The attacks continue against San Francisco’s archbishop and faithful Catholic teachers in his archdiocese who just want to be free to teach the truth with love in the City of St. Francis. Crisis readers are already aware of petitions to Rome to remove the faithful archbishop for requiring Catholic school teachers to follow Catholic teaching and for allowing a conservative priest to only have altar boys. These critics’ latest target is the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, one of the fastest growing orders of nuns in the United States, who teach in his diocese.
The San Francisco Sentinel newspaper claims in a piece on April 21 that Archbishop Cordileone supports these “pro-bullying” nuns who it claims have “ignited a firestorm” at Marin Catholic high school in the diocese during an anti-bulling pro-gay activity last week at the school. What really happened last week at the school is that a positive, acceptable message of stopping bullying in school was clouded and possibly manipulated by a national agenda of pushing errant teaching on human sexuality that left the sisters in an initially uncomfortable situation. However, the situation has now afforded the school an opportunity for both a reaffirmation of the protection and dignity for all students, and for a clearer understanding of the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality.
The current situation at Marin Catholic High School began on Thursday, April 16, when an email was sent out to the faculty saying that the following day, Friday, there would be a minute of silence on campus to remember those who were marginalized and bullied at our schools. The school administration only officially approved a prayer over the PA and a minute of silence for the bullied and marginalized. But, behind the scenes, elements within the school had been organizing participation in a national day of silent protest sponsored by a pro-homosexual group. This first became evident when that evening at 9:30 pm, a post went up on the school’s Facebook page and Twitter account.
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A memo released later by the school states that, “Unfortunately our school’s official message became compromised and misinterpreted Thursday night when it became associated through Facebook with an activist group with which we are not affiliated or align.” This unauthorized memo announced that Friday was the “National Day of Silence” in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth, a day sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). This organization is one of the nation’s largest homosexual advocacy groups and since 1990 has focused on ensuring that LGBT is normalized and supported in every classroom, K-12. Their stated purpose includes to “champion LGBT issues in K-12 education” and the “celebration of sexual diversity.” The post also informed everyone that this day was being promoted by the #teachacceptance movement and that students with flyer and stickers would be at every door the next morning.
When the unapproved events began to quickly unfold the next day it caught the school administration and many others off guard, including the sisters. It was not just the sisters who were uncomfortable, a number of students also mentioned that they were taken aback by the activism and the complex problem of wanting to both support those who might be bullied and also support the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Some students were not sure how to react when being asked to wear a sticker reading “#acceptance.” According to one of the sister’s emails to her students related to the events, when the sisters became aware that some students felt pressure to accept flyers/stickers representing a mission contrary to Catholicism and that this was creating an atmosphere of tension and division among the students, the sisters began to feel that things were going too far. The sisters also worried that they themselves might be seen as being complicit or complacent in the face of the confusion about support of church teaching on human sexuality. The email states that their leaving was a way to register their discomfort and the discomfort they sensed in others occurring in a rapidly developing, complex and unapproved activity affecting the school and students they loved.
Sister explained in her email to the students that the sisters felt they needed to leave for three reasons: there was a lack of openness behind the un-approved events taking place; the national sponsoring organization had spoken out against the Church and is contrary to the Church’s mission; and that environment made them and some of the students uncomfortable. They absolutely did not leave because they are pro-bullying or anti-gay, the email to the students affirmed. To its great credit, the school administration understood the plight of this sisters, and has stuck by them through the confusion stating in a letter to the community:
Because that organization and its funders publicize sentiments that many construe as counter to our Catholic mission, our Dominican Sisters were offended and felt compromised. The Sisters had to make a decision in real time to leave campus until this issue could be resolved and spoke to both of us prior to doing so. This decision, however, further confused the students and created some false rumors about the Sisters not caring for students who feel bullied, ostracized or marginalized. As we know from past experience, this could not be further from the truth.
Both the school and the sisters are to be commended for trying to do the right thing. It is possible to have both an anti-bullying message and a pro-Church message. In the future the school may want to consider teaching the importance of protecting gays and lesbians from abuse when celebrating the world-wide anti-bullying day on October 4, instead. Faithful Catholic educators share with GLSEN the goal of preventing bulling, including against gay and lesbian students, but have such a fundamental difference in an understanding of human sexuality that working with them can possibly lead to confusion.
And there is already enough confusion among some of our young Catholics regarding human sexuality: a recent Pew research sample suggests 85 percent of young Catholics believe that homosexuality should be accepted. In her email to the students, a sister began an important clarifying conversation by explaining that, like the Church, the Sisters do not support any sexual activity—heterosexual or homosexual—outside of a marriage between a man and woman. However, they do accept, respect, and treat with dignity all those who believe and/or act differently and do not support bullying, bigotry, or any kind of prejudice. This is a beautiful and important distinction.
It is this distinction that some students at the school as well as some Bay Area critics of Catholicism and the archbishop may find hard to accept, especially as it is tied up in the Catholic concept of marriage. But they need to hear the message: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337-2338, teaches that sexuality becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. It goes on to support the virtue of chastity, which is the maintaining the integrity of the person and the integrality of this gift. The unity of the person, the integrity of the body and soul working in cooperation with God’s creation is all positive, healthy, good news for our youth and will make for great future class discussions—many of which will no doubt center on St. John Paul II’s beautiful teachings on the theology of the body.
It is incumbent upon those of us working in Catholic schools to share this good news and to join with our students on their journey to integrity and a full and integrated life. Our students need to hear this message loud and clear, not only from the nuns, but from ALL of their teachers. This brings us back to the good work of Archbishop Cordileone who is simply seeking to follow Church guidelines that require that “Instruction and education in a Catholic school must be based on the principles of catholic doctrine, and the teachers must be outstanding in true doctrine and uprightness of life.” (Canon Law, 803, § 2) The most effective way to teach difficult truths in difficult times and places is with sincere conviction and loving personal witness.
Pope Francis, when speaking to the youth at a Jesuit school in Italy, emphasized: “Educators … pass on knowledge and values with their words; but their words will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, their consistent way of life. Without consistency it is impossible to educate!” Truths surrounded by confusion or partial truths about the full dignity and wonder of incarnate man are not good enough for Catholic school students. They need and deserve the whole truth from sincere and credible teachers: both those truths which prohibit bullying and those related to the beauty of human sexuality. God bless the wonderful sisters, Marin Catholic, and the archbishop for standing up for the Church, their students, and the truth!
Editor’s note: The author has been both a student and teacher in San Francisco Bay Area Catholic schools and is a graduate of the University of San Francisco. In the image above, students demonstrate against the new teacher conduct policy of the Archdiocese of San Francisco intended to ensure that Catholic high schools are faithful to Church teaching.