It numbers a recent U.S. Postmaster General (John Potter), and a current associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (Sonia Sotomayor) as alumni, but that's not why Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, New York, is making headlines right now. Rather, it's because the school's parent-teacher association had invited a retired Roman Catholic priest to speak about what The New York Times so delicately termed "the issue of same-sex attraction," in a talk anticipated to -- wait for it -- defend the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on the matter.
Oh, the humanity! Or perhaps inhumanity, to hear the Times team tell it:
Ever since Pope Francis spoke compassionately about gay people last summer -- saying, “Who am I to judge?” -- Roman Catholics around the world have debated the meaning of his words.
That debate continued this week at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, where on Monday night the Catholic institution announced that an address by a recently retired priest from the New York Archdiocese about the issue of same-sex attraction, set for Tuesday, had been postponed.
The priest, the Rev. Donald G. Timone, has long been involved with the Courage organization, a spiritual support group formalized in New York in 1980 to encourage men and women with same-sex attractions to remain celibate. It is now based in Norwalk, Conn.
“The issue is one that tends to generate more heat than light,” and Father Timone “will be able to illuminate our thinking along truly Catholic lines,” an announcement listed on the school’s website had stated.
Now, the pope was talking about Catholics working in the public square, urging strategies that focused on pastoral care over open political warfare (although, by stressing "balance" he in no way implied that Catholics should shut down in the political arena). And Pope Francis has not altered a word of Catholic doctrine on sexual morality. So he would oppose Catholic apologetics in a Catholic high school?
Also note what is not promised here: no burning torches, no rack, no Inquisition. Just a talk about what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches, including the concept of celibacy for those who are not involved in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. From what I've seen, read and heard, I'm fairly certain that "straight" Roman Catholics who are not marries are supposed to be "celibate," too -- at least that's the official teaching, right?
Well, that, apparently, was the old days and now having a Catholic priest, albeit a retired one, voice Catholic teaching at a Catholic school to (presumably) Catholic parents is really out there:
In a statement, Father [Trevor] Nicholls [the school's principal] had said that the talk would be for parents, not pupils. He urged against any premature judgments. “Parents are the first educators of their children,” he said, “and our aim is to provide them from time to time with the opportunity to listen to speakers who, in one area or another, may be able to offer them information, guidance and support as they fulfill that role.”
Before the postponement, however, several alumni expressed concern that the event would send an alienating message to young people, particularly those in the process of self-discovery or those with a gay relative. Some said they planned to attend the priest’s 7:30 p.m. talk, or possibly hold a candlelight vigil across the street as it took place.
An effort called, “Gay? Fine by Me,” took root on Facebook, and an online petition calling for the talk to be canceled, and for the conversation to be redirected toward one of “support and inclusion,” had more than 200 signatures by Monday afternoon.
“As a gay kid there, I was bullied of course, but I always felt like I could go to a faculty member to vent or talk or whatever,” Carlos Tomas Solano, 38, a speech pathologist from the school’s class of 1993, said in an interview.
“I feel like since this situation is coming from up above, from administration, I feel like these teachers are being put in a position where they cannot help a student struggling with their sexuality, and this is where my anger stems from.”
If the Times reporter thought to ask any of the Spellman students or alumni about this being a Catholic school and all and how, maybe, Catholic teaching might possibly break out there, such questions and answers are absent from the piece.
Instead, clinging to Pope Francis as perhaps the sole embodiment of the Catholic Church's authority for all of the last 2,000 years, the Times gives us a picture of Spellman High as a rather with-it spot:
On Monday, several students at the school said that they knew about the priest’s plans to visit only from social media, or friends, but not from teachers or school leaders. They said that Spellman students in general saw sexual orientation as a nonissue, and that no antigay teachings were part of the curriculum.
As she arrived for school, Aneesa Alli, 17, a senior, explained that in her religion class, “Theology of the Body,” her teachers noted that being gay was a type of sexuality and nothing more.
“They don’t make it a big deal because some of the kids in the class were gay,” she said. “They don’t try to make you uncomfortable.”
One student, Junelle Adei, 15, a sophomore, said that while she was “completely accepting of gay people,” it was important to take time to listen to Father Timone’s message. Another, Eddie Ellis, 14, a freshman, credited Pope Francis with helping to mold the school’s sexually tolerant attitude.
Having attended high school during Richard Nixon's second term (and not being a Roman Catholic) I'm hardly an expert on what the Catholic Church is doing educationally, or what high school kids are hearing these days.
Nevertheless, I find it difficult to believe, particularly after 35 years or so of John Paul II and then Benedict XVI -- not to mention New York archbishops such as Cardinals Terrence Cooke, John O'Connor, Edward Egan and incumbent Timothy Dolan -- that with all these rather conservative leaders, New York's Catholic schools are hotbeds of rebellion against core doctrines.
Now, they might well be, and it wouldn't be the first time a church (or denomination) has lost control of its educational outposts, but I'm willing to wager a donut that they're not. But if they are hotbeds of dissent, then that's the news hooks for this story.
It would have been helpful for The New York Times to have given us more of a clue here, rather than what to me seemed a rather lopsided, and even myopic, perspective.