Jesuit School Files Vatican Appeal After Archbishop Strips It of Catholic Designation

The chapel at Brebuef Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis

The chapel at Brebuef Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis

A high school that lost its Catholic designation for refusing to terminate a gay employee at the archbishop’s request has filed a legal appeal to the Vatican to reverse the archdiocese’s decision. Meanwhile, the archbishop has barred the school from holding school-wide Masses.

Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Indianapolis, has asked the Vatican to reconsider Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson’s decree which removed the school’s Catholic designation in June because school officials refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott over his same-gender marriage.

According to a letter from school president Fr. William Verbryke, S.J., the Jesuits’ USA Midwest Province first formally appealed to the archbishop, who refused to overturn his decree. The Province has now asked the Congregation for Catholic Education to review Thompson’s decree and, in the interim, suspend its effects. Verbryke wrote:

“In the end, we hope that the decree is overruled; if that does not occur, we have asked for additional clarity as to the legitimate effects of the Archbishop’s decree on the sacramental life of Brebeuf Jesuit.  We do not have a timeline for how long the appeal process will take, but please be assured that we are making every effort to resolve our disagreement with the Archbishop and resume the strong relationship we have enjoyed with the Archdiocese for the past 57 years.”

A central issue in the appeal is the celebration of Mass on campus. Thompson has barred Brebeuf Jesuit from hosting school-wide liturgies, including a Mass of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the upcoming academic year. Two priests, Verbryke and Fr. Chris Johnson, S.J., will be allowed to celebrate daily Mass each morning in the school’s chapel. The school’s president commented in his letter:

“We are disappointed and saddened by the Archbishop’s decision; however, our appeal includes our request for the ability to have school Masses on campus once again.  We earnestly hope to be able to celebrate the Eucharist as an entire school community again in the near future.  However, we must, and do, acknowledge the authority of the Archbishop with respect to the celebration of Mass within the Archdiocese. In lieu of celebrating the Mass of the Holy Spirit as a traditional opening-of-the-school-year Mass on Thursday, August 15, our Brebeuf Jesuit community will call upon the blessings of the Holy Spirit in our school community for this academic year by holding a school-wide prayer service during the school day.”

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has continued to defend its actions against Brebeuf Jesuit, framing Thompson’s allowance of daily Mass as an action of “pastoral concern and charity,” reported America. Spokesperson Greg Otolski still placed the blame for this dispute on Brebeuf Jesuit officials who, in Otolski’s words, were “choosing to no longer be recognized as a Catholic institution” because they refused to fire Payne-Elliott.

Archbishop Thompson has made the further claim the he “firmly believe[s] that we’re in line with Pope Francis” in how he has approached LGBTQ issues. In an interview with the archdiocesan paper, The Criterionhe said people must read pope’s record in view of “the totality of the message, not just pick and choose what fits their agenda.” Thompson spoke extensively about the need for dialogue in a polarized society and to go beyond differences.

In related Indianapolis news, Faithful America has launched a petition asking the Archdiocese to reconsider its “cruel and arbitrary campaign” against LGTQ church workers, reinstate ties with Brebeuf Jesuit, and allow other Catholic schools to rehire terminated employees. To add your name, click here.

The executive director of DignityUSA, Marianne Duddy-Burke, wrote a letter to Thompson regarding the situation at Roncalli High School. A former student, Dominic Conover, published a piece last week detailing school administrator’s alleged intimidation of him after Conover spoke out publicly against the school’s termination of former guidance counselor Shelly Fitzgerald over her same-gender marriage. Duddy-Burke wrote:

“In my more than 36 years of ministry with and advocacy for LGBTQI Catholics, little has saddened and angered me to the extent that this essay did. . .The behavior of the school officials described in this essay is shameful. The pressure and isolation which Dominic experienced simply for standing up for his convictions belies the goal of building a united, supportive Body of Christ.  It is inexcusable for Superintendent Fleming and Principal Weisenbach to have threatened Dominic with withholding of his diploma, effectively threatening his college career and undermining what remained of his senior year. This is a reprehensible abuse of power, and totally inconsistent with what Catholic educators should be modeling. I strongly believe that both individuals, along with Roncalli President Hollowell, should be fired immediately.”

Finally, members of Shelly’s Voice, a network which formed after Fitzgerald’s termination, have rallied in support of LGBTQ students this week outside Roncalli High School and Cathedral High School, which fired Payne-Elliott’s husband this summer, under pressure from the archdiocese.

Brebeuf Jesuit’s chances in the Vatican appeal are unclear. The Congregation for Catholic Education is quite conservative. It was this congregation that released the negative document about transgender and intersex people, Male and Female He Created Them earlier this year. However, two LGBTQ-positive U.S. prelates, Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark, will be involved in the appeal, according to AmericaA further complicating factor is that under Pope Francis’ new constitution for the Curia, expected to be released this fall, this congregation is slated to be merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture, making it unknown as to what it’s future composition will be.

