Monday, May 17, 2010

Update on Boston Archdiocese and Children of Gay Couples in Catholic Schools: Continued Protests, Backed by Financial Pressure, Prove Effective

Last Thursday, I noted the controversy that developed after a Catholic school in Hingham, Massachusetts, recently informed a same-sex couple that their child could not be enrolled in the school.  As my posting states, the archdiocese of Boston seems to have distanced itself from the decision of Fr. James Rafferty, pastor of St. Paul parish in Hingham, to exclude the child of a gay couple from the parish school. 

After controversy arose with the announcement of this decision, Mary Grassa O’Neill, secretary for education and superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese of Boston, issued this statement: “We believe that every parent who wishes to send their child to a Catholic school should have the opportunity to pursue that dream.”  O’Neill also noted that the Boston archdiocese does not have a policy prohibiting children of same-sex parents from attending Catholic schools, and that it now intends to develop a stated policy to prevent misunderstandings in the future.

As Tom Roberts notes at NCR, the direction taken by the Boston archdiocese contrasts sharply with that taken by the Denver archdiocese in March, when a Catholic school in Boulder, Colorado, excluded the children of a lesbian couple from the school.  Roberts also notes that Boston’s archbishop,  Cardinal Sean O’Malley, was traveling with Pope Benedict when the controversy erupted and has yet to address it.

I also indicated on Thursday that the group Catholics United had organized a campaign to send letters to Cardinal O’Malley asking him to repudiate discrimination in his archdiocese’s schools.  Catholics United reported later on Thursday that it had gathered more than 2,500 signatures for its petition.  The Catholics United statement calls on Cardinal O’Malley to intervene in this situation, and states, “We welcome Dr. O'Neill's statement, and look forward to a final decision regarding this matter.”

The Human Rights Campaign has also initiated an email campaign to send a petition to Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, asking Cardinal George to end the unjust policy of targeting the children of gay parents in Catholic schools.  Information about the HRC petition, with a link to it, is here.

This case is drawing national attention.  David Gibson did a compare-and-contrast posting (noting the sharply different way in which Denver and Boston have handled the matter of children of same-sex couples in Catholic schools) at Politics Daily this weekend, and he has posted a précis of his argument at Commonweal’s blog. 

I’m particularly interested in Margery Eagan’s analysis yesterday in the Boston Herald of what has happened in the Boston archdiocese.  Eagan notes that there were “vehement protests” in the Boston archdiocese—the epicenter of the 2002 abuse revelations in the U.S. Catholic church, and the area most hard hit by those revelations—when the Hingham story broke.

And those protests were accompanied with the kind of rhetoric that effectively talks for church officials everywhere: they were accompanied with threats to withhold funds if the church permits and continues discrimination.  According to Eagan, Boston’s biggest scholarship provider, the Catholic Schools Foundation, informed the archdiocese that if it does not challenge the Hingham discrimination, it won’t get further scholarship funding for its schools.

Eagan further reports that “power broker Jack Connors,” who recently brought the archdiocese $2 million from EMC and Liberty Mutual for its Campaign for Catholic Schools, announced that he found the Hingham decision to exclude the child of a gay couple from its school “embarrassing.”  State representative Garrett Bradley and Catholic Democrats both issued statements condemning the discrimination.  Eagan notes that by Saturday, the Catholics United petition to Cardinal O’Malley was nearing 5,000 signatures.

As Eagan notes, we’re seeing a discernible shift underway here.  It’s a shift in the willingness of political figures, financial power brokers, the media, and the public at large to speak out vocally against unjust behavior on the part of Catholic church officials. 

And it’s perhaps no accident that we are seeing this shift in such a stark way in an archdiocese that was must heavily hit by the abuse revelations of 2002.  For many Catholics in the Boston area, the case files that were made public in 2002 pulled the veil aside, and allowed them to see at close hand some of the most unsavory operations of the inner mechanisms of church governance.  Boston Catholics have learned to organize and push back when the church tries to play the morality card while failing to attend to its own moral business.

And they’ve learned that one very effective way to push back is by withholding donations.  Money talks louder and more clearly than any words appear to do, it seems, when it comes to not a few church officials.

A postscript: what’s happening in the Boston archdiocese with the issue of children of gay parents in Catholic schools, in contrast to how the Denver archdiocese has handled the issue, may have much to do with how the history of Catholicism in different regions of the country has shaped the mentality of Catholics in each region.  As Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh argue in their book One Nation, Divisible (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), because Catholics were an unwelcome minority in New England for a formative period of their history in that region, Catholics of New England  may tend to be particularly wary about imposing their religious values on others in a discriminatory way (p. 62).