How the Sacred Heart Decision Makes Sense

First published at on March 19, 2010

It is sometimes said, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Which may be why the recent Colorado story about Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School, which expelled two pre-schoolers because their parents are lesbians, saddens me.

Although I’m now an atheist, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools for a good chunk of my life. There’s much about that experience that I still value. Thus (unlike many commentators on this story) I “get” why lesbians would want to send their children to a Catholic school in the first place. The rich intellectual and moral tradition, the emphasis on fundamentals—these are valuable things, and they’re often hard to find in public schools.

That’s not to say that Catholic schools are perfect, or that I’d send my own (entirely hypothetical) children there. But “perfect” is not usually an option when choosing schools—one chooses between better and worse.

Besides, these parents are (unlike me) practicing Catholics. They don’t accept everything the Church teaches, but then neither do most Catholics: the U.S. Bishops themselves estimate that 96% of married Catholics use artificial contraception, for example.

So while the parents’ choice is not one I would have made, it makes sense to me given their overall belief set and the available options.

So, too, does the decision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School to expel the children.

Before you conclude that The Gay Moralist has gone mad, hear me out.

To say that the decision “makes sense” is not to say that it was the morally correct decision. It wasn’t—not by a long shot.

Nor is it to say that the decision was logically consistent with other stances the Church has taken. Quite the contrary.

Indeed, if you’ve got a few minutes, check out Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly pressing Father Jonathan Morris on this point. O’Reilly, to his credit, sides against the school, while Father Morris flails about and dodges the consistency question.

So does Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. In his column he writes:

“Many of our schools also accept students of other faiths and no faith, and from single parent and divorced parent families. These students are always welcome so long as their parents support the Catholic mission of the school and do not offer a serious counter-witness to that mission in their actions.”

Key question that Morris and Chaput and the rest keep avoiding: How is it that lesbian parents offer counter-witness in the way that Muslim parents, or Jewish parents, or divorced parents do not?

(Note that by all accounts the lesbians were not what one would call “activists”—the story actually broke because outraged school faculty reported it to news outlets.)

The Church’s official teaching on divorce is the same as that of Jesus—namely, that those who divorce and remarry are engaging in an ongoing adulterous affair. And Muslims and Jews both deny the divinity of Christ, which is a pretty damn important part of the Catholic faith. So much for consistency.

So if the decision was immoral and inconsistent, in what possible way does it “make sense”?

For an answer, go back to the issues commonly raised to press the consistency point: interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. Look at the history of the Church and society on these issues.

There was a time, not very long ago, when the Roman Catholic Church quite vocally proclaimed its identity at the One True Faith. That’s still the official position, though you’d never know it by the Church’s ecumenical tone.

The reason for the shift is simple: the more Catholics got to know and love non-Catholics, the less palatable they found the doctrine that their friends were all going to hell. So the Church softened its tone.

Or take contraception, once scandalous, now used by the vast majority of Catholics, who understand it for what it is—a tool for responsible family planning. The more Catholics realized this, the less palatable they found the Church’s anti-contraception teaching. So the Church softened its tone.

And then there’s divorce, not a desirable thing generally, but sometimes the best available option. Can we really treat the nice couple next-door, one of whom was previously married, as flagrant adulterers? Of course we can’t. So the Church softened its tone—and stepped up the issuing of annulments, yet another tactic for preserving the appearance of consistency.

You can see where I’m going with this. The more a practice becomes normalized, the harder it is for the Church to maintain its condemnation without looking hopelessly archaic. It’s already lost on interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. It is desperately trying to stem the inevitable tide on homosexuality.

Then along comes a nice lesbian couple, loved by the parish community, who do what nice Catholic parents do—enroll their children in the local parish school. So nice! So normal! So…threatening. Threatening, that is, to make the Church look as archaic on this issue as it already does on the others. So Church officials draw a line in the sand.

Given their overall belief system, it makes sense. But it was still the wrong thing to do.