Several Catholic schools have been in the news lately, reflecting the ongoing culture wars between tradition and change. They all illustrate the role the church plays in holding back the progress toward human rights. That’s not the way they see it, of course. They don’t call it a culture war for nothing.
What strikes me as especially curious is how easy it is for people to make fools of themselves. The church makes a case that it represents eternal verities. And then it shoots itself in the foot by silly little ways of overextending itself. Belief in sin and the redemption of sins by a Savior is essential. Eating meat on Friday is not. Adopting a moral code that sees one’s fellow human beings as children of God is essential. Holding the view that civil same-sex marriage should be illegal and that girls should never wear tuxedos is not. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I no longer make the mistake of seeing the Roman Catholic church a monolith, despite the claims of authoritarians who see it as one happy family all taking orders from the man on top. For me one simply has to dig around to see what or who is making the gears turn. Who are the movers and shakers in the stories that constitute the ongoing history of our culture wars?
An event in Cincinnati last year set off a string of examples of how badly a bishop can muck things up. A year ago last February the assistant principal of Purcell Marian High School, one of 110 Cincinnati diocese parochial schools, was fired for expressing the view on his personal blog that gays and lesbians should be entitled to have civil unions. He was not addressing Catholic doctrine. He was speaking as a citizen about secular matters. But since his view is at odds with the official Catholic doctrine that same-sex relationships are “intrinsically disordered,” to use the words of the Catholic Catechism, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr removed Vice Principal Mike Moroski from his job. He then overreached even further. He wrote a so-called “morality clause” into a new contract his teachers were forced to sign. It read:
Such conduct or lifestyle that is in contradiction to Catholic doctrine or morals includes, but is not limited to, improper use of social media/communication, public support of or publicly living together outside marriage, public support of or sexual activity out of wedlock, public support of or homosexual lifestyle, public support of or use of abortion, public support of or use of surrogate mother, public support of or use of in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, public membership in organization whose mission and message are incompatible with Catholic doctrine or morals, and/or flagrant deceit or dishonesty.
Wretched syntax aside, the clause is obviously an attempt to cover all the bases of things teachers might do wrong. They might live with or even fall into bed with somebody they are not married to, might advocate abortion, might blog “improper(ly),” might try to get pregnant using available technology instead of by means of their God-given genitals, and so on. Note what is not specifically included. No reference to making war, to supporting the death penalty, to walking past the homeless on the street. The Cincinnati diocese leaves open the use of drones on civilian populations, but makes a clear stand against the homosexual “lifestyle.” Talk about missing the donut for the hole. And let's not forget that while church schools have rights accorded religious institutions, they are in part funded by all of us taxpayers, and need to be in line with laws regarding labor rights.
A Human Rights Campaign blog reminds readers that this contract is actually in keeping with past practices of discrimination against gays and lesbians and others with “incorrect” views. A nun was suspended in 2009 for publicly supporting the ordination of women, and a teacher was fired in 2010 for becoming pregnant by artificial insemination. In that latter case, the woman sued the diocese for improper firing and won.
What is endlessly irksome about the way the church acts out its homophobia is its cherry-picking. Does it not realize how transparent this obsession is? Frank Bruni, for example, points out the bizarre nature of this preoccupation in a New York Times editorial on the Cincinnati case.
What makes this not only an obsession but an overreach is the fact that the church is attempting to dictate how its teachers should behave in their private lives. One can understand that they might not want their Protestant or Jewish teachers to use their classroom to deny the authority of the pope. But while it’s obvious these are the views of Protestants and Jews and others, no attempt is made to tell them they must not light the shabbas candles on Friday or attend a Protestant religious ceremony on Sundays – both actions clearly in opposition to Roman Catholic church teaching and practice. Why this obsession not just with sexual practices, but with shutting down publicly expressed views on sexual practices?
