Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Who may attend Catholic schools?

I'm all in favor of religious communities managing their own membership boundary lines -- a meaningful sense of belonging presumes a right to exclude -- but I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the rationale behind removing the child of same-sex parents from Catholic school.  This story is generating the predictable left-right divisions within the blogosphere, and I don't have much interest in contributing on that front.  I'm more interested in what this says about the nature and mission of Catholic education.  I can see how tailoring the school's teaching to the preferences of parents might cause concern, but assuming that the school stays true to Church teaching, why would the presence of a child being raised by a same-sex couple cause a scandal?  And don't the kids who are not exposed to the Church's values at home have the most pressing need for the Catholic school's teaching?  

I did not attend Catholic school (nor do my kids), so I'm by no means an expert here -- is it common for kids to get kicked out of Catholic schools based on the conduct or lifestyles of their parents?  E.g., Are children of Mafia figures kicked out?  Have children of divorced and remarried parents been kicked out?  I don't intend these questions to be snarky or rhetorical -- the Church's witness on an issue that is so prone to reflexive accusations of mean-spirited discrimination requires consistent and principled policies.  Has the Church been consistent in deciding which children may attend Catholic schools?


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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I have attended Catholic schools my entire life. I can't say that I've ever heard of removing a child because of the parents' failure to adhere to the Church teaching. Of course, that is not to say that: (a) it has never happened; or (b) that doing so is not the correct approach.

I could see a point where society SO far diverges from Church teachings that a Catholic school would have to "make a stand" by excluding some children. My heart breaks at the idea of a child being punished for the actions of her parents. On the other hand, I do understand that somewhere, somehow, the Church and her affiliates might have to draw a line in the sand and push back against societal mores that clearly and openly (defiantly?) contradict the Church's positions. Where that line lies...I have no idea, but I do think it's out there somewhere.

Posted by: Long time reader, first time commenter | Mar 8, 2010 3:57:43 PM

Maybe in figuring out where that line is, the relevant question is "What message am I sending, as a Catholic school, about you, as a parent, when I include your child in our community?" I hadn't thought there was much of a message being sent about the parent, but maybe I'm wrong.

Posted by: rob vischer | Mar 8, 2010 4:34:02 PM

When I was a kid, there was a rough and tumble boy who got expelled from my Catholic school for his actions. He was excluded for the wrongs he committed, not for anything his parents ever did. I knew another kid who was bright, always on the honor roll, and behaved very well; but his parents committed adultery, got diverced and remarried, in that order. If the good kid got expelled from the school for his parents sins, my already then negative view of the Church would have been strengthened even further for such an injustice.

I think what Denver is doing here is ridiculous, especially since the child is innocent of the illicit actions of his or her parents. Besides the problem of Original Sin, are children now indebted to their parents own particular sins? Denver should draw a hard line in defending the teachings of the Church, but it should not do so by cutting innocent sheep out of its flock. Further, the Diocese lost an incredible opportunity to evangelize the truth to this child and to this child's (albeit problematic) family, and in doing so, openned itself up to all sorts of other problems on how to apply this policy through the sins of parents.

Finally, I think the pastor's response is quite problematic:

"We don't want to put any child in that tough position - nor do we want to put the parents, or the teachers, at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Why would good parents want their children to learn something they don't believe in?"

Why not? The pastor goes on to lament moral relativism, but I fail to see how the Church, its clergymen, or its congregations can remedy the problem of moral relativism if it acts with such cowardice towards the world. "Be not afraid!"

Posted by: Casey Khan | Mar 8, 2010 5:24:00 PM


Here is Archbishop Chaput's column addressing the issue.


On a certain level, I lean toward your opinion. On the other hand, the last paragraph of the Archbishop's article makes sense:

"Most parents who send their children to Catholic schools want an environment where the Catholic faith is fully taught and practiced. That simply can’t be done if teachers need to worry about wounding the feelings of their students or about alienating students from their parents. That isn’t fair to anyone—including the wider school community. Persons who have an understanding of marriage and family life sharply different from Catholic belief are often people of sincerity and good will. They have other, excellent options for education and should see in them the better course for their children."

