A Catholic high school for girls in Washington, D.C., has stepped right into a thicket that has plagued western Christianity for the last 500 years. Namely, what good are church teachings when someone has a better idea?
While the controversy that has erupted at Georgetown Visitation in Washington involves the contemporary question of gay marriage, the ramifications extend beyond that particular issue, and spotlight what can happen to a Christian institution when it is targeted for cultural transformation by a well-funded group of cultural transformers.
Georgetown Visitation is a Catholic all-girls school in Washington, D.C. It was formed by the Sisters of the Visitation. Tuition is $31,200 per year.
The controversy started when the Georgetown Visitation Alumnae magazine decided to publish the weddings of graduates marrying other women with sacramental marriages, births, deaths and other news.
Sister Mary Berchmans, the school’s president emerita, sent a letter to all Visitation alumnae announcing that gay marriages would be recognized by the school publication:
The Church is clear in its teaching on same-sex marriages. But, it is equally clear in its teaching that we are all children of God, that we each have dignity and are worthy of respect and love. As I have prayed over this contradiction, I keep returning to this choice: we can focus on Church teaching on gay marriage or we can focus on Church teaching on the Gospel commandment of love.
Contradiction? Berchmans’ letter said the basis for Visitation’s decision was a contradiction in Christian and Catholic teaching, that the command to love means transforming the sacrament of marriage into something new. And that’s what has Catholic leadership all around Washington unloading on Visitation as behaving contrary to Catholic teaching, as we shall see in a moment.
The obvious problem with Visitation’s decision is that gay marriage is squarely contrary to the unambiguous teaching of the Church that marriage is between one woman and one man. Contorting a sacrament to fit the mood of the day is beyond Sister Berchmans’ pay grade.
Imagine if the same publication ran an announcement that a living Visitation alumna had been canonized as a saint. Or that someone’s Golden Retriever had their first communion. Under the rules of the Church, these things just cannot happen. Dogs don’t have a first communion and the living aren’t canonized. Those are fictions under Catholic teaching. And so is the sacrament of marriage between two women, like it or not.
Yet this isn’t a controversy about gay marriage; this is a controversy about rules and why they are important.
Rules and teachings must mean something, or nothing means anything. If an institution purports to be Catholic, then we presume that institution plays by the rules of Catholicism. After all, what are rules and teachings if not something that binds together the broader whole into a universal membership?
The same whimsy about agreed-upon rules can also threaten the rule of law, when some laws matter, and other laws do not. Adherence to a central set of rules is what has guided Western civilization over centuries. Tumult and fracture have characterized periods when rules and laws are twisted or abandoned to suit a prevailing wind.
Catholics have fared better than others on this score, in part benefiting from a centralized authority. Gay marriage controversies are tearing other denominations apart. The United Methodists aren’t very united anymore, and the decision to maintain the traditional Christian definition of marriage has triggered a loud “Resist” movement inside the UMC that threatens the very existence of the United Methodists. Other Christian denominations have already fractured over the issue.
This is the Pandora’s box that Sister Berchmans opened. If Visitation purports to be Catholic, it should be Catholic. The condemnation of Visitation’s decision from all corners of Catholic authority in the Washington, D.C., area has been swift and overwhelming. It has been Sister Berchmans and Visitation versus everyone else, including the Washington Archdiocese that has nominal authority over the school.
Visitation’s spokesperson made matters worse when she said the school had informed the Archdiocese of the decision but the Archdiocese said that wasn’t true.
Monsignor Edward J. Filardi of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda – the parish home to approximately 30 Visitation families – was unequivocal and disappointed. His response:
It has been a year sadly full of scandal, so the latest news from Visitation Preparatory School is like another searing dagger to the heart. . . . You then claim to “have prayed over this contradiction.” There is no contradiction in these two statements. And with due respect, I find it hard to believe that you do not know better. Love is not an excuse for license, nor does love require one to condone or comply with any and all behavior. Actually, real love does just the opposite, seeking above all the greater good of the other.
Fr. Edward Hathaway, the Rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, also sent a response as part of a wide broadcast email:
Rather than challenging its alumnae to live counter-culturally and embrace the Gospel, which sets us free from slavery to sin, I am concerned Visitation will be fostering a culture of dissent over difficult teaching in the area of human sexuality and in the name of a false compassion. In doing so, it does a grave disservice to the young women entrusted to its care.
Meanwhile, Catholic Visitation alumnae are critical of the school’s decision in an open letter.
If Visitation’s leaders will not affirm Catholic teaching, the school cannot promise to be a home for students and teachers who do. . . . A lot of families – a lot of us – have been concerned for a while now about a real move away from a truly Catholic identity to something just ‘in the Catholic tradition,’ and that’s not what we signed up for.
The tumult and ideologically-driven drift at Visitation isn’t anything new. For years now, the school has been participating in a variety of causes fueled by some of the familiar foundations who have worked so hard to divide America along racial and class lines.
Each year, Visitation sends a contingent to a national seminar that stirs racial division and trains participants in the raw tools of racial activist organizing. Diversity dogma now flourishes at the school – with the “Kaleidoscope Club” serving as the beachhead for racial programming throughout the year.
At one recent “diversity day” students enjoyed an “experienced facilitator for diversity, equity, and inclusion” guiding a discussion on how “privilege” can help students “move more quickly toward social justice and change.” Diversity Day 2019 wasn’t a one-off, it was part of a broader program to draw attention to race, something profoundly contrary to Christian teaching.
To kick off the day, Erin Murphy ‘05, Director of Student Impact for Rustic Pathways, an organization that provides travel and service opportunities for students, spoke about her journey since Visitation: how her international travels and service prompted her to learn about the opportunity gap and how it relates to racism and the biases that exist both in the United States and abroad. … Following Erin’s presentation, students attended smaller workshops on topics ranging from American gun violence to the Black Lives Matter movement. Kaleidoscope students presented statistics, case studies, and information and then led their classmates, faculty, and staff through exercises to explore and discuss differing perspectives.
The school also sends students to a “People of Color Conference,” an event that was saturated to the rafters with ideological activism with panels such as “Supporting Student Organizing to Dismantle White Supremacy and Drive Institutional Change,” taught by the “YA YA Network,” a group that describes itself as providing “training in anti-oppression and political education.”
Students who attended were enthralled by the transformational programming.
“I always get a lot of ideas that are valuable to bring back to Kaleidoscope,” says Peggy. This year she cited a panel called “The ‘Trump Effect’ in Independent Schools: Supporting Student Diversity After a Racially Divisive Election.
Catholic and Christian teaching considers all humans as united as brothers and sisters, regardless of race. Dwelling on race and racial divisions is wrong. But why bother with rules or teachings when there is an agenda to push? Never mind what funders and interests are behind the curtain of the People of Color Conference and what their ideological aims are.
All of this is to illustrate that Sister Berchmans’ decision to contort the rules of Catholic theology should hardly be surprising for anyone paying attention. From the looks of things, the question of whether to include gay weddings in a Catholic school alumnae magazine is part of a broader contortion. That the rifts, drift and division have not reached the level now plaguing the United Methodist Church and other Protestant denominations may be the only solace Catholics can take from the controversy.