The Cincinnati story, it would appear, has legs. Something similar is happening in Hawaii and much closer to home. Oakland (which begins six blocks from my house here in Berkeley) is faced with the same challenges, at Bishop O’Dowd High School, which the kids of friends of mine attend. And just this week, the church’s attempt to hold the line for tradition backfired in San Francisco, also in the Bay Area. This time it was Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep school in San Francisco. Here, the efforts of church officials to oppose change had a different outcome.
In the Sacred Heart's case, a graduating senior named Jessica had her picture taken for the yearbook wearing a tuxedo. Formal dress, not the uniform of a clown or a bikini. Sacred Heart decided this broke the rule of gender-appropriate dress, and removed her picture from the yearbook. What happened next is telling. Jessica’s female classmates came to school wearing neckties. In fairly short order, the school administration reversed its policy, apologized to Jessica and her family and made efforts to put things right. They even offered to reprint the yearbooks, this time with her picture in it. No drawn-out controversy this time. A quick apology – blame it on “miscommunication” and move on. The church (San Francisco diocese, at least) appears to be getting a lot more media-savvy.
While these are not exactly parallel stories, what intrigues me is the degree to which local community values play a part in how the church weaves its way through the culture wars, and the degree to which the bishops respect those community values when they differ from those that are officially approved by the church hierarchy. One might be tempted to think it’s all about a relatively conservative Ohio diocese on the one hand and a relatively progressive California diocese on the other. But then what are we to say about Oakland, which more closely resembles Cincinnati than it does San Francisco in this case? Does this not mean that it’s the bishops calling the shots, without a whole lot of regard for how the community thinks? Or rather, how some bishops are more attuned to the larger community values than others? We have to remind ourselves constantly we’re not talking about any monoliths here. The culture wars are internal as much as they are conflicts between traditionally rival groups.
The church is an autocratic institution, after all, not a democratic one, and it protests on a regular basis that it must do what’s right and not what’s politically desirable at any given moment. But the protests can't hide the fact that the church is no different from any other political organization. Over time it will act pragmatically, as circumstances demand, and tune itself to the moral values of the surrounding culture. One needs to listen less to what it says it must do and watch what it actually ends up doing.
The conflict of values today would seem to be far more consequential than whether women should cover their heads in church or whether one may eat meat on Friday. These days the church has to justify its patriarchal views on women each time a bishop makes moves to prevent a politician who favors abortion rights to take communion. It has to justify its theology on who gets to heaven and how each time they find themselves in the public arena praying alongside Muslims and Jews and Protestants. And they have to answer the question, why does becoming “more progressive” make so many members of the church worry it is starting to look so much like the Protestants?
It’s always useful, when discussing the role of the church, to look at the kind of men in power in the various dioceses. San Francisco bishops have included such men as William Joseph Levada, one of the church’s worst examples of men responsible for child-abuse cover-up, later appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (successor to the Inquisition), the organization responsible for doctrine and morals. And George Hugh Niederauer, one of the architects of Prop. 8, which used a slander campaign to remove the rights of lesbians and gays to marry, a right that was later reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court. The current archbishop, Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco is chairman of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) Subcommittee on the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, one of the leaders, in other words, in the effort by the American Catholic Church to withhold marriage rights from lesbians and gays. What role did he play, if any, in determining whether Jessica Urbina appeared in her yearbook in a tuxedo? Is he a hands-on kind of guy, a micromanager? Or did he give the school principal a free hand to make his own call? And if that’s the case, is there a Catholic position to be observed at all? When we speak of “catholic” positions in the culture wars, are we talking more about individual management styles or degrees to which individuals play well with others? These are not profound questions, and there are plenty of people around who have the answers to them. But that doesn’t mean they are not worth asking. One ought to know what one is dealing with in the struggle for civil rights. It's not a monolithic church we are fighting. It's a limited number of particular people. The majority of the people in the church are not homophobic.
