Because it flies the Black Lives Matter and Pride flags, Nativity School of Worcester can no longer call itself Catholic. Bishop Robert J. McManus brought the hammer down on the middle school this week, after school officials rejected his demand that the flags — which had flown outside Nativity for more than a year before the bishop objected — be taken down.
“The flying of these flags in front of a Catholic school sends a mixed, confusing and scandalous message to the public about the Church’s stance on these important moral and social issues,” McManus wrote.
Effective immediately, he wrote, Nativity is prohibited from identifying itself as a Catholic school. Mass and sacraments are no longer permitted on school premises, or in any building in the Diocese if Nativity sponsors them.
Asked about the timing of the decree, a spokesman for McManus said the bishop wanted to wait until after the end of the school year.
So, the rejection comes right in the middle of Gay Pride month, and a few weeks after a white supremacist gunned down Black shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket. As he has demonstrated repeatedly, this bishop does not concern himself with optics.
Back in April, McManus said he objected to the Black Lives Matter flag because it has at times been co-opted by “factions which also instill broad-brush distrust of police and those entrusted with enforcing our laws.” Gay pride flags, he said then, “are often used to stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman.”
He has since revised his reasoning on the BLM flag. Instead of basing his position on his concerns for law enforcement, McManus now objects to the Black Lives Matter flag because elements of the movement, “which, I daresay, most people do not know about but is easily available on the internet,” are “queer affirming” and “trans affirming,” and opposed to the nuclear family, according to a statement he issued in May. The pride flag, he wrote, promotes “actively living an LGBTQ+ lifestyle.”
We must reject racism and love those with whom we disagree, McManus wrote, but the flag-flying goes too far.
Nativity has always argued that the flags are all, and only, about love.
“The flags simply state that all are welcome at Nativity and this value of inclusion is rooted in Catholic teaching,” Thomas McKenney, the president of the school, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Though any symbol or flag can be co-opted by political groups or organizations, flying our flags is not an endorsement of any organization or ideology, they fly in support of marginalized people.”
They fly, too, at the request of those people. Nativity serves about 60 mostly Black and brown kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing them with a stellar — and free — education. Nativity students have spectacular success academically — leaping beyond their grade-level in reading and writing. They end up with scholarships to prestigious private schools, and go on to college — supported by Nativity educators all the way. And, in the tradition of the Jesuits who oversee the school, they get a moral education, and are molded into servant leaders through community service — including during the summer.
In that spirit, the kids at Nativity requested that the flags be flown in the first place, because they wanted to make a statement of solidarity with those who are increasingly persecuted in this country as white supremacy rises and attacks on gay communities multiply.
“The flags are just to make our kids feel comfortable, like they are at home,” said Yansen Garcia, whose son attended the school, is now a rising senior at St. John’s in Shrewsbury, and still benefits from daily support at Nativity. “Even the pope is welcoming anybody in the church, so I don’t know what the bishop is doing, I really don’t.”
Nativity will appeal McManus’s decision through the Jesuits who oversee the school. That matter will likely wind up in Rome. In 2019, the archbishop of Indianapolis revoked the Catholic status of a Jesuit school after it refused his demand that they fire a gay teacher who had married his partner. They appealed to the Vatican, which temporarily suspended the decree, and seems in no hurry to make a decision either way. The same may happen here.
Meantime, Nativity has seen a massive outpouring of support since the news of McManus’s ultimatum first broke. While several donors have dropped the school, hundreds more have stepped forward, from across the country. The city of Worcester raised the BLM and pride flags in solidarity with the school, and other faiths have made statements of support.
And why wouldn’t they? McManus deems the flags scandalous, but the real scandal here is the fact that this single man — out of touch, and clinging to an archaic version of a church from which legions have fallen away — has targeted a school that lives out the very essence of the values on which he claims to be the authority.
For its part, the school has vowed to keep flying the flags, “to give visible witness to the school’s solidarity with our students, families and their communities.”
It’s clear who is actually doing God’s work here, and it’s not the bishop.