Given the Vatican’s pace, what is almost certain is that the appeal will not be resolved soon. The Brebeuf Jesuit community likely will be denied school-wide Masses for some time.  Denying the sacraments because school officials refuse to discriminate against an LGBTQ employee doubly harms people’s faith and drives them from the church, especially youth.

The situation in Indianapolis is untenable. Catholic institutions regularly employ LGBTQ people, many of whom are in, or will enter, civil marriages. LGBTQ people have much to offer the church’s work in education, healthcare, pastoral ministry, and social services. Is Archbishop Thompson going to pursue a witch hunt against every married LGBTQ employee and punish each institution that refuses to discriminate? Is he so ready to weaponize the sacraments? Such a path could destroy the local church. Before the next academic year begins, the archbishop needs to stop this crusade and instead reconcile with the many people harmed by his decisions.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 8, 2019

5 replies
  1. Richard Rosendall
    Richard Rosendall says:

    The article states: “Thompson has barred Brebeuf Jesuit from hosting school-wide liturgies, including a Mass of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the upcoming academic year.”

    At its heart, the Church is a community of believers. Increasingly it is clear that its operation as a hierarchy of power is inimical to the life and health of that community.

    I realize that refusing to obey the archbishop’s order, and conducting the school-wide Mass in defiance of him, would be seen as radical and lead to even harsher punishments. But Christ endured a greater punishment. If one places obedience to the bishop and the Vatican ahead of obedience to one’s conscience, what does one have left?

    The Church hierarchy in its anti-gay and anti-trans obsessions (which are complicated by closetedness within that hierarchy) is betraying the community of believers and thereby abdicating its authority. It is time for the Church community to reassert itself, come what may.

    I left the Church as an organization 49 years ago because its authoritarianism offended my conscience. I do not think I ever left the community. The authoritarian structure of the church is poisonous, is a betrayal. “Obey us or we will crush you” is the constant, implicit threat. This brutality, this cruelty should not be accepted. I well know what the conservatives say. They cannot imagine a non-authoritarian Church. That is because they do not trust the consciences of the faithful, without which the Church would be nothing but empty buildings. With all due respect to the Psalmist, each of us was created with a human brain and not that of a sheep. Let us stand up at last in respect for our own God-given biology. We are not sheep. We are human beings. To allow ourselves to be herded by bossy old men is to supplant our own consciences with theirs.

    The human brain is a powerful gift. Why don’t we honor it by using our brains to think for ourselves? Of course the hierarchy will go crazy and will respond in a brutal fashion. But we remain members of the Church community regardless of what they say and regardless of their papering the planet with excommunications. Our community endures. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    His Former Holiness Pope Benedict liked to tell us what out true conscience dictated. This sort of bullying is preposterous. One of the most powerful and resonant moments of the Church community in my lifetime was when Sister Jeanine Grammick finally decided to obey her own conscience. Let’s have more of that. The punishments for doing so are so much less than Christ endured. He would sit with us and break bread with us as He did with his disciples.

  2. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    To think that a male cleric has the authority-read authentic-“power” to “deny” the celebration of what is supposed to be central to Catholic identity is EXACTLY why the Church has in fact NO AUTHORITY over me. The institution is sterile of the grace of Christ. Pathetic.

  3. Evita Perennista
    Evita Perennista says:

    What does that even mean? I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t have any authority, legal or otherwise (there are Independent and Old Catholic churches that use the term), to either confer or rescind the title of “Catholic.” At best he can refuse to permit cooperation between the school and the local diocese which is supposedly under his care.

    Are the priests he’s “allowing” to celebrate mass in the school’s chapel diocesan priests? Since it’s a preparatory school run by Jesuits, I would think that they live and work on school grounds, or thereabouts, and that that’s the post they’re assigned to. And since it’s a Catholic school, I’m sure it’s funded by tuition, which I’m guessing covers the costs of living for the priests.

    His authority extends over the properties belonging to the diocese of Indianapolis — and ends there. The school must be within the patrimony of the Order or they wouldn’t have been able to refuse his overreach.

    He doesn’t have any authority over the school, which, by his own admission in refusing to recognize it’s catholicity, is outside his jurisdiction. They don’t owe obedience to anyone except their religious superiors, which does not include Charles Thompson. If they should decide to go ahead with the Mass of the Holy Spirit tomorrow on the Solemnity of the Assumption (we can assume it’s a votive mass), they have my blessing, which is at least as authoritative over the school as the archbishop’s. Imprimi potest.


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