ALL ARE WELCOME: An Open Door Policy for Catholic Schools

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature  which examines how Catholic faith communities can become more inclusive of LGBT people and issues.  At the end of this posting, you can find the links to previous posts in this series.

The August issue of U.S. Catholic magazine has an essay entitled “Leave no child behind: Catholic schools should accept everyone.”  As the title suggests, the author is proposing that Catholic schools not refuse admission to anyone, including children who come from non-traditional families.

Fr. Bill Tkachuk, the author, is pastor of St. Nicholas Parish and co-pastor of Pope John XXIII School in Evanston, Illinois.  He uses as starting point the case where the Boston archdiocese overruled a parish school’s exclusion of a child because the family was headed by a lesbian couple.  Fr. Tkachuk rightly praises the archdiocese’s decision and their subsequent policy statement that “Our schools welcome and do not discriminate against or exclude any categories of students.”

The essay makes a beautiful case for inclusion, however, one of its arguments rubs the wrong way.  Fr. Tkachuk uses a Gospel example to make the case for inclusion, which, unfortunately, implies some of the judgmental attitude that he is trying to eradicate:

“The call of the apostle Matthew challenges the status quo of his time (Matt. 9:9-13). Jesus calls Matthew to follow him when he is still practicing the sinful act of collecting taxes for the Romans. Matthew responds by hosting a dinner to which he invites other practicing ‘sinners’; he then brings Jesus to meet the group he has gathered.

“When the religious authorities grumble that Jesus is associating with the ‘unclean,’ Jesus responds by clarifying the mission of God’s kingdom, saying, “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 balances the call to ongoing conversion with tolerance of imperfections.”

Fr. Tkachuk’s heart seems to be in the right place, but the use of this example seems to imply a patronizing approach toward people whose lives are not in accord with the church’s teaching.  I don’t think it is Fr. Tkachuk’s intention to label such people “sinners.”  Indeed he uses the word “sinners” in quotation marks to indicate that while they may be considered so by some people, that may not actually be the truth.  Yet his use of the scriptural example and the term can be offensive to some of his readers.

That said, I think that the main point of his essay–not to exclude any child on the basis of family background–is a good one.  His reasons include:

“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 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.”

Importantly, Fr. Tkachuk’s argument offers a way for how church officials can deal with similar situations such as employing a person involved in a public, committed lesbian or gay relationship.  His argument shows that church leaders have to start dealing with such new realities in new ways:

“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 that learning to deal with these tensions will help in a variety of situations in which the values we teach 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, or other aspects of our behavior? If so, then who will be left in our Catholic schools?”

Accompanying Fr. Tkachuk’s essay, U.S. Catholic also published an essay by Tina Herman, a parent, describing her reasons why she belieives Catholic schools should be inclusive, including the following:

“A school that discriminates agains gays and lesbians is sending a message to the very children it serves. These are institutions that preach morality and say we’re all God’s children. What does turning away children based on something out of their control say to other kids, who very well might be gay themselves? Thankfully, the events out of Boulder and Boston are isolated incidents.

“I live in a large metropolitan city in a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse neighborhood, and I prefer my son’s future classroom to reflect that makeup. At his current day care, he hangs out with kids who are black and white, Middle Eastern and Hispanic, adopted kids and kids with two dads. That is his “normal;” it’s what he knows. We are surrounded by expensive private schools that tout academic excellence (for preschoolers), but my husband and I think it’s important for our son to be around kids who don’t necessarily look like him, have the same family makeup as he does, or even the same income. We can all learn from each other’s differences–and that’s the best education.”

Catholic schools, like Catholic parishes, should be known for their ability to welcome and accept everyone who comes to their doors.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous posts in the ALL ARE WELCOME series:

Say the Words, December 14, 2011

All in the Family , January 2, 2012

At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out? , January 25, 2012

A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Welcome,  February 13, 2012

Going Beyond the Boundaries, April 11, 2012

St. Nicholas Parish Celebrates 10 Years of LGBT Ministry, May 24, 2012

When Homophobes Attack, June 7, 2012



0 replies
  1. Deb Winarski
    Deb Winarski says:

    I also had the same initial discomfort with the part of Fr. Tkachuk’s article mentioned above. It occurs to me, however, that one reason to include it (in an article written for a very broad audience) is that it responds to the concerns of those advocating exclusion in the terms of their own arguments (so, it’s a way of starting the conversation from common ground, which can be a more effective way to make a point to someone else whether or not you accept the starting point yourself). Thanks for calling attention to the article and for a thoughtful analysis of it!

  2. Fr. Bill Tkachuk
    Fr. Bill Tkachuk says:

    I appreciate the discomfort expressed by Francis DeBernardo in regard to the scriptural reference in the U.S. Catholic article. My intent in the use of quotation marks was to suggest that Jesus himself does not judge Matthew as a sinner because of his lifestyle; rather, he voices the thoughts in the minds and hearts of the righteous members of the crowd. Jesus does not deem Matthew as any more a sinner than those who judge him; in fact he notes and praises Matthew’s openness to God’s grace. Matthew has remained open to God’s call despite the judgments of righteious individuals who consider him “unclean.” I apologize to any who experienced my use of this scripture passage as judgment rather than a refutation of righteous judgment. I believe that I am called to be faithful to Catholic teaching and also humbly accept that I cannot know and must never judge how God is calling an individual to respond to that teaching in his or her life. It seems to me that the “litmus test” of Jesus is our openness to hear and respond to God’s call.

    • newwaysministryblog
      newwaysministryblog says:

      Thank you, Fr. Tkachuk, for replying and for clarifying your position. My own intention was not to judge you, but simply to point out that the argument could offend some. Your explanation proves what I had suspected: that your use of “sinners” in quotation marks was to show there was no judgement of them.

      Please let me emphasize, if it did not come through in the original posting, that I very much appreciate your essay and the argument that it makes. As I said, I think your points can be easily transferred to other pastoral situations concerning lesbian and gay people that the church is facing. I also appreciate Deb Winarski’s point that the scriptural argument that you make can be effective in responding to concerns of those who advocate exclusion.

      I think this essay is an important contribution to the continuing dialogue on LGBT issues in our church, and I am grateful for its appearance in U.S. Catholic.

      Francis DeBernardo

      • Fr. Bill Tkachuk
        Fr. Bill Tkachuk says:

        I never felt judged and appreciate your insight. You provided an opportunity for my to clarify what could have been misinterpreted in an article that is intended to open minds and hearts. Peace,
        Fr. Bill Tkachuk


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