Remembering Matthew Shepard: Encountering Solidarity, Countering Isolation

Today’s post was written by guest blogger Alfred Pang is a PhD student in Theology and Education at Boston College.

By Alfred Pang, October 12, 2016

I experienced a micro-aggression about a year ago at Mass. It was during a homily that listed, in a single breath, the Magisterium’s teachings against contraception, divorce and same-gender marriage. It obliterated the complexity of each issue. There was, of course, the typical mention of the natural complementarity of male and female as biologically designed by God. Such preaching was not new to me, but until then, I had been able to shut it out, numbing myself to what is said and mustering enough generosity to understand that some homilists do not know any better.

matthewshepard
Matthew Shepard

On this particular occasion, I could not. Instead, I simply shut down. I felt invalidated within the church I love as a gay Catholic man. I was angered by the quick dismissal of fruitful same-gender love. I found myself isolated and silenced in the broken shards of the church in which homophobia goes unrecognized. I simply shut down. Such is the power of micro-aggressions, whose cumulative toxicity, often unbeknownst to the offenders, wears down our souls, wearies our bodies and renders our selves invisible.

What aided in my recovery was remembering the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die on a cold October night in 1998. I recalled, in particular, Dennis Shepard’s (Matthew’s father) statement to the court at the trial of his murders. These words comforted me:

“By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark’s in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew’s in Laramie. He had God.”

The assurance that God is with me brought me much consolation. God’s presence endures as life not in spite of but in the midst of loss and death. Dennis Shepard’s description of God’s presence in creation and, as Creator, embracing Matthew in Her womb of life, is powerfully evocative. God must have grieved. And in our pain, God grieves with us. We have God because God first loved us. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

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Alfred Pang

During my recovery, I realized that God is present not simply to piece together the broken pieces of my life. God is just not into patchwork! God’s daily invitation to us to be reconcilers in Christ is not simply to be a people who patch things up. Rather, God creates us anew and calls us to be co-transformers in the world in light of our wholeness in Christ who holds all things together. I am reminded by Mr. Shepard’s words that the pain that I was experiencing is not mine alone, but shared in the interconnection of our many individual lives held and sustained by the One divine breath of God that blows creation into being.

This recognition of the inter-connectivity of our lives, I suggest, lies beneath the decision of Matthew’s parents not to press for the death penalty against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two young men responsible for Matthew’s violent murder. It is also this attentiveness to the oneness of God’s divine life reflected in diversity that propelled their founding of the Matthew Shepard Foundation just months after their son’s death. In the witness of Matthew’s parents, I gradually found hope and healing.

Today, we commemorate the 18th anniversary of Matthew’s death and I’m struck that Matthew would have been my age if he were alive today. And today, I know Matthew is alive when we remember the reality of violence being directed at young people due to their gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Hate is, of course, to be resisted.

Beyond physical violence, Matthew’s story also points to the violence of isolation engendered by micro-aggressions cumulatively experienced in our families, schools, churches, and communities. More than an issue of unjust discrimination, every instance of someone fired from ministry or of another teacher dismissed from a Catholic school because of sexuality fuels this culture of isolation, leaving young people feeling abandoned, especially those who are wrestling with their experiences of sexual marginalization.

In today’s Gospel lectionary reading, we hear Jesus speaking to “the scholars of the law”: “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).

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William McNichols, “The Passion of Matthew Shepard”

Jesus’ words are sharply poignant in light of our remembrance of Matthew. Jesus’ words ought to trouble us to confront not only our moral self-righteousness but also our complicity in turning the rich openness to God’s life within the Christian tradition into an enclosed grave for LGBT people and their families. Together with the crucified Christ, let us be stirred by Matthew’s death to lament over the continuing loss of young LGBT lives due to the distress experienced in isolation.

Yet, let us also be challenged that death does not have the last word. God’s enduring presence as life calls us forth to resist dehumanization by first recognizing that violence in any form is never deserved and deserving. Instead, we deserve to be loved as persons created in the image and likeness of God. There are no damaged people. There are only intersecting systems of dominance due to homophobia, heterosexism, racism, and classism that damage relationships.