And what about the bishops of Cincinnati? Immediately prior to the current Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, we had, you may remember, one Daniel Pilarczyk. Pilarczyk caught the notice of Catholics when he fired a nun for her views on the ordination of women. Pilarczyk is also known for entering a plea of nolo contendere regarding five misdemeanor charges of failure to report child molestation in 2003. And, to make my point on bishop diversity, just prior to Pilarczyk there was Joseph Bernardin, a man who was once accused of molestation by a seminarian who later recanted. My intuition (how would I know, actually?) tells me Bernardin may have been wronged, and I find myself speculating about how this might have influenced him to “get it right” when it comes to the sex abuse challenge within the church. Bernardin was not only an ecumenist, who worked toward bringing Christians of all persuasions together. He challenged the use of nuclear weapons as a threat, established an AIDS task force in 1985, and made a name for himself by holding a mass in Holy Name Cathedral for divorced and separate Catholics, demonstrating at least, that the church is not of one mind on policies of exclusion.
Powerful men, all. But maybe not all that powerful, if a group of schoolgirls wearing neckties can turn around a Catholic high school’s policy of not including a girl dressed as a boy in its annual yearbook.
Slowly but surely the world comes around to recognizing the harms that can be inflicted on ordinary people by would-be do-gooders working in the name of “tradition.” It has taken centuries to raise the consciousness of white people about the evils of white supremacist notions. Centuries to move women out from under patriarchal beliefs in the inherent right of men to rule over women, beliefs still espoused by official Catholicism. Centuries to recognize that anti-Semitism lay not only in tribal notions of us and them, but in Christian organizations using the writings of leaders such as Martin Luther and the Scriptures themselves to justify brutality and exclusion. And centuries to recognize that same-sex attraction is not a moral evil, but a variation on human sexuality, a reality still being fought tooth and nail by the official Roman Catholic church hierarchy.
But we are making progress. While the Church (certain individuals within the church, I repeat) attempts to gag its high school teachers, out in the world beyond the church’s grasp, twelve U.S. federal judges in a row have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, and optimism is high that the Supreme Court will take these decisions into account when issuing a final decision on same-sex marriage when the issue finally appears on their docket.
Not only is the devil in the details, but stories change their significance as the context changes. One cannot draw lasting conclusions, necessarily, from a couple of distantly related news items. But one can gain some confidence that one is getting closer to understanding the real nature of the culture wars by digging around a bit in the background of these stories and seeing how events look close up and personal, by jumping the gap between church officials and the proclamations they issue, and the flesh-and-blood people affected by their decisions.
Church officials and other opponents of same-sex marriage like to point out that there are still bans in place in 28 states against same-sex marriage. Equal rights opponents like to claim this suggests the majority of citizens are behind them. But that number represents views held ten years ago or more, when an uninformed panic led to a rash of states passing bans on same-sex marriage. Today, not only does a majority of American favor extending that right to lesbians and gays, but with only two exceptions, North Dakota and Montana, all those bans are now being challenged in the courts. And in Montana the number of citizens expressing approval for same-sex marriage has increased with each annual poll. This year, it became the majority of Montanans. And if you search the news for the names Jenny and Nancy Rosenbrahn, you'll see that they are women who are about to challenge the ban in North Dakota, as well.
Not quite 100%, but close enough, as they say, for government work.
I go back and forth between considering the Roman Catholic Church a totally irrelevant organization, and remembering how many good folk I know who want it to be a force for good in the world and wanting to actively support their efforts. While celebrating the civil rights of my fellow LGBT Americans, I also share in the joy my Catholic friends feel when their retrograde bishops take a back seat to a little Catholic girl wearing a tuxedo in her high school year book. The church may only come kicking and screaming to the embrace of universal human rights and the morality of equality without regard to race, creed, gender or sexuality. But one day they will come around.
Correction: In my original posting of this article I referred to the San Francisco Catholic High school as St. Mary's and described it as an all girls school. It is coeducational, and it is Sacred Heart. My apologies.
Would Francis sign contract photo:
Map of same-sex marriage rights distribution: