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Should Catholic schools open their doors to everyone?

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Requiring parents to pass the test of being "sufficiently Catholic" to enroll their kids in our schools fails to follow one of Christ's most important teachings.

By Father Bill Tkachuk, pastor of St. Nicholas Parish and co-pastor of Pope John XXIII School in Evanston, Illinois.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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In May of 2010 the Boston Globe reported that St. Paul Elementary School in Hingham, Massachusetts had withdrawn its acceptance of an 8-year-old boy when the pastor and school principal realized that the boy was the child of two lesbian parents.

"There are many different non-traditional families that fall under the umbrella of the Catholic Church, and I guess we assumed we would fall under one of those," the boy’s mother told the Globe. Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley supported the pastor, saying, “He made a decision about the admission of the child to St. Paul School based on his pastoral concern for the child.” At the same time, the archdiocese offered to help the family find another Catholic school in the diocese for their child.  

In January of 2011 the Archdiocese of Boston announced a new policy for Catholic school admission, stating, “Our schools welcome and do not discriminate against or exclude any categories of students.” The policy also says that parents and guardians of students in Catholic schools “must accept and understand that the teachings of the Catholic Church are an essential and required part of the curriculum.”

Who “belongs” in a Catholic school? On what basis do we exclude a specific child or family from a Catholic school? Can a Catholic school become too “catholic”? These are some of the questions that arise from the recent controversy in the Archdiocese of Boston and the subsequent decision that adherence of families to Catholic teaching and practice will not become a criterion for admission to Catholic schools.

I am one of two pastors who support Pope John XXIII School in Evanston, Illinois. Pope John is celebrating its 25th anniversary as the offspring of two long-standing parish schools that united in order to thrive. The school is an important ministry, a powerful presence, and a valuable resource in our community. It is a National Blue Ribbon School with a student body that is diverse in race, ethnicity, and social background. As part of its mission, Pope John welcomes students of Christian and non-Christian families. I believe that the mission of evangelization and outreach is at the heart of the Catholic school system in general.

The call of the apostle Matthew challenges the status quo of his time (Matt 9:9-13). Jesus calls this tax collector to follow him while Matthew is practicing the sinful act of collecting taxes for the Romans. Matthew responds by hosting a dinner to which he invites other practicing “sinners”; he brings them Jesus to discover what he has found.

When the religious authorities grumble that Jesus is associating with the “unclean,” Jesus responds by clarifying the mission of God’s kingdom. “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus soon names Matthew (still called “the tax collector”) as one of the 12 apostles. In the roots of what will become the institutional church, Jesus seems to balance the call to ongoing conversion with tolerance of imperfections.

During my two years as a pastor of Pope John XXIII School, I have witnessed the power of this attitude of Jesus when we extend an invitation to people without pre-judgment or exclusivity. Last year, several children in our school requested baptism and Eucharist after years of learning about Jesus and the Catholic faith. Their parents were not yet ready to make a commitment to the Catholic faith but were willing to support their children. Local Catholic adults, friends, and relatives of the families agreed to sponsor the ongoing faith development of the children as practicing Catholics. The parents in one family have since assumed responsibility for bringing their children to Sunday Mass; they challenge and witness to our Catholic parents.

Conversion of families to Catholicism is not the primary purpose of opening Catholic schools to families who do not practice the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, these families–Catholic, non-Catholic, and nominally Catholic–have chosen our school because it is Catholic. Our mission is to evangelize them and their children by word and example.

Matthew the tax collector was judged a sinner by “religious” Jews. He did what was forbidden; he accommodated the “pagans” who had occupied Israel. As a result he was excluded, shunned, and discounted by his “righteous” Jewish brothers and sisters. He was offered no path to acceptance or reconciliation; no hope of ever belonging among the “holy.”

Jesus, on the other hand, offered Matthew both reconciliation and acceptance. He did not require Matthew to undergo an immediate and complete conversion. He embraced Matthew as he was and then led him into the mystery of God’s love. Jesus criticizes neither Matthew nor the other “sinners” at the table. On the contrary, he reserves his criticism for those who consider themselves righteous and deny a need for reconciliation. They judge themselves to be in good health and so separate themselves from the healing that Jesus offers everyone.

Each family who becomes part of a Catholic school community, each man or woman who teaches or volunteers and every principal or priest who serves in a Catholic school needs God’s healing in each and every moment. We strive to follow the call of Jesus, but we are imperfect witnesses to the faith. The most powerful witness that we offer our children is that we strive to grow in the understanding and practice of our faith and are willing to admit our imperfections and seek God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that a member of a Catholic school community has the right to contradict church teaching and so create disharmony or confusion. I am suggesting that any adult who supports the religious curriculum that is presented in a Catholic school is on a path to holiness, regardless of what I know or presume to know about his or her personal life.

There is a significant difference between denouncing church teaching as wrong and acknowledging the imperfection of my attempts to live by this teaching. The lost in the gospels are those who refuse to admit the imperfections in their behaviors and practices. The challenge is to strive honestly toward a holiness that remains just beyond our reach.

So what do we do when the reputation, behaviors, or lifestyle of a school parent stir controversy among the school community? I accept that, in specific instances, the pastor, principal, and school board may need to make a pastoral decision to refuse admission to a specific family in the best interest of that family and that school community. However, I oppose any general criteria that exclude types of families or presumes that controversies always will be resolved by excluding the “unfaithful” family.

I can envision situations in which the resolution most consistent with church teaching will be to ask a family to leave because of the intolerance they display and model for their children and the community. My experience has been that these situations can be resolved by the reassurance of the pastor and principal that children will be taught both Catholic teaching and values and tolerance for the beliefs, practices, and imperfections of others.

The Pope John XXIII community comprises a diversity of families and family models. I have been approached by single, divorced, and same-sex parents about whether they can enroll a child at Pope John XXIII. One family headed by two mothers feared that they would not be welcomed or that their children would be ostracized. These women have since become active supporters of the school, the parish, and the archdiocese; they participate with their children each week at Sunday Mass; their children are thriving within the school community.

Some parents have expressed a concern that the lifestyle of a non-traditional family will confuse their child. They have asked how to teach tolerance for others while also teaching Catholic values. I believe and have shared that learning to deal with these tensions will help in a variety of situations in which the values we teach will conflict with the perceived behaviors of relatives, neighbors, friends, and public figures. This is part of being Catholic in a pluralistic culture.

Those who would attempt to certify parents as “sufficiently Catholic” based on a preconceived list of perceived faults place us all on a very slippery slope. Do we extend this judgment to our business practices, our treatment of neighbors and extended family, our stewardship of creation, our generosity to the poor, our attachment to possessions, or other aspects of our behavior? If so, then who will be left in our Catholic schools?  

Thank you, Boston, for echoing the teachings of Jesus and making the ongoing evangelization of both the faithful and the imperfect a core value of Catholic education. Thank you for placing Catholic education at Mathew’s open dinner table rather than among those who would make the banquet exclusive. Thank you for continuing to place Catholic education at the service of the mission of Jesus and of his “catholic” church.

Flickr photo cc by David Jones