Do not wait too long to tell someone how proud you are of them. This is the coming out that we all need to do to reverse slowly but surely this life-sapping culture of isolation. And may our families be the first spaces that need to be de-isolated, to be converted into spaces where blessings are shared in the midst of losses, and where our grief and joy, pain and hope are embraced as one, through a commitment to forgive, serve, and witness in God’s divine life. Anything less than these can only mean that Matthew and many other LGBT youth have died in vain, and our remembrance meaningless.

On October 20, people worldwide will “go purple” for #SpiritDay 2016 to resist anti-LGBT bullying and bias that youth experience in schools. For resources on how Catholics, and specifically Catholic schools, can get involved, please click here.

To read a Lenten reflection on Matthew Shepard posted earlier this year on Bondings 2.0, please click here.

Iowa Catholic School Will Not Recognize Student for LGBT Scholarship

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Liam Jameson

A Catholic high school in Iowa which previously fired a gay teacher is now refusing honors to a graduating senior who is also gay.

Officials at Dowling Catholic High School, West Des Moines, have said senior Liam Jameson may not receive an LGBT scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation during the school’s awards ceremony this Thursday. Jameson is asking school officials to reverse their decision, so that he can be recognized equally for his accomplishments, reported OutSports. A Change.org petition, which you can sign here, has more than 1,000 signatures already. The student wrote an open letter explaining his appeal, stating in part:

“I’ve worked hard to prevent suicides, and having this scholarship presented allows other students to learn that LGBTQ students are valued in society, not shunned. That’s why the Committee presents the scholarships at Senior Awards Programs, to try and help save other young lives who feel isolated and worthless, like I once did. . .Bishop Pates, President Deegan, Principal Meendering, please choose life and demonstrate that all lives are worthy of ‘wholeness and dignity’. Doing so shows the entire Dowling Catholic student body that they are truly valued and loved regardless of who they are.”

The Eychaner Foundation describes itself as a “non-profit organization committed to promoting tolerance and non-discrimination,” and notes that it is “dedicated to anti-bullying.” Jameson was awarded the $40,000 Matthew Shepard Scholarship, named after hate crime victim whose 1998 murder in Wyoming sparked a national call to end violence against LGBT people.  The scholarship recognizes Jameson’s leadership as a gay student at Dowling Catholic where he helped organize a 250-student walk-out last year protesting the firing of gay teacher Tyler McCubbin. He also led efforts to found an LGBT club, called One Dowling Family, which provides a safe space at the school. Of this latter work, Jameson shared:

“I wanted to leave Dowling a better place, one worthy enough to educate all the brave souls who have had lives far better and far worse than mine. A space for all. A space that valued the few just as much as it valued the many. That space is now called One Dowling Family, formerly One Human Family. . .I can leave Dowling knowing that I made it a better place, one that provides students a place where they can be free.”

Dowling Catholic administrators released a brief statement yesterday, stating that scholarship organizations are not allowed to present awards during the ceremony, and thus Jameson would be honored in a manner consistent with his peers. The statement reads:

“At Dowling Catholic High School we are proud of all of our senior students who have received awards and scholarships to further their education. All scholarship recipients are honored during the Scholastic Award Assembly. Each senior selects up to two scholarships to be read out loud when a slide that includes their name and picture comes up on the screen. We do not allow organizations who are awarding the scholarship to attend and individually present the scholarship to the student. This policy was shared in writing with the Eychaner Foundation regarding the Matthew Shepard Award. We are pleased one of our students received the Matthew Shepard Award and he will be honored in the same manner as his classmates.”

The Eychaner Foundation refuted this claim with their own statement from Rich Eychaner, which said Dowling Catholic “misrepresents the efforts the efforts the school has gone to in dishonoring Iowa’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship.” The statement continued, noting the scholarship had been presented at Dowling Catholic in 2014 without problem:

“Since then, Dowling constructed and then revised a policy to limit scholarships presented to their students. Dowling further tightened their policy to specifically target the Matthew Shepard Scholarship by writing in ‘rules’ that the school could deny the student’s choice of scholarships that were publicly read under criteria that targeted our scholarship. . .

“After Principal Meendering became aware that Liam intended to apply for Iowa’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship Program the policy was revised to state. . .’Students may choose to accept any award; however Dowling Catholic High School reserves the right to not acknowledge any award.’ (emphasis added)”

Other Iowa Catholic schools have welcomed the Foundation, though not without some controversies. In 2012, a student at Prince of Peace Catholic High School was also the recipient of the Matthew Shepard scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation.  Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport originally denied permission for the scholarship to be announced at graduation, but he reversed the decision and allowed the presentation to go forward. The bishop also congratulated the student, and re-affirmed the diocese’s support of anti-bullying and anti-discrimination principles.

