A prominent Sister of Mercy has joined parents in criticizing a lesbian teacher’s dismissal from her Catholic school employment, setting her apart from Mercy leadership which expressed its support for the decision by school leadership to fire the teacher.
Sister Mary Scullion joined parents Joan McCannon and James J. Maguire in piece published by the Philadelphia Inquirer that criticizes Waldron Mercy Academy’s decision to expel longtime religious educator Margie Winters for being in a same-gender marriage.
The authors say the church is at a “critical moment,” a moment intensified by the firings of Winter which has “personal ramifications” for each of them. They continued:
“But we believe that the Church’s truest integrity is at risk when it emphasizes orthodoxy and doctrine without meaningful engagement with human and historic realities. We love the Church: We draw deeply from its rich traditions of spirituality, compassion, service, and justice. But we also recognize (and need to take responsibility for) our many historic blind spots — persecution of heretics, oppression of indigenous peoples in the name of ‘mission,’ and second-class status for women.
“While it is painful for us to have to publicly dissent, we are convinced that this is a moment when insistence on doctrinal adherence is clashing with what we believe the Spirit is unfolding in our history — just as it has in the past. . .The Church is at its best when it listens to the Spirit speaking in our times and through human experiences.”
Scullion is a noted advocate for those experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. Dominic Preziosi, a blogger with dotCommonweal, reported the Mercy sister “received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 2011” and was “named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009.” McCannon works closely with Scullion at Project H.O.M.E., a homelessness group they co-founded together, and Maguire heads the scholarship-focused Maguire Foundation.
All of them say the Spirit is speaking through the “hundreds of parents and former students” standing with Margie and through Pope Francis who upholds church teaching but with openness and an engagement of lived experience. They concluded:
“We believe the controversy surrounding Margie Winters is the Spirit inviting us to reflect. . .May we come to a deeper and richer understanding of love, a more fervent commitment to justice, and a fuller spirit of community. In doing so, we learn more profoundly what it means to be Church, and how the Church can truthfully, faithfully, and prophetically serve and heal our society.”
That desire to heal was expressed by Waldron Mercy trustees president Andrew McCloskey, who invited concerned parents to a series of meetings. In an email reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, McCloskey called the firing “heartbreaking” and added:
” ‘It’s hard for many to understand how an institution that Margie so selflessly served for eight years could dismiss a wonderful educator and woman of mercy.’ “
Parents have led protests on social media and in person, demanding answers from the school about the firing of Winters and the ensuing handling of this situation. 27 alumni joined these protests, threatening to withhold donations unless the fired educator regained her job. Jake, an eight-year-old current student at Waldron Mercy Academy, wrote to Pope Francis, saying:
“Ms. Winters got fired from my school because she is married to a women. . .If you are not busy please write me a letter back . . . this is so unfair and I can’t understand it at all.”
Others outside the school community are echoing the thirst for justice in this case. One columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer said there is “No Mercy at Waldron Mercy,” while another at Philebrity.com pointed out that Philadelphia Catholic schools “are today and have always been staffed by many, many gay persons who also happen to be fine educators.” The blogger continued:
“All of them are people of faith — they believe deeply not just in the catechism of the schools but also in the kids they educate. And all of them have to play this horrible game where they have to hide who they are because the governing body of the faith is built on a shame-based theory of sexuality that is wholly corrosive.”
Though Archbishop Charles Chaput has said he is “grateful” that Winters was dismissed, and Mercy superior Sr. Patricia Vetrano affirmed the firing, for most Catholics the logic of this action is incomprehensible.
Winters’ wife, Andrea Vettori, who wrote a letter to Pope Francis about the incident, is among those Catholics who cannot understand the Waldron Mercy’s actions outside discrimination and exclusion, telling an interviewer:
“I love this church. I think this has made me realize how much I want to fight for it because there are some who want me to be excluded from the faith. And I don’t want to be excluded…When Christ walked the earth, he railed against the hierarchy for trying to exclude people, by using the laws of the faith at that time to exclude people. If that’s not happening now, I don’t know what else this is.”
Indeed, this firing, and so many others just like it, clashes with Christ’s inclusive witness. They cause deep fissures in school communities, the wider church, and, as is now apparent, in the sponsoring religious communities as well.
Mercy sisters are longtime advocates for social justice, including LGBT equality, so it is troublesome and puzzling as to why their leadership defended the firing. Debates about how to live out our Catholic identity are not easy. Winters spoke about this difference in vision in an interview with CNN last weekend:
“Waldron Mercy Academy is a wonderful community filled with faith-filled parents and children and teachers who are committed to mercy and justice…There was never a conflict with my job…The conflict is with the understanding of the teachings of the Church. For me it’s a conflict of vision of who we are as Church. The marriage issue goes to who I am as a person, and who God made me as.”
The community is organizing under “Stand with Margie,” launching a Facebook page with more than 11,000 likes and the #StandWithMargie hashtag on Twitter. A GoFundMe page has raised $16,000 to help support Winters and her wife. There is also a blog with some updates at standwithmargie.wordpress.com. Please stand with Margie in whatever ways you are able, and let us all pray that these firings, and the divisions they cause, may end so we can work towards increasing reconciliation within the church.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry