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A bold bishop’s action: unprecedented, yet overdue

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 16, 2022

So apparently it wasn’t “false advertising after all.” I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

Late in March, when the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued an instruction on The Identity of a Catholic School, I dismissed the document as empty verbiage, concluding that “even for the infinitesimal minority of Catholics who actually plow through this prolix offering, the practical applications will be hard to find.”

Today my own bishop gave the document its powerful practical application..

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester cited that Vatican instruction as support for his decree that the Nativity School, a Jesuit-run institution in Worcester, “may no longer use the title ‘Catholic’ to describe itself.” The bishop’s statement is not merely a finding of facts (although it is that); it has real teeth. His disciplinary ruling stipulates that the sacraments of the Church cannot be celebrated at the Nativity School (or under the school’s sponsorship in other locations), and the school cannot engage in fundraising in the diocese.

In taking this dramatic action, Bishop McManus has fulfilled his duty to protect the integrity of the faith: to ensure that institutions that claim to be Catholic are actually promoting rather than subverting the authentic teachings of the Church. To the best of my knowledge—and I have been watching carefully—no American bishop has ever taken this step before.*

Which is not to say that the situation at the Nativity School is unprecedented. Far from it. For decades now, American Catholic educational institutions have harbored dissenters on their faculties, and in fact, as I have observed in the past, it would be difficult to find any noteworthy heresy that is not enthusiastically proclaimed on some allegedly Catholic campus. Occasionally bishops have rebuked the dissenters, and rattled the cages of Catholic institutions that flout Church teachings, but never (please correct me if I’ve missed something*) has a bishop declared that the institution has crossed the line and can no longer be considered “Catholic.”

The document released his year by the Congregation for Catholic Education did not really break new ground. In 1990, St. John Paul II tackled the same problem of Catholic identity in the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, charging diocesan bishops with the responsibility to ensure authentic Church doctrine and discipline in Catholic institutions of higher education. Unfortunately our bishops have routinely ignored that responsibility for the past 30 years. So when the new Vatican instruction appeared in March, extending the same responsibility to other institutions of Catholic education, I anticipated the same non-response, and wrote:

But how often have diocesan bishops taken that dramatic step? How many parochial schools have drifted far from the faith, with no corrective action?

In practice, I predicted, the new Vatican instruction would be (mis)used by bishops “who want to avoid the tough responsibility of ensuring Catholic identity in Catholic schools.”

So Bishop McManus proved me wrong. God bless him.


* Correction #1: Helpful readers have reminded me that in June 2019, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis announced that Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School could no longer be considered a Catholic institution, after the school refused to cut ties with a teacher who was a partner in a same-sex marriage. The Jesuit administrators of the school promptly appealed to Rome, and in September 2019 the Congregation for Catholic Education suspended the bishop’s decision pending the outcome of the canonical case. Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School continues to advertise itself as “a Catholic and Jesuit school.”

While I had forgotten that precedent, no doubt Bishop McManus was fully aware of it when he issued his decree.

Correction #2: Last October, Archbishop Andrew Bellisario of Anchorage-Juneau informed administrators of Holy Rosary Academy that they would lose their right to identify themselves as a Catholic school unless they met a list of conditions. Saying that those conditions would interfere with their “control regarding our curriculum,” the board of Holy Rosary chose to identify the institution as “a classical school in the Catholic tradition.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mclom - Jun. 18, 2022 5:11 PM ET USA

    Heartening news amongst so much that is depressing.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 17, 2022 11:55 PM ET USA

    I agree with Ewaughok. Let's reserve final judgment until we find out what the Vatican intends to do. It would seem that Bishop McManus needs prayers of support now more than ever.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jun. 17, 2022 4:55 PM ET USA

    Let’s see, here are the premises: 1) Jesuit Pope who has consistently favored Jesuits and their institutions over diocesan ones; 2) Jesuit school vs diocesan bishop… Expect the bishop to be overruled … perhaps even removed without explanation (like in Puerto Rico)…

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Jun. 17, 2022 2:20 PM ET USA

    Yo, rfr46, I spent one year in Missoula Montana. There were four churches for me to choose from, but only one had kneelers, and it wasn't even Catholic--it was Jesuit.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Jun. 17, 2022 8:29 AM ET USA

    The school (which is seriously off the rails as a Catholic institution) has appealed to Rome. It remains to be seen if the Bishop gets supported in his courageous decision.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jun. 17, 2022 6:19 AM ET USA

    Good prediction by you, but bravo for your bishop. Maybe some other bishops will find their courage and follow suit. One question: didn't the Bishop of Indianapolis direct the private preparatory school then named Brebeuf Catholic Preparatory School to cease using the name Catholic? If I remember correctly, the school then changed its name to Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. I find it extremely ironic that a school could be Jesuit but not Catholic!

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Jun. 17, 2022 5:41 AM ET USA

    Not so fast Phil. I applaud the action your Bishop has taken, as well as your prompt and sincere mea culpa. But it could very well be that your Bishop may simply turn out to be the exception that proves your previous rule. We will see.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 17, 2022 5:08 AM ET USA

    God bless Bishop McManus, indeed! Now, if only the Vatican would support the good and faithful Bishop in exemplary exercise of his ministry. Three years ago, Abp Thompson of Indianapolis took similar disciplinary action against another Jesuit school for employing gay "married" teacher. And, upon appeal, the Vatican suspended the Archbishop's ruling: catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=43512

  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - Jun. 16, 2022 7:43 PM ET USA

    He will probably join AB Cordelione in the Episcopal time-out box at the next meeting. I am glad he did it.