False Flags

Can a Catholic school really support its LGBTQ students?
Flags flying at Nativity School (Courtesy of Nativity School of Worcester)

What does it mean to fly the Pride flag? Can a Catholic institution display a rainbow banner with integrity? The bishop of the diocese of Worcester, Robert McManus, says “no.” I’m not sure I disagree.

To be clear, I am fully on the side of the Jesuit-run Nativity School in Worcester, Massachusetts, in its standoff with Bishop McManus, who demanded that the school stop displaying the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags or else forfeit its right to call itself Catholic. The flags proclaim the school’s commitment to fighting injustice. They “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,” as the school put it. “They fly in support of marginalized people.”

Nativity’s president made clear in a letter to the community that, while he and his team would never willingly abandon their ministry’s Catholic identity, they likewise remained unwilling to abandon their students. “Nativity will continue to display the flags in question,” he wrote, “to give visible witness to the school’s solidarity with our students, families, and their communities.”

I admire and am encouraged by Nativity School’s display of solidarity with Black and queer people. But while the school and its leaders may indeed stand with LGBTQ people against oppression, McManus is correct that the Catholic Church itself does not.

Two years ago, I wrote in these pages, “The Church’s condemnation of homosexuality isn’t just an error that needs fixing. It is an obstacle that stops Catholics, leaders and laity alike, from speaking clearly about urgent moral crises and from being perceived as credible when we do.” The conflict in Worcester is a perfect illustration. Defending an institutional prejudice against queer and transgender people leads men like Bishop McManus to pick fights over rainbow flags and to turn away from other marginalized groups who stand as allies to the LBGTQ cause.

That brings us to the Black Lives Matter flag, the other symbol McManus says is out of place at a Catholic school. In his initial statement to his diocese, McManus faulted the BLM movement for “instill[ing] broad-brush distrust of police and those entrusted with enforcing our laws.” That is a political, reactionary response, not a doctrinal one. But since that first salvo McManus has found a sturdier hook on which to hang his claim that the BLM flag contradicts the teaching of the Church, because the BLM movement—like most justice movements—is “‘queer affirming’ and ‘trans affirming.’” The Catholic Church McManus represents, meanwhile, is anything but affirming to queer and trans people, beyond a boilerplate assurance that “we are all God’s children” (the slogan McManus suggests as an alternative to the rainbow flag).

The Church’s head-in-the-sand attitude toward human sexuality has led us to this point, when bishops like McManus insist that Catholics cannot stand with the Black Lives Matter movement because BLM stands with queer people. That is where our Church is expending its energies at a moment when racist violence and white-supremacist politics are on the rise. Transgender people and their rights are under attack. Extremism is ascendant in the United States wherever Republicans hold power. Lives are literally at risk.

We are called to stand with the persecuted, but our bishops are more likely to speak out on the side of the persecutors.

How should Catholics respond? We are called to stand with the persecuted, but our bishops are more likely to speak out on the side of the persecutors. That contradiction, that scandal, is why our Church must reform its teachings that condemn same-sex love and “gender ideology.” Rejecting LGBTQ people aligns the Church with discrimination and political violence and ties our hands when it comes to resisting injustice of any kind.

Bishop McManus has his defenders. There are many self-consciously orthodox Catholics who are opposed to building a Church where LGBTQ people feel safe. They prefer to keep the Church a safe place for themselves. Loudly embracing orthodoxy gives them permission to reject and exclude people different from themselves and protects them from confronting uncomfortable truths.

At the same time, many more Catholics are shocked at the spectacle of a bishop forbidding Jesuits to pray the Mass, or even the rosary, with the low-income middle-schoolers they serve. Are those Catholics scandalized because, as McManus suggests, they fail to grasp the message of the Cross? Or do they see the persecuted Christ all too plainly in this moment?

Bishop McManus may hope that his exercise of ecclesial authority will clarify the Church’s teachings for his flock. My sense is that he has clarified instead the deep dysfunctionality of a Church divided against itself. As long as the Catholic Church is unwilling to examine its complicity in spreading anti-LGBTQ prejudice, it will keep finding reasons to avoid working for justice. Meanwhile, Catholics like the faculty and staff at Nativity School will carry on doing that work, but they shouldn’t have to fight their leaders to do it.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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