With just over two weeks until Pope Francis arrives in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced a new Catholic identity pledge that all parents with children in Catholic schools will be required to sign.
Parents will receive the page-long “Memorandum of Understanding” in applications and handbooks, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer, and they will be instructed to sign it. Their signature will mean the following:
“In addition to its pledge of support, the document notes that Catholic schooling is ‘a privilege, not a right,’ and its primary purpose is to strengthen faith. It said schools exist ‘to advance the faith mission’ of the parish, archdiocese, or Catholic religious community; that their ‘priority is fidelity to Catholic teaching and identity’; that schools and administrators have a responsibility to ensure that Catholic teaching and ‘moral integrity permeate every facet of the school’s life and activity’; and that the archbishop determines all matters of teaching, morals, and law.”
Archdiocesan spokesperson Ken Gavin denied that this pledge is either “unprecedented” or a response to the outcry following Waldron Mercy Academy’s firing of lesbian teacher Margie Winters earlier this year. While Gavin continues to affirm the archdiocese was uninvolved, administrators at the Sisters of Mercy school knew about Winters’ same-gender marriage for years. It was only after someone reported her to the archdiocese that punitive action was taken.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput is on record saying the discrimination against Winters displayed “character and common sense” and he is grateful for it. This latest decision to require parents to sign the pledge further emphasizes a difference between his vision for the church and that of Pope Francis whose papacy is marked by mercy and inclusion. In an interview with ABC 6, Chaput was asked about the pope’s invitational approach and replied:
“We don’t trick them into the church and then spring the teachings of Jesus on them. . .[Jesus] said ‘if you’re going to follow me, you have to take up your cross and follow me.’ He didn’t say ‘follow me and I’ll talk to you about those difficult things later.’ “
Margie Winters, who taught religious education for eighteen years, has a different vision she is proclaiming, even as the pain of not returning for another school year lingers. Winters told the Inquirer that “the reality is sinking in that I’m not part of the school any more” and she is attempting to find ways of connecting with community members hurt by her firing:
” ‘This is my community, so I feel like I should be there with them through this,’ the way she would’ve been during any other school crisis. . . .’Part of me wants to be in the middle of the conversations they will be having at Waldron.’ “
What would she contribute if she were present at these conversations? A dialogical vision of the church where all voices are welcomed, all perspectives included, and mercy ruling the discourse:
” ‘The question would be, how do we keep mercy at the center of our decisions, policies and approaches to these topics? . . .The world wants to divide us when we disagree. It wants us angry and seething, to walk away. Mercy calls us to come back and to be in conversation with all parties, even those we disagree with, to find mutuality. Dialogue is what our community needs.’ “
Yet, this vision of church is increasingly difficult to sustain for many students and parents in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and the costs of this current ideological pledge are unknown. More than a dozen families withdrew from Waldron Mercy Academy after Winters was fired, including Cathy Davis who told the Inquirer she would sign the pledge if it would be applied equally for employees because “the anger can’t be selective on what they are going to accept and not accept.”
The use of a pledge is reminiscent of Pope Pius X’s “Oath Against Modernism” from 1910. All those who ministered for and taught in the church were required to sign this document. Why hasn’t our Church progressed beyond such oaths?
Sadly, Archbishop Chaput and other bishops who have implemented enhanced morality clauses in teaching contracts are taking giant steps backwards towards 1910, rather than stepping forward towards a church that is “home for all” and whose leaders are confident in the People of God, trusting the Holy Spirit. When he comes to Philadelphia, Pope Francis should act against this distrustful trend and defend his inclusive vision of church, which sounds as if it is much closer to Margie Winters’ than Archbishop Chaput’s.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry