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To petition or not to petition

June 1, 2010, 5:43 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Michael Sean Winters had a thoughtful post at America last week reflecting on a recent petition campaign by Catholics United in response to the news that a Catholic elementary school in Massachusetts denied admission to a student because his parents are in a same-sex relationship. The petition quickly amassing over 5,000 signatures (including mine) encouraging Archbishop O’Malley to affirm a diocese-wide policy preventing this kind of discrimination.

While affirming that he appreciates Catholics United’s general work providing a counterweight to conservative Catholic groups who treat GOP talking points as religious doctrine, Winters sees this petition as misguided:

“But, the school case in Boston is not about politics. Better to say, the most important thing is to make sure that it doesn’t become about politics. I am sure that for every one of the 5,000 signatures Catholics United got for its petition, a conservative group can marshal an equal number of signatories urging Cardinal O’Malley to take the opposite course and ban the children of same-sex couples from attending catholic schools. A pastor has an obligation to keep his flock together as much as possible. I do not see how petition drives, the counter influences they elicit, or any of the accoutrement of contemporary politics will advance the cause of unity among the faithful.”

Winters’s concern about stoking culture war flames is reasonable, but I think he misses the forest for the trees in this particular instance. Catholics United didn’t politicize this issue; that happened the instant it hit the national media, where years of conservative Catholic politicization of LGBT issues has portrayed the Church as a monolithically conservative institution pitted against liberal secularists. Moreover, the school incident fit into an existing political context because of its similarity to a recent case in Colorado, which garnered national attention and galvanized the Catholic right, ultimately prompting Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput to issue a statement defending the policy of expelling children of same-sex parents.

I share Winters’s concerns that political efforts can threaten the unity of the faithful, but I think responsibility for divisiveness lies with advocates of “litmus-test-Catholicism” who use disagreements like these to separate the Church into good and bad Catholics. The way to change this narrative isn’t to sit quietly and hope — hesitation to speak out against partisan polarization in the Church is exactly what got us here in the first place. There’s no going back to a time when events like this school’s decision escape media attention or go un-remarked upon by conservative partisans. To be an effective counterweight, groups like Catholics United need to stand up and demonstrate that the Catholic Right does not speak for the whole Catholic church.

Regardless of whether the petition influenced Archbishop O’Malley, it certainly had an effect on the media coverage of the story and disrupted the idea that the school pastor or Chaput’s previous statement spoke for all Catholics on this issue. Combined with Archbishop O’Malley’s ultimate decision to help place the child in another Catholic school, I think the story stood out as a welcome change in Catholic coverage, showing a compassionate, reasonable side of the faith over a politicized, divisive one.

To be clear, I don’t mean to read Winters’s post as a general dismissal of progressive faith work. Fair with both his support and critiques, I think his opinions are valuable insights for progressive groups, and I’d be interested to hear more of his thoughts on how they can best make an impact in the Church and the public square.

Full disclosure: I previously worked for Catholics United

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