In a related note, there are questions about the safety of One Dowling Family as a space inclusive of all students. Fr. Zach Kautzky, the school’s chaplain whose oversight of the safe space group had been mandated by the school, tweeted a link a news story which denigrates transgender identities. Though students have requested Kautzky be replaced, Principal Matt Meendering “downplayed the group’s LGBT focus” and said the matter was being discussed, wrote a columnist for the Des Moines Register.

It is inexplicable why Dowling Catholic administrators will not allow a graduating gay student to be honored alongside his peers, and why rules have been repeatedly revised. Jameson has contributed greatly to the school community, testifying to the power of being one’s authentic self, and to helping his peers do likewise. He should be celebrated not only for receiving this scholarship, but for modeling the type of student that Catholic education seeks to form when it is at its best. School officials will hopefully find a wisdom and courage similar to their student’s and reverse their discriminatory decision. Regardless, Jameson will surely excel at Iowa State next year and then wherever life takes him.  Congratulations, Liam!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

Theologian Challenges Pax Christi to Embrace LGBT Equality and Justice

This past weekend, my New Ways Ministry colleague Bob Shine and I attended the national conference of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic organization which promotes peace, justice, and non-violence.  We had an exhibit booth there for New Ways Ministry, distributing our materials about LGBT ministry and equality.

Father Bryan Massingale
Father Bryan Massingale

With Bishop Thomas Gumbleton as the opening keynoter and Father Bryan Massingale, a Marquette University theologian who specializes in social ethics, as the closing plenary speaker, the three days of meetings were book-ended by great inspiration.

For me, and for many of the participants, the highlight of the weekend came during Fr. Massingale’s talk in which he laid out a number of ways that Pax Christi USA can become more relevant to today’s Catholics, and more effective in church and society.  His final recommendation was that Pax Christi USA needed to start addressing LGBT equality and justice if they want to remain a credible and vibrant voice for peace and justice.  He stated:

“If Pax Christi USA is to remain relevant and on the frontier as a Catholic movement of peacemaking with justice, it must intentionally welcome people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.”

Massingale acknowledged that this might be a “neuralgic and sensitive” issue for some in the organization, but he offered two reasons why he recommended it.  The first was demographics:

“For the young people I teach, equality for gays and lesbians is their civil rights issue.”

He noted a survey of young people from 2009 in which the four top descriptors of religious institutions were:  “intolerant,” “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “homophobic.”   He added:

“For young people, the litmus test of the credibility of a religious institution is their stances on LGBT rights.”

The second reason, Massingale suggested, was the justice and human rights argument:

“Around the world, people are humiliated, tortured, raped, exiled, imprisoned, and executed for who they are and how they love.  The most notorious case is going on in Uganda with the so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill. . . In South Africa, women who identify as lesbian are subjected to a practice called  ‘corrective rape’ where they are gang raped by men in order to change them from their ‘sinful tendencies.’ “

Massingale added that “we don’t need to go overseas,” mentioning the series of murders classified as gay hate crimes in New York City during May 2013.  He noted mournfully:

“And these hate crimes, these brutal murders were met by a deafening, appalling silence from Catholic leaders.”

Massingale summed up this section of his talk with moral principles that are deep in Catholic theology:

“Whatever disagreements one may have with someone’s conduct, their fundamental human rights are inalienable and God-given.

“These human rights must be protected and defended without compromise or ambiguity.  This is not political correctness.  This is the Gospel.”

An audio recording of Fr. Massingale’s entire talk is available on the Pax Christi USA website.  A news story about the entire conference can be found on The National Catholic Reporter website.

My experience at the weekend conference tells me that Pax Christi members were well-disposed to receive Fr. Massingale’s challenge.  The part of his talk that dealt with LGBT issues was interrupted several times by loud, approving applause.   At New Ways Ministry’s exhibit table, we were busy all weekend talking with Pax Christi members who are extremely supportive of LGBT issues.  Indeed, we returned home practically empty-handed, having distributed almost all of our materials.  We were afraid we would run-out!

