The recent controversy at Waldron Mercy Academy brings to light that we are at a critical moment for the Catholic Church, and for all persons of faith and conscience in this country. It is a moment rife with pain and struggle, but also hope.
As is now well known, the academy did not renew the contract of Margie Winters, a longtime teacher and director of religious education, reportedly in response to a complaint from a parent about her seven-year same-sex marriage. This local crisis comes shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court's historic decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States, which directly conflicts with Church teachings.
As a parent of a Waldron Mercy graduate, a Catholic lay leader and philanthropist, and a member of the Sisters of Mercy (which sponsors the school), this issue has personal ramifications for each of us. We are deeply grieved by Margie's dismissal. We recognize that the decision was made by persons in authority acting in light of official church teaching; and we respect those church leaders who desire to maintain the character of the church through fidelity to church teachings. We know as well that beyond the Catholic community, many U.S. Christians are alarmed and angry at the interpretation of marriage equality as blatant defiance of traditional Christian theology, and are concerned about the integrity of the faith in our society.
But we believe that the Church's truest integrity is at risk when it emphasizes orthodoxy and doctrine without meaningful engagement with human and historic realities. We love the Church: We draw deeply from its rich traditions of spirituality, compassion, service, and justice. But we also recognize (and need to take responsibility for) our many historic blind spots — persecution of heretics, oppression of indigenous peoples in the name of "mission," and second-class status for women.
While it is painful for us to have to publicly dissent, we are convinced that this is a moment when insistence on doctrinal adherence is clashing with what we believe the Spirit is unfolding in our history — just as it has in the past, with issues like slavery, the rights of women, and the environment. Many Christian denominations have listened to the movement of the Spirit and moved toward both full inclusion and full embrace of the gifts of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.
The Church is at its best when it listens to the Spirit speaking in our times and through human experiences. As we listen, we hear the Spirit speaking through the testimony of hundreds of parents and former students, who affirm that Margie has been a marvelous teacher and influence. She has been a gift to the Church, nurturing the faith and morals of countless young people, fostering a spirit of mercy, compassion, and justice.
We hear the Spirit speaking through Pope Francis, who has insisted that the true character of the Church is not limited to a set of beliefs; while the doctrines of faith are important, they find their true expression in lived experience. "Truth, according to the Christian faith, is God's love for us in Jesus Christ," he has said. "Therefore, truth is a relationship." We understand that the Holy Father upholds church teaching as well — but we also hear him challenging the Church to a spirit of openness, to reflecting and discerning signs of the time. "If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God."
We believe the controversy surrounding Margie Winters is the Spirit inviting us to reflect on Church doctrine that upholds the dignity of every person. As we work through the pain and conflict, as we listen to each other, as we struggle to make sense of the power of tradition and the challenge of newness, we believe this can be a moment of hope and grace. May we come to a deeper and richer understanding of love, a more fervent commitment to justice, and a fuller spirit of community. In doing so, we learn more profoundly what it means to be Church, and how the Church can truthfully, faithfully, and prophetically serve and heal our society.
Joan McConnon is a parent of a Waldron Mercy Academy graduate and a co-founder of Project Home (www.projecthome.org). email@example.com
James J. Maguire is president of the Maguire Foundation (www.maguirefoundation.org). firstname.lastname@example.org