Gay marriage -- and any issue even remotely connected to homosexuality -- is guaranteed to spark controversy in the Catholic Church these days. But with the fallout from those disputes now claiming the children of gay couples as collateral damage, even the hierarchy is divided over the proper approach to an increasingly complex issue.
That was clear this week in Massachusetts after a parochial school in the tony South Shore suburb of Hingham rescinded its acceptance of an 8-year-old boy when the parish priest learned that the boy's parents are lesbians. One of the mothers, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of concerns about the effect of publicity on her son, said she and her partner had planned to send the boy to third grade at St. Paul Elementary School in the fall.
But she said that in a conference call with the priest, Father James Rafferty, and the school principal, Cynthia Duggan, Rafferty told her that her relationship was "was in discord with the teachings of the Catholic Church." Duggan told her teachers would be in an awkward position by having to answer student questions about the boy's two mommies.
"I'm accustomed to discrimination, I suppose, at my age and my experience as a gay woman," the mother told the AP
. "But I didn't expect it against my child."
The decision by Rafferty and Duggan also seemed to take the Archdiocese of Boston by surprise. A spokesman for Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley and other church officials said there is no policy barring the children of gay parents from Catholic schools.
"The Archdiocese does not prohibit children of same sex parents from attending Catholic schools," Mary Grassa O'Neill, secretary for education and superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said in a statement
on Thursday. "We will work in the coming weeks to develop a policy to eliminate any misunderstandings in the future,"
O'Neill added that Catholic schools "welcome children based on their parent's understanding that the teachings of the Church are an important component of the curriculum and are part of the students' educational experience." As long as they understand that, they are free to enroll their children.
On Thursday, O'Neill contacted the student's parent and "expressed my concern for the welfare of her child" and offered to help her find a place for the youngster in another Catholic school. The mother said she would consider the possibility.
The archdiocese did not try to force Rafferty and St. Paul's to change their minds on the 8-year-old boy's status.
But the Catholic Schools Foundation, which is chaired by O'Malley and is the leading provider of scholarships to low-income Catholic school students in greater Boston, sent a letter to all Catholic schools saying it would not provide scholarship money to schools that discriminate on admissions. It said any such practice "is at odds with our values as a foundation, the intentions of our donors, and ultimately Gospel teaching."
"I am disappointed that...this faith that I love seems to find new ways to shoot itself in the foot," Jack Connors, chair of the Campaign for Catholic Schools, which has raised nearly $60 million for major capital and program improvements in local Catholic schools, told The Boston Globe
Connors said he thought the incident was an aberration.
But that may not be the case. The Massachusetts incident mirrors a case in March when a Catholic school in Boulder, Colo., said two grade school girls could not return to the school because the parish priest and school administrators had discovered the girls' parents are lesbians.
The pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish argued
that Jesus "turned people away" and that his decision was not aimed at hurting the children, but at "upholding the teachings of our faith."
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the more outspoken conservatives in the hierarchy, fully backed the pastor and said that parents who send their children to Catholic schools should be expected to live according to the Catholic faith. "If parents don't respect the beliefs of the Church, or live in a manner that openly rejects those beliefs, then partnering with those parents becomes very difficult, if not impossible," Chaput said
That argument raised questions about why divorced parents or single parents or even non-Catholic parents are allowed to enroll their children in Catholic schools in Denver and elsewhere, but gay parents cannot.
The issue is not likely to go away, either. Gay couple are becoming more visible and sometimes legally recognized as spouses, and they are increasingly adopting or bearing children. Moreover, Catholic schools are an attractive option for many gay parents, just as they are for many straight couples.
Moreover -- and perhaps contrary to expectations -- many gay couples choose to be Catholic and want to raise their children in the Catholic Church and send their children to Catholic schools.
This has created some concern among pastors as gay couples in recent years have begun bringing their children to church for baptism. Most dioceses simply allow pastors to do what they think best. Some stipulate that the baptism be at a private service in the church for the family, rather than at a regular Mass, to avoid giving the impression that the church approves of the couple's status.
Now as those baptized babies are becoming school age, the debate is shifting to parish school enrollment, and that cannot always be kept private.
Nor are gay parents simply going to take their kids and leave. The mother of the Massachusetts boy this week said she and her partner are Christians, and though they don't attend church regularly, they like the values of a Catholic education and hoped to find another Catholic school for their son.
And the parents of the girls in the Colorado case have spoken movingly of their commitment to the Catholic faith.
"They [school officials] asked if we would raise our children in the Catholic faith and we said we would and we have really tried to live up to that commitment," one of the Colorado mothers told the National Catholic Reporter
. (Both women were raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools). "We take them to church every week." She said the couple switched to Sacred Heart parish when their kids started going to the school. "We signed up and our money goes into the basket every week. Our kids go to Sunday school. We are making the effort."
In an especially profound and extensive reflection, published last month in the Catholic periodical Commonweal, a lesbian and mother spoke of the reasons she and her partner, both Catholics, chose a Catholic school for their two newly adopted sons and of the unexpected welcome they received.
The anonymous author of the piece, "Sins of Admission,"
was raised a devout Catholic, attending Catholic schools and going to Notre Dame, where she helped run the campus pro-life group. She went on to work with the disabled and study theology before she and her partner adopted two "AIDS orphans" from Africa, who they enrolled in the school of the parish where both women sing in the choir.
"Although many have tried to show me the door out of the church, I never, in my first years with my partner, pondered leaving," the woman wrote. "I thought less and less about 'being gay,' per se, and continued the practice of my faith. In my work life and my home life I strove to be more loving and that itself was struggle enough. During this time the local diocese saw fit to recognize my professional work with an award at their annual prolife banquet. With some dismay, I dutifully accepted the award and shook the hand of the bishop, who is, in many respects, Archbishop Chaput's twin, and pondered the irony of it all."