Pax Christi USA already has a precedent for taking on LGBT issues.  In 1998, the organization partnered with New Ways Ministry to produce a full-page signature advertisement in the New York Times, in response to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming.  Close to 2,000 Catholics, including nine bishops, signed the statement entitled, “A Catholic Pledged to End Violence Against Lesbian and Gay People.”

But, of course, Fr. Massingale’s message is one that not only needed to be delivered to Pax Christi, but to the entire church.

New Ways Ministry thanks PaxChristiUSA for hosting us at their conference and for providing a platform for Fr. Bryan Massingale’s passionate and prophetic talk.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Bishop Thomas Paprocki Present Two Different Catholic Views on Marriage Equality

Sr. Jeannine Gramick speaking with Bishop Thomas Paprocki
Sr. Jeannine Gramick speaking with Bishop Thomas Paprocki

An event last Friday that included Sr. Jeannine Gramick, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry, highlighted just how supportive Catholics are of marriage equality as the bishops play defense to support their position.

For over two hours at an event hosted by Robert Blair Kaiser and the Jesuit Alumni of Arizona, Sr. Gramick exchanged views with Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, in front of an audience.

The National Catholic Reporter reported on the event, where Bishop Paprocki attacked  the “gay activist lobby” in his opening remarks and denigrated the attention given to the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 as evidence of media bias. He posited that if marriage equality passes, then “everything should be OK” in regard to any sexual practice or activity.

Sister Jeannine Gramick
Sister Jeannine Gramick

Alternatively, Sr. Gramick spoke of the positive changes occurring around LGBT issues, including her personal conversion that has led to nearly four decades of ministry with gay and lesbian people. The article continues:

“Gramick reflected on changes in her own attitudes, attitudes of the public and attitudes of the church hierarchy. She said more and more church leaders are moving toward support of at least civil unions.

“Referring to Paprocki’s remark that morality cannot be based on polls, she said, ‘We may not legislate on the basis of polls, but they tell us what people are thinking.’

“She said polls show Catholics’ opinions have moved from opposition to same-sex marriage to approval in a short time because nearly everyone has a gay friend, family member or business associate.”

Indicative of these shifting views, the question period was solely aimed at Bishop Paprocki’s opposition to LGBT rights. During remarks by the bishop, a member of the audience, Anne Gray, even yelled out, “That’s insulting” and followed-up with a question:

Bishop Thomas Paprocki
Bishop Thomas Paprocki

“In response to a question from Kaiser, Paprocki said the church would love to welcome gay people but is forced into a defensive position by ‘activists pushing an agenda.’ That set off Gray, who has a gay son, again.

“‘Here I am,’ she said. ‘The big scary gay agenda…My son is a perfect human being. There is nothing intrinsically disordered about him. I know because I am his mother.’…

” ‘You need to listen to mothers,’ she said.”

Another questioner offered her personal experience of supporting lesbian family members and Paprocki made the suggestion that she leave the church to do so:

“One of the youngest people in the room said she was a devout Catholic, but when her aunt and sister told her they were gay, she was put on the spot. She asked Paprocki if she could remain a good Catholic and still support her family members in their desires to form lifelong relationships.

” ‘It is a struggle to be a good Catholic while supporting gay marriage,’ the bishop said. ‘It strains your relationship with the church.’

“He said those who oppose the church on the issue should become Protestants. ‘They do a lot of good things too,’ he said.

This is the latest instance where Catholics supportive of LGBT equality are making their voices heard to the Church’s hierarchy, including Sr. Gramick who recently confronted the famously anti-gay Cardinal Turkson of Ghana. We applaud the many people whose efforts contributed to making American Catholics the leading religious group advocating for equal marriage rights!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Yet Another Commencement Controversy at a Catholic School

“Commencement time” is becoming “controversy time” when it comes to LGBT issues and Catholic schools.   Already this spring, we’ve witnessed three stories where LGBT issues have caused uproars in various Catholic educational institutions in the U.S. (for links to Bondings2.0posts about these previous stories, see the end of this posting).  This fourth one seems the most frustrating, and I explain the reasons why after reviewing the details of the case.

The news this week is that the bishop of Davenport, Iowa, is not allowing a scholarship to be presented to a gay student at a Catholic high school in Clinton, Iowa, because the award comes from a foundation which supports LGBT rights.

