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Try conversation rather than condemnation

In early March, three students were kicked out of school for the rest of the semester and fined $1,000 each for posting tasteless fliers on the grounds of Providence College, a Rhode Island Catholic school. At around the same time, three women were banned from giving presentations at a Dominican sisters retreat house in Northern Virginia.

Thus, church leaders would have us believe, was Catholic teaching saved from distortion. Thus was the church’s honor and integrity protected against those who would tear it down from the inside.

Of course, it never quite strikes anyone else that way. What is conveyed when the church shuts down conversation is not authentic teaching or authentic authority. Instead, what Catholics experience and the rest of the world sees are church leaders threatened and overreacting, administering a bludgeon where something less aggressive would surely do.

No one is disputing the need for boundaries. One cannot simply unscrew the bottom of church teaching, empty it out, fill it back up with anything you like and call the result “Catholic.” The issue is not the responsibility of bishops and school administrators to oversee faith formation but rather the way they go about it.

The powers that be at Providence College seem to have lost perspective. Perhaps that’s to be expected of college kids, but not administrators. How much more interesting might the conversation have been if the administration had taken the time to find out just what the three young men meant when they earlier wrote the school paper to register their frustration with the lack of serious discussion on campus as well as the amount of drunkenness.

How much more engaging if the administration had taken a firm line in opposition to the fliers that used the Virgin Mary’s image to make a pro-choice point, while encouraging more discussion of the other points that seemed to be on these students’ agenda.

Personal umbrage and fear of upsetting someone higher up, which seem to have driven the college authorities’ reactions, make a poor basis from which to dispense wisdom. It’s an even worse foundation for trying to determine what is a just rebuke or punishment.

The losers here are not the Virgin Mary -- her image has survived more severe blows from more serious enemies -- but the college authorities. Providence College couldn’t see a teaching moment when it was staring it in the face.

So it went too in Northern Virginia, when Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington shut down a retreat on women’s spirituality because the presenters “hold positions contrary to the formal teachings of the church.”

Loverde’s language -- “If the water in the well is allowed to become polluted, no one should be surprised when the people who drink it become ill” -- was meant to convey the seriousness with which he viewed the potential breach of official teaching.

That seriousness is commendable, but the over-reaching nature of his action surely is not. For one thing, he smeared a woman who has given retreats to religious orders, whose paintings have been displayed at activities of the U.S. bishops and who, on every score would be considered a model Catholic. Mary Lou Sleevi said she felt slandered, and rightly so.

If Loverde wanted to show the depth of his concern, why not fulfill his role as teacher and ask to attend the series to make sure an explanation of the church’s position -- and not just the imposition of a condemnation -- was part of the proceedings?

Pope Paul VI, in a 1965 document that transformed the Holy Office into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote: “Since charity banishes fear, it seems more appropriate now to preserve the faith by means of an office for promoting doctrine. Although it will still correct errors and gently recall those in error to moral excellence, emphasis is to be given to preaching the gospel.”

What we see in both Providence and Arlington smacks more of fear than charity, and one strains to hear the gospel being preached.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000