The mission of Catholic schools emanates from the mission of the Catholic Church, commissioned by Jesus to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and instructing them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). The fundamental purpose of Catholics schools is not to make “graduates” who go on to future educational and employment success, but to make “disciples.”

It’s true that some parents opt to send their children to Catholic schools not because of the formation in the faith, but because they provide a superb education, committed teachers and administrators, small classrooms, and a disciplined and safe environment for learning. The primary reason Catholic schools exist, however, is religious. They help Catholic parents raise their children in the holistic context and rich culture of the truths of the faith, so that their children may develop the gifts God has given them and succeed in this life and the next. When Catholic schools accept children from families that are not Catholic or do not practice the Catholic faith, this religious focus remains, insofar as the schools seek to model for those children and their families how much God loves each one of them and, without proselytism, to introduce them to the beauty of the Catholic faith in action, flourishing in a school community based on Christian love.

Acknowledging this primary religious dimension of a Catholic school is essential for understanding and evaluating the much-publicized decision of St. Paul’s Catholic School in Hingham to rescind the acceptance of an eight-year old boy being raised by a lesbian couple. Many Catholics and non-Catholics responded by assailing the decision, claiming, as Catholic Schools Foundation executive director Michael Reardon wrote, that it was “at odds with our values … and ultimately with Gospel teaching.” Others wondered how representatives of Jesus — who instructed his disciples, “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them” (Lk 18:16) — could penalize a child because they disapproved of the lifestyle of those who were raising him. Others accused pastor Fr. James Rafferty and principal Cynthia Duggan of harboring a special animus toward a child raised by a same-sex couple, since it’s common knowledge that Catholic schools routinely accept children of cohabitating, unmarried parents, those who are civilly married, or divorced-and-remarried, or otherwise not living in conformity with the teachings of Jesus and his Church. In short, many understood their decision to be, purely and simply, an instance of unjust, shameful and un-Christian discrimination.

The truth is that it wasn’t a bigoted decision at all, but a courageous, principled, and undoubtedly difficult one, seeking the good of the eight year-old boy and the rest of the children at the school.

To understand why the decision of St. Paul’s does not violate Catholic principles but rather affirms and applies them, we need to appreciate some general Catholic principles as well as what makes the application of them to the new situation of children raised by same-sex couples somewhat unique.

The first principle is that the Catholic Church seeks to welcome everyone and to call and assist everyone to conversion and holiness of life. Specifically with regard to children, the Church is never looking for a reason to turn a child away, but sometimes, with great reluctance and sadness, needs to do so for the good of the child. This paradoxical situation happens not just with Catholic school decisions, but with something far more important and fundamental: the sacrament of baptism. The Church obviously desires all parents to bring their children to be baptized, but when they do, the priest, in order to celebrate the sacrament, has the duty to determine that there is a “well-founded” or “realistic” hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith (Canon 868 in the Code of Canon Law). The Church always welcomes the desire of parents to baptize their children, but needs them to understand that baptism is a sacrament of initiation tied to a way of life. If there is no realistic hope that the parents are going to raise the child in the faith — ordinarily by committing to teach the child to pray, take her to Mass, provide for her religious instruction, set a good Christian example at home, and choose godparents who will take seriously her religious upbringing — the pastor, outside of a danger of death situation, must reluctantly delay the baptism. This is one of the most excruciating things a pastor is ever asked to do, because of the importance of baptism for salvation. While it may seem that such a decision only penalizes a child for the parents’ lack of willingness to follow through on their larger commitments, the pastoral decision is actually made in view of the good of the child, who assumes rights and responsibilities upon being baptized. If the child is not going to be nourished in the faith to know and live by those privileges and duties, then the Church defers the baptism, hoping that either the parents will have a change of heart or the child, upon maturity, will freely request baptism as a catechumen. The U.S. Bishops reemphasized these principles in a 2006 document with specific application to children presented by same-sex couples.

With regard to Catholic school admissions decisions, similar principles are at work. The Church never wants to turn a child away. Rather, it has a deep desire to share the blessing of a Catholic school education with as many children as possible. At the same time, however, there is a requirement, for the good of the child, that the parents commit to raise the child in a situation that at least does not contradict the values and formation given at the school. If the child’s education will not be coupled to a way of life consistent with it, the parents and school would be placing the child in a spiritually and morally schizophrenic situation — which is obviously harmful.

This was the specific determination that Fr. Rafferty and Ms. Duggan made in Hingham for the good of the eight year-old boy. As Fr. Rafferty wrote in his parish bulletin on Sunday, “Our decision was made in the best interests of the child based upon our discernment that in our Catholic environment, with its teaching on marriage as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman, a child from a same sex family might feel discomfort, frustration or confusion. Additionally, in our small school, without support services, we were concerned whether we could help a child of this age reconcile an inherent conflict between our teachings and his home life.”

By alluding to an “inherent conflict,” Fr. Rafferty pointed to the obvious truth that the situation of children being raised by a same-sex couple is different from that of kids being raised in other non-traditional situations.  Kids being raised by couples who are unmarried, married outside of the Church, or divorced-and-remarried are seldom taught to look at those situations as models, or even as goods to be desired. Very often the parents of those children accept the Church’s understanding of marriage even if in their own circumstances they do not live in accordance with it. There’s a moral conflict, not an inherent one — and in many circumstances the relationship happily can be brought into conformity with the moral law. Same-sex relationships, on the other hand, not only can never be reconciled with the Church’s teaching on marriage, but are often looked at as a positive good. On occasion they are even, scandalously, celebrated with parades and rallies in ways that other non-traditional situations never are. This only magnifies the inherent conflict and confusion a child of a same-sex couple at a Catholic school could suffer.

The new situation of children being raised by same-sex couples — made possible and more common by the recent advent of artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization and same-sex adoptions — requires the Church to apply our Catholic principles to these new circumstances. The Archdiocese of Denver has a general policy that it has already begun to apply to children of same-sex couples. The Archdiocese of Boston is presently working on one. Any such policy will need to emphasize a double welcoming: Catholic schools seek to welcome all children, provided that parents welcome the Church’s teaching and are prepared to partner with the Church for the good of the child’s overall and integral education.

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