According to an Associated Press story printed on theWashington Post website:

Keaton Fuller

Bishop Martin Amos in Davenport said the Eychaner Foundation would not be allowed to present the Matthew Shepard Scholarship to Keaton Fuller during the May 20 ceremony at Prince of Peace Catholic School in Clinton, saying the group’s support for gay rights conflicts with church doctrine.

Fuller’s response was quoted in a QuadCities Times article about the decision:

 “ ‘I have never felt as invalidated and unaccepted as I have upon hearing the news that the scholarship that I have worked so hard for not just in the application process, but also in my deportment and actions over the years, would not be recognized in the way that it should at the graduation ceremony,’ Keaton said. ‘It is difficult to understand how after I have spent 13 years at this school and worked hard during all of them, I would be made to feel that my accomplishments are less than everybody else’s. This whole ordeal has been incredibly hurtful, and I am even sadder that this will be one of my last experiences to remember my high school years by.’

“Keaton wrote that this is ‘a teachable moment for Prince of Peace, to stand up against rejecting and invalidating the accomplishments of any student.’ ”

The diocese’s statement about the bishop’s decision cited a diocesan policy about speakers at Catholic institutions:

“We cannot allow any one or any organization which promotes a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church to present at a diocesan institution.”

As was the case in another recent graduation controversy, the bishop’s decision was not supported by local school officials, according to the Associated Press story:

“School Board President Edward O’Neill said he was disappointed by the bishop’s decision. He said Fuller was a talented student who was accepted by his peers after coming out years ago. He said Fuller had taken his boyfriend to prom over the weekend and other school dances without controversy.

“O’Neill said board members were briefed on the scholarship last month, and they were aware a foundation representative planned to present the scholarship. No one raised an objection until the bishop got involved, he said.

“ ‘We preach tolerance and acceptance but then we turn around and we don’t practice what we preach,’ he said. ‘If the bishop says we’re not going to do it, I can voice my objection to it, but there’s not a whole lot I can do.’ ”

The QuadCity Times article offers further disagreement from O’Neill:

“O’Neill said he was ‘disappointed and confused’ by the diocese’s decision, especially because the school already had given assurance that a representative of the foundation would be allowed to present the scholarship.

“ ‘If you say you’re going to do something, you do it,’ O’Neill said. ‘I guess I don’t understand what the big deal is about somebody from the foundation coming to present the award.’

“O’Neill said it is common practice at the school for representatives of organizations awarding scholarships to make the presentations to the winning students.

“ ‘How this became a contentious situation I don’t know,’ he said.”

Indeed, the same story says that school officials encouraged and supported Fuller to apply for the scholarship:

“He learned about the scholarship program and was encouraged to apply by Prince of Peace, he said in the release. The school also issued a signed statement that a committee member would be allowed to present the award to Keaton at the ceremony if he were selected for the scholarship, the release states.”

What’s particularly frustrating about this case is that the Eychaner Foundation and the diocese do have common ground in their anti-bullying work.   The Associated Press article states:

“Eychaner issued a statement saying he was shocked that the bishop believes the foundation’s work clashes with church teachings, noting it promotes tolerance and fights bullying.”

The diocese’s statement ends:

“While the diocese supports anti-bullying programs promoted by the Eychaner Foundation, the Foundation’s advocacy for same-sex marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching.”

The frustration comes because the bishop has turned an opportunity to promote the church’s teaching against intolerance into a half-hearted attempt to make a statement about the church’s teaching on sexual ethics.  “Half-hearted” because the scholarship will still be allowed to be presented at the graduation, just not by a representative from the Eychaner Foundation.

Any subtle message about sexual ethics that the diocese was trying to make has already been drowned out by the louder message that it is sending that discrimination is not an important value to the Catholic hierarchy.

The larger issue, though, is how Catholic institutions are going to relate to other institutions in the world.  If Catholics were to follow the logic of this bishop’s decision, they would only ever associate with individuals or groups with whom they have total and complete agreement.  That is a recipe for institutional disaster.   Catholics would do well to follow the example of Jesus who was not afraid to associate with people with whom he had disagreements.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous Bondings 2.0 stories about Catholic commencement controversies:

April 30, 2012: At Catholic Colleges’ Commencements: Tutu, Yes; Kennedy, No

April 29, 2012:  “Whodunit” Surrounds Decision to Disinvite Gay Alum from Commencement

April 1, 2012:  The Ups and Downs of LGBT Issues on Catholic College Campuses

Lessons Learned from Cancelling “The Laramie Project” at a Catholic High School

One has to wonder what kind of lessons are taught to students when parents’ complaints to New Jersey Catholic high school administrators caused the cancelling of a production of The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young Wyoming gay man.