Talking about homosexuality when a child of same-sex parents is in the classroom is probably much more difficult than talking about marriage to those of divorced parents. I don't know that I agree with Chaput, but I can kind of see where he is coming from.

Posted by: Don Altobello | Mar 8, 2010 8:38:51 PM

This is supposed to be a Catholic blog. So it's frustrating to me to see post after post that refuses to acknowledge the sinfulness of homosexual acts and the charitable disciple that sin requires. The argument that excluding the child of homosexual parents (already an act of selfishness on the part of the homosexual to deprive the child of his/her natural mother or father) should be allowed because tolerance is shown for children of divorce/remarriage/adultery. Those are the same sins (divorce, etc.) that are the justification for homosexual marriage (becuase heterosexual marriage is not what it should be). Those sins are all wrong; however one can (with charity) presume repentance on the part of the parents - they are "one act" sins - vs living a life of unrepentant sin (homosexual union). Without repentance there is scandal. That's the major difference.

Posted by: Denise | Mar 8, 2010 9:54:19 PM

I have to agree with Denise.

The good of the Catholic community at large is more important than the single child. To scandalize the entire school & parish community would be uncharitable to those many Catholic parents who sacrifice so much to create a wholesome eviroment for their children to begin with.

Posted by: Fitz | Mar 8, 2010 10:27:49 PM

Thanks for the comments. Denise and Fitz, for the purposes of my post, I'm assuming the sinfulness of the conduct. I'm trying to focus in on what exactly the "scandalizing" aspect is here -- is it that the admission of a child into a Catholic school suggests approval of their parents' conduct (at least when the conduct is ongoing), or is it that the presence of the child and her parents at school events, as part of the pool of potential playdates and birthday parties, etc. would be confusing for other kids at the school? Or something else?

Posted by: rob vischer | Mar 8, 2010 10:47:51 PM

I agree, Rob, that the relevant question should be what message the school is sending to the parents (or, to the world; or, to the Church community) by accepting their child into the community. At some point, in my view, the Church cannot simply "go with the flow" of societal mores it deems erroneous without being complicit in them...AKA without sending the message that those mores are acceptable by the Church's standards.

I can understand the "line" in this case: it seems as though the parents desired the school (and, the Church at large) to accede that their lifestyle was morally acceptable. I think this could be contrasted to other behavior that the Church condemns, such as divorce, which I think even the participant would admit was sinful, or at least a "bad thing." Here, it seems (or, at least it is plausible to think)that the parents were insistent that their lifestyle was not immoral, and that thinking otherwise constituted invidious, irrational discrimination. To me, the school giving in to this attitude is what could be seen as scandalous.

Posted by: long time reader...second time commenter | Mar 9, 2010 8:14:17 AM

I would argue that a large part of the success of Catholic schools entails an alliance between parents and teachers. This is true on multiple levels: the family being the school of the virtues and spiritual development, academic success correlating with parental involvement, and the behavior management of children depending primarily on what is learned and enforced at home. I would further argue that it is at least deeply problematic to forge such an alliance in the case in question. The school will be directly undercutting what the child is learning at home. Do these parents really seek an education that directly affronts their home life--that pits parents against teacher(s)?

On the flip side, this happens in many different ways all the time, so is the SSM question a particularly difficult case, or beyond a certain threshold? What about all other cases where parents put their children in Catholic schools with the understanding that they will ignore the religious aspect of the education and take advantage of what may be a superior academic course of studies--is it legitimate for Catholic schools to exclude children on that basis? Independent Catholic schools have a diverse array of answers to these questions, but is it legitimate for parochial schools to take a different, perhaps more "hard-line" approach? I tend to think yes, but the bottom line of enrollment has a loud, booming voice in this discussion.

Finally, does an answer to the question depend on the details of the SSM in each case? That's another three posts worth of talk, so I leave off there.

