Could the Sanctioning of Nativity School Have Been Handled Differently? | Part One

Fr. James Bretzke, SJ

This spring, the Nativity School of Worcester was stripped of its Catholic affiliation by Bishop Robert McManus because the school continued flying Pride and Black Lives Matter flags despite the bishop’s request to stop doing so. McManus also imposed other ecclesial sanctions, such as prohibiting the celebration of the sacraments on school property. Nativity is a Jesuit-run school which serves primarily students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

Could Bishop McManus have handled this situation differently? Our guest contributor, Fr. James Bretzke, SJ,  a professor of theology at John Carroll University, Cleveland, offers an analysis from theological and practical perspectives. He begins his analysis in Part I today and Part II will be published tomorrow.

The standoff between Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts, and the Jesuit-sponsored Nativity Middle School in his diocese over the school’s flying of Pride and Black Lives Matter flags resulted in the bishop’s stripping the designation of “Catholic” from the school, and forbidding the celebration of the Sacraments in any school-sponsored venue. But could this controversy have been handled differently in an authentically Catholic way that would have promoted unity instead of division?

From the very earliest days of the post-Resurrection Christian community to the present, there have been considerable tensions and debate about just how much diversity can be tolerated while maintaining the unity that is essential to the evangelical faith. This is not the place to give even a thumbnail sketch of this complicated and fractious history, but over time “flags” have served as markers of the forces of this struggle. Of course, there are many false flags that undermine the unity essential to our common purpose. Parading the Confederate Flag in the U.S. Capitol as some so-called “tourists” did on January 6, 2021 might count as a false flag to our national purpose. Flying those sorts of flags certainly would be cause for serious concern for those charged with maintaining the necessary unity of the Christian community. But while clearly there are flags that should not be flown, is there a legitimate range of diversity for other flags? As a native Wisconsinite I would have to fly the flag of the Green Bay Packers lest I be disowned by my cousins! But I would accept in my current urban location of suburban Cleveland that we also could display the Cleveland Browns, or even the Chicago Bears. These flags symbolize legitimate pride with one’s preferred team and the hope that they succeed on the gridiron.

But some flags might be open to different and conflictual meanings. Clearly Bishop McManus believes strongly that tolerating the presence of the Pride flag and the Black Lives Matter flag is utterly incompatible with the Catholic faith. As he stated in his Decree stripping the Jesuit-sponsored Nativity School of its Catholic designation:

“[T]hese symbols (flags) embody specific agendas or ideologies [that] contradict Catholic social and moral teaching. It is my contention that the ‘Gay Pride’ flag represents support of gay marriage and actively living a LGBTQ+ lifestyle. …

“The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has co-opted the phrase and promotes a platform that directly contradicts Catholic social teaching on the importance and role of the nuclear family and seeks to disrupt the family structure in clear opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

“The flying of these flags in front of a Catholic school sends a mixed, confusing and scandalous message to the public about the Church’s stance on these important moral and social issues.”

These are serious charges indeed, but I believe it is legitimate to inquire whether this is the commonly held belief about what these flags do in fact signify, and/or whether another legitimate reading of their meaning might be possible. In his “Statement of April 3, 2022 Bishop McManus begins by noting that symbols, such as flags, “can mean different things to different people” but rather quickly he concludes that in Nativity School’s case the flags do not have legitimate multiple meanings or interpretations. He attributes only one authentic meaning to each: “gay pride flags are often used to stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman” and the Black Lives Matter flag “instill broad-brush distrust of police and those entrusted with enforcing our laws. We do not teach that in our schools.”

He concludes by outlining Catholic pedagogical values that could well have outlined a common ground for dialogue:

“As the Bishop of this diocese, I must teach that it is imperative that a Catholic School use imagery and symbols which are reflective of that school’s values and principles so as to be clear with young people who are being spiritually and morally formed for the future. While our role in a school is not to convert those who are not Catholic, nor is it our role to deny our Catholic identity.”

Some ways of approaching this flag controversy would be to consider how the students, faculty, and staff of the Nativity School themselves look on these symbols, and also to see how they might be employed in other religious contexts. 

Symbols are difficult for a number of reasons, and also are prone to certain logical abuses. One of these is what we might call the Symbolic Logic Error and I would hazard that perhaps Bishop McManus has fallen unwittingly into this trap. I would outline the Symbolic Logic Error fallacy in this way:

Symbol “A” can under certain circumstances mean “B”;  

B” under certain other circumstances can mean “C” 

“C” is clearly offensive, immoral, etc.  

Therefore, if you use Symbol A you must mean “C” and only “C”.

It may seem that Bishop McManus has moved rather too quickly from the position of “Symbol ‘A’ can mean” to a conclusion that Symbol A must mean….” 

Thus, his comments about the Pride flag may suggest he sees this symbol as some sort of low-tech textile advertising version of the Grindr app,¹ but this view would be difficult to confirm in practice. And the idea that by flying the Pride flag, along with the Black Lives Matter flag²—both of which flew below the American flag–indicated that the Nativity School was trying to advertise willingness for same-sex trysts or a commitment to destroy the family unit does stretch common sense credulity to the breaking point.

The whole controversy over a significantly slanted misreading of the deeper meaning of the two flags might benefit from an examination of two theological concepts: potestas and auctoritas, which will be the subjects of Part 2 of this post tomorrow.

Fr. James Bretzke, S.J., John Carroll University, August 2, 2022

1. Many would argue that essentially Grindr is more of a social networking site rather than a hook-up application, but obviously use of this app has caused some clerical embarrassment, as seen in the case of the former general secretary of the USCCB, Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, who was forced to resign his position in July 2021 after his use of this app was “outed” by the Pillar, a conservative media organ.
2. A careful study of the Black Lives Matter official website does not surface the content Bishop McManus highlighted, though the following statement probably still does not sit well with him: “We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.” (accessed July 16, 2022).


2 replies
  1. John McDargh, Ph.D.
    John McDargh, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you Fr Bretzke for your thoughtful analysis of how the good bishop’s misreading of the common sense popular meaning of both symbolic expressions is out of touch with their context and significance today.

  2. Alexei
    Alexei says:

    Thank you, Fr. James. Seems to me that African-Americans and LGBT persons are undergoing the treatment that was given Christians in the first few centuries of the CE, often referred to as A.C. If I didn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection, I’d wager he’d be turning over in his grave. The ACTS OF THE APOSTLES shows how divided the early Christian community was. I like G. K. Chesterton’s take on this. “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.
    I thought the first step towards dialogue was “listening”. I highly recommend a great movie to help in that direction: SAME KIND OF DIFFERENT AS ME.


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