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

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.

Today’s post is part two of an analysis of whether this incident could have been handled differently from guest contributor Fr. James Bretzke, SJ, who is a professor of theology at John Carroll University, Cleveland. To read Part 1, click here.

In the Roman era, potestas (power) was associated with the Pater familias (literally the father or patriarch of the [extended] family), while auctoritas was linked to his feminine counterpart (usually the mother in extended family). These two aspects of authority were understood not as competing, but rarely complementary. While the English translations of “power” and “authority” seem clear, there are many nuances that become lost. Let me suggest as slightly different translations for these two terms, with “dominion” for potestas and “moral prudence” for auctoritas

While a residential bishop clearly has the dominion of potestas to make the final decision, how might a legitimate moral auctoritas of prudence be effectively brought to bear? Probably the easiest and most effective means would be to seek out, and listen respectfully, to a broad range of opinions. Whether this happened in the Nativity case is difficult to determine. In his formal decree Bishop McManus states he brought the matter to prayer, but references little other consultation. 

Is there another possible, legitimate calculus for Pride and Black Lives Matter even in Bishop McManus’ Diocese of Worcester? Let’s investigate this possibility by starting first with the Nativity School itself, in its public statement give their rationale for the decision to fly (and keep flying) the two flags:

“In January 2021, Nativity started flying the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags following our students’ (the majority of whom are people of color) call to express support for making our communities more just and inclusive. As a multicultural school, the flags represent the inclusion and respect of all people. These flags simply state that all are welcome at Nativity and this value of inclusion is rooted in Catholic teaching. Pope Francis has praised the outreach and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports the spirit and movement of “Black Lives Matter.” Both flags are now widely understood to celebrate the human dignity of our relatives, friends and neighbors who have faced, and continue to face hate and discrimination. Though any symbol or flag can be co-opted by political groups or organizations, flying our flags is not an endorsement of any organization or ideology, they fly in support of marginalized people.”

While many U.S. hierarchs, especially those who are often called “culture warrior” bishops, may not have raised high the banner of Black Lives Matter, neither have they gone on record opposing it with the same force as Bishop McManus. Several others, though, have publicly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, and so at the very least this evidence would undermine Bishop McManus’ claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is “clearly” so insidious that any Catholic educational institutions that might embrace this emblem would have to be stripped of their Catholic designation. In fact some dioceses have explicitly and prominently supported the Black Lives Matter movement. The Diocese of Pittsburgh’s website still features prominently an article by Fr. Matthew Hawkins. “Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’.”

The Pride flag is admittedly more complex. While many culture warrior bishops have not explicitly joined forces with Bishop McManus here, there are some, such as Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, RI who tweeted out:

“A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.”

However, there seem to be stronger episcopal voices singing in a different key, and especially countering Bishop Tobin’s claim that Pride promotes a culture that is “especially harmful for children.” These bishops take very seriously the danger of harm to children, but note that bullying and lack of acceptance of children who are gay is correlated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with disproportionately higher rates of suicide than their heterosexual peers. These supportive bishops are in line with the trajectory outlined in the U.S. Bishops’ 1997 Pastoral Letter, “Always Our Children: Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also would seem to support for gay men and women of whatever age both in the call for all people to accept and live out their sexual identity (cf. CCC 2332 and 2333) and especially in relation to gay men and women that they be legitimately supported:

“2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

So, can recognition of Pride Month and the flying of the Pride Flag at a Catholic middle school for at-risk minority boys be a legitimate expression of the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” official Catholic teaching calls for? Pope Francis would respond in the affirmative. In a May 5, 2022 letter welcoming the 2022 Outreach Conference held at Fordham University on June 24-25, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, echoed themes frequently lifted up by Pope Francis indicating that the Conference itself was a good example of evangelical “outreach” commanded by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19-20). Cardinal Dolan spelled out this particular mandate further in stating “no one should ever feel they alienated from God’s love left out or ineligible for His grace and mercy,” adding that to “work for the Church’s heightened sensitivity to those who feel left out … is a noble task.”¹

Let me close by invoking another long-standing moral principle, namely subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that “decisions, policies, and their implementation ought to be handled at the lowest practical level since this level would more likely be better informed about the concrete needs and realities of the situation and able to deal with them more effectively than at a much higher level.”²

Subsidiarity does not mean that Bishop McManus must cede his potestas or juridical authority on this matter to the Nativity School of Worcester or any other group, but the principle would underscore the legitimate role of auctoritas to attend to other possible voices that might better decode the symbols of the flags flown in that particular context. While possession and exercise of potestas can be done by episcopal fiat, this does not in itself ensure that the resulting decision is pastorally prudent.

Nativity School faculty member Madalyne Buco recounted what the flag controversy has reinforced for her as a Catholic educator:  

“We need to show that the church loves students by our actions as teachers and with our openness to diverse viewpoints. It is not my job as a religion teacher to compel or force our students (many of whom are not Catholic) to accept every Catholic teaching or take every verse in the Bible literally. Rather, it is my job to guide them in learning about the church’s teachings so that they can be critical thinkers and just citizens. As Pope Francis has said, we are meant to form consciences, not replace them.”

It is lamentable that Worcester’s Nativity School now has to pursue these Catholic goals without recourse to the celebration of any of the Church’s sacraments and under the cloud of this particular episcopal disapproval.

A time-honored ecclesial adage states: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (In the essentials, unity; in doubt, liberty; in all things, charity). It is sometimes difficult to determine the boundary markers between what is “essential” and what is an area of legitimate “difference,” but hopefully “charity” may help in the final discernment.

Fr. James Bretzke, S.J., John Carroll University, August 3, 2022

1. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Letter to Outreach 2022 Conference participants, May 5, 2022.
2. James T. Bretzke, S.J., Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013): 227.


2 replies
  1. Joseph Quigley
    Joseph Quigley says:

    Excellent presentation of how a Bishop ought to exercise pastoral care. The weaponising of the Sacraments cannot be justified.

  2. Celine goessl
    Celine goessl says:

    What a serious sin on the part of those who stripped this school! May God have mercy on those people!


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