatican document could lead to a resolution of the Worcester dispute and comparable disputes elsewhere.

On March 29, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education published “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue,” which reaffirmed the principle that to be recognized as a Catholic institution the local bishop’s approval “is required.”

Bishops have direct authority, not indirect influence, over Catholic schools, even if the diocese the bishop leads doesn’t run them, the document states.

“It is the right and duty of the diocesan … Bishop to watch over all Catholic schools in his diocese … including those” founded by religious orders or private groups, the document says, with italics in the original. The document also says the bishop “can intervene whenever he considers it appropriate, and he must do so whenever the Catholic identity of a school situated in his diocese … is seriously affected.”

The document also says that “the educational action pursued by the Church through schools cannot be reduced to mere philanthropic work aimed at responding to a social need, but represents an essential part of her identity and mission.”

In an analysis of the document published by the Register, Reilly predicted it “could help tremendously, if dioceses take to heart its demands for truly faithful Catholic teaching across all subjects, hiring teachers who profess and witness to the Catholic faith, and intervening meaningfully when a school or teacher fails to provide faithful Catholic formation.”


‘Truth in Advertising’

Father Peter Stravinskas, president of the Catholic Education Foundation, who has also served as an education professor and Catholic school administrator, told the Register he expects the Vatican will soon make the local bishop’s authority explicit in certain disputes, such as a continuing conflict between the archbishop of Indianapolis and a Jesuit high school there that has refused to fire a teacher in a same-sex civil marriage. In that case, the bishop announced in June 2019 that the school could no longer call itself Catholic; but in September 2019, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education suspended the bishop’s decree and, more than a year and half later, hasn’t released a decision about it yet.

Father Stravinskas said it seems clear from the new document that the Vatican congregation is tired of getting appeals that should be handled locally.

“The Code of Canon Law as well as the new document make it eminently clear that the bishop has oversight over every school in his diocese that claims the title ‘Catholic,’” Father Stravinskas said in a telephone interview.

Going forward, he said, bishops and others responsible for Catholic schools have to be more vigilant about the administrators and teachers they hire, he said.

“We say personnel is policy. They say,” Stravinskas said, referring to the new Vatican document, “you have to be extremely intentional about your hiring.”

He said the new document should prove useful for those trying to keep Catholic schools Catholic.

“They can say, ‘I’m doing it because this is what the law of the Church says I must do. These are our marching orders. This is what it means to be a Catholic school,’” Father Stravinskas said. “I guess what it’s calling for is truth in advertising. You can’t call yourself Catholic and then operate in a different manner.”

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