Posted by: A Catholic School Teacher | Mar 9, 2010 8:33:25 AM

I don't see much of anything about scandal in Archbishop Chaput's letter nor the letter from the priest linked from the same page. Rather, the rationale is that the school doesn't want to be in the position of telling pupils that their parents are bad, or not as good, or good but doing something bad, or something.

This seems like a pretty defensible rationale to me: we try to avoid inflicting cognitive dissonance on children, don't we? But I don't see why the same rationale wouldn't also lead to the exclusion of pupils whose parents are not Catholic or have divorced. I mean, how do we teach about Catholicism without saying that other religions are not as good, or about marriage without saying that divorce is not as good?

I also don't see anything about the pupil's parents wanting any concessions, though of course that might have been reported somewhere else. Of course they wouldn't have to ask for anything; the way this usually works is that Adam and Steve (or whoever) turn out to be such decent people and loving parents that everyone overlooks their intrinsically disordered relationship. Of course, this is the archdiocese of Denver, so maybe someone would get all pastoral on them and engage in moral discourse.

No matter what, from admitting this pupil, either the scandal of toleration or a series of uncomfortable confrontations would follow. And that is something with which no parish community should have to contend. What next, preaching on contraception? It's certainly easier to send them and their kid packing and go back to pretending people like that don't really exist.

Posted by: Abe Delnore | Mar 9, 2010 11:08:16 AM

"a series of uncomfortable confrontations would follow. And that is something with which no parish community should have to contend."

Sorry Abe, but as Christ teaches, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man 'against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's enemies will be those of his household."

Being a Christian, a Catholic one at that, is all about "a series of uncomfortable confrontations." It's all about taking up the cross, splinters and all.

And in response to Prof. Perry's ignorance of Christ's teaching on same sex unions, I'd invite him to reflect broaden his view of the Gospel and look to Leviticus 20:13 and John 8:58.

"Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.""

Posted by: Casey Khan | Mar 9, 2010 4:04:53 PM

One component of scandal might be that if the school retains this child, the other kids (of various ages) could see the two same-sex parents in the same context of seeing other kids' parents, perhaps at school functions or explicit parent-child functions. And parents of other kids might not wish to have their Catholic school showing their preschoolers same-sex parents of their classmate alongside other parents-as-parents at an event run by the school.

This also does implicate a deeper historical issue about the purpose of Catholic education. There are different kinds of purposes of different kinds of Catholic schools. Some have been mission schools, intended for non-Catholics. Others have been schools intended for Catholics (and sometimes strictly requiring only Catholic students and teachers). Today things have mixed together, with some benefits perhaps but arguably to the detriment of a clear mission.

In any event, I think there are multiple problems already mentioned that the Archdiocese was trying to avoid, and together they add up to reasonable justification of their decision. This decision itself may reflect an attempt to more streamline the school's mission.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Mar 9, 2010 4:06:58 PM

Also, a sincere thank-you to Rob for having open comments and keeping the post substantive, in contrast to other posts on the matter...

I think it goes a long way towards furthering productive conversation.

Posted by: long time reader | Mar 9, 2010 8:14:28 PM

I strongly support Fr. Breslin in his obedience to the Archdiocese of Denver's policy to expect parents of Catholic school students to uphold Catholic teaching. There has been some commentary about how this is being only applied to homosexual parents. What about all those parents in irregular marriages, who are contracepting, or who are cohabiting heterosexuals? I suspect there is something akin to a "Don't ask-Don't tell" policy even if it is not spelled out explicitly. Whether or not someone is contracepting is not apparent to the casual observer. That does not make it any less sinful. It does make it less scandalous. A mother who has a live-in boyfriend but doesn't advertise the fact may not be an issue for the school. However, if this mother wants to chaperone an out-of-town school trip and share a hotel room with her boyfriend, that is a completely different matter. There is nothing that requires this lesbian couple to send their children to Catholic schools. The church teaching on homosexual activity has been clear for centuries. It seems very selfish of these women to use their children to make a political statement and to attack the Church.

Posted by: Denise | Mar 10, 2010 11:29:32 AM