According to a news story in The Trenton Times, the decision to cancel the show, originally scheduled for Notre Dame high school in Lawrence, N.J.,

“has proved to be just as controversial as the play’s edgy and dramatic portrayal of a Wyoming town gripped in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“On one side, school administrators say parents worried that the choice for the play was inappropriate for high schoolers, too loaded in its tale of the murder of a young gay man beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

“But cast members and students at the Catholic high school said they’ve been unfairly robbed of their ability to put on a thought-provoking and powerful play, one whose message of tolerance resonates powerfully in the wake of the Tyler Clementi cyberbullying verdict and other anti-harassment efforts.

“ ‘I wanted to do a show that had meaning and purpose to it and when I found out we were doing “The Laramie Project” I got really excited because this show teaches the values I’ve been taught my last 12 years of Catholic education,’ cast member and Notre Dame senior Tessa Holtenrichs said. ‘When I was told we couldn’t do it, I felt like it was really hypocritical.’ ”

Clearly, the overwhelming lessons of the school’s action are going to be that censorship is appropriate, that homosexuality is a forbidden topic, and that concerns about sexual activity are much more important that lessons about respect and tolerance.

What makes this decision even more difficult to understand is that that school administrators had previously deliberated over whether or not to stage the play, and had made a conscious decision that it would be beneficial to do so:

“School president Barry Breen and principal Mary Ivins said in a statement the choice for the spring play was originally seen as a ‘powerful and appropriate vehicle’ to address issues of respect and tolerance. But as calls questioning the play’s content rolled in, officials worried that the controversy would become distracting, and the decision was made Tuesday to cancel the show.

“ ‘The expression of these concerns opened our eyes to the realization that different eyes will see radically different messages than the ones we intended,’ they said.

“ ‘This has led the administration to conclude that we might inadvertently be placing our school at the center of an undesired and potentially damaging controversy by moving forward with the production.’ ”

The administration’s rationale teaches the wrong lesson that public pressure, not a principled decision, should be guide one’s thought.

Not all parents were against the staging of the play.  At least one thought the play–and its ensuing controversy–had the potential for an important lesson:

“ ‘I think the people had the assumption that the play was going to do something it never would have done, to encourage students to become homosexuals instead of not killing homosexuals,’ Diane Steinberg, a parent of a Notre Dame student and an alum, said during an interview.

“She said the school missed the chance to turn any controversy into a teachable moment.”

As one student’s comments illustrate, preparing for the play was already producing beneficial lessons for students:

“ ‘My director, Ms. (Diane) Wargo, said something pretty powerful,’  [Tessa] Holtenrichs said. ‘She said Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us to have so many rules about who to love and how to love. I thought that was great.’ ”

What is even more surprising is that many Catholic high schools and colleges stage this play regularly.  In 2010, Xavier High School in Manhattan, produced this play for the second time in less than ten years, and withstood pressure to cancel it.  According to a New York Times article:

“Not only did Xavier’s president and headmaster approve the plan for ‘Laramie,’ they informed Mr. Ostrow [the drama teacher]  that he was not exactly breaking new ground. Xavier had performed ‘Laramie’ in the 2002-3 school year, standing by the production even amid some eye-rolling and grumbling among faculty members and parents and a smattering of picketing from fundamentalist Christians. “

What lessons did staging this production at Xavier teach students?  According to school administrators quoted in theNew York Times:

“ ;I’m thrilled we did it,; Jack Raslowsky, Xavier’s president, said in an interview this week. ‘It’s one of those plays that has the potential to be a springboard to discussion. If you do “The Mousetrap” or “Brigadoon,” you’re not going to be discussing issues of good and evil.’

“Such a discussion, said Mr. Raslowsky and Michael LiVigni, the headmaster, fits firmly in the Catholic theological tradition, with its emphases on social justice and human dignity.

“ ‘When I saw the play,’ Mr. LiVigni said, ‘what struck me most was the scene of Matthew’s funeral when you have picketers with the sign “God Hates You.” But why would God hate what he created? That’s what I want our boys to understand.’ ”

Now, that’s a lesson worth teaching and learning.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry