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At a Catholic school in Worcester, red flags

Black Lives Matter and Pride flags were displayed at an Oregon school.Beth Nakamura/Associated Press

There is so much to legitimately worry about in this world, real issues of life and death, race and gender, hope and fear. And then one throwback with a miter cap and staff does this:

The Catholic bishop of Worcester has demanded that a middle school remove the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags it has flown for more than a year or lose the right to call itself a Catholic school.

Until now, Nativity School of Worcester has been minding its own business, doing what it does best: God’s work. The tuition-free school — part of a Jesuit network — serves 61 boys in grades 5 through 8, almost all of them students of color and from low-income families. With longer school days and individualized attention, those kids will often leap six or seven grade levels in four years, going on to become successful high school and college students.

Since January 2021, at the students’ request, Nativity has raised the Pride and BLM flags outside the school, along with the Stars and Stripes.

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They fly “to remind our young men, their families and Nativity Worcester staff that all are welcome here and that they are valued and safe in this place,” according to a statement issued by the school, whose officials declined to comment further. “It says to them that they, in fact, do matter and deserve to be respected as our Christian values teach us.”

Bishop Robert J. McManus, 70, sees the flags quite differently. In a statement, the bishop said the Black Lives Matter flag has at times been co-opted by “factions which also instill broad-brush distrust of police and those entrusted with enforcing our laws.” And “gay pride flags are often used to stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman.”

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And so, a couple of weeks ago, McManus demanded that school officials take down the flags or risk losing the school’s Catholic identity.

“Is the school committing itself to ideologies which are contrary to Catholic teaching?” McManus asked. “If so, is it still a Catholic school? As the Bishop of this diocese, I must teach that it is imperative that a Catholic School use imagery and symbols which are reflective of that school’s values and principles.”

But who is really out of step with Catholic values and principles here? The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported Black Lives Matter, and Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley has given his full-throated endorsement, as has the pope, who compared those who protested the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer to the Good Samaritan.

The church’s embrace of LGBTQ rights has been less wholehearted, to say the least, but Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of the humanity of gay and transgender people, urged parents to support their gay children, and endorsed civil unions. All of that is consistent with the pride a rainbow flag symbolizes.

McManus, who has ruled the Worcester diocese for 18 years, is clearly a far more conservative Catholic than his boss in Rome, however, and he has a long record of drawing a hard line, even as parishioners fall away from the church. In 2012, he objected when Anna Maria College in Paxton invited Vicki Kennedy, pro-choice widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, to be its commencement speaker. The small Catholic school promptly withdrew the invitation. In 2019, McManus gave a speech at Holy Cross in which he railed against what he saw as the college’s support for transgender rights, calling transgender identity “rooted in unsupportable science.”

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Without naming the school, the bishop accused it of having abandoned “the Catholic identity,” and here, too, he suggested he had “the canonical right to remove that Catholic identity” — to strip Holy Cross of its Catholic affiliation, in other words.

In his statement on Nativity McManus said, “All lives are equal before God and the law, and that all lives demand our respect regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.” But clearly, that respect has to be aimed according to his narrow-cast specifications when it comes to “the young people being spiritually and morally formed for the future.”

This bishop has been quite selective in his concern for young people, however. He is one of the most intransigent church leaders in the country when it comes to forthrightly addressing clergy sexual abuse of children and others. He has refused to release lists of credibly accused clergy as 80 percent of other dioceses have done, said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability. McManus has withheld records requested by victims and largely refused to settle cases in his diocese. Advocates for survivors say he has, by these high-handed acts, revictimized them.

“He is the epitome of heartlessness and cruelty when it comes to dealing with clergy sexual abuse victims,” said attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented many of them. “No one is taking a harder position.”

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The threat to Holy Cross went nowhere. It remains to be seen whether McManus will follow through with Nativity. Losing its connection to the church would mean the school could no longer host Masses or call itself Catholic. Some of the donors on whom the school is entirely dependent may stop supporting it.

All of this, not because of anything that is being taught at the little school, but because of two flags that have been flying outside it for more than a year. Flags that one man of God has decreed inconsistent with a faith meant to be built on love.

Shortly after McManus made his disapproval clear a few weeks ago, somebody took it upon themselves to take down the flags. Nativity hoisted them right back up again. There they still fly. As they should.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.