National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
November 25, 2005

Letters Teacher fired over flag

The Catholic teacher fired for failing to display the American flag in his assigned classroom (NCR, Nov. 4) disobeyed a requirement imposed by his employer, then imposed his personal beliefs on the students in his classroom. Does not instructor Stephen Kobasa understand that the school administration has a right and responsibility to oversee all aspects of classroom operation and to set the standards thereof? To allow each instructor to act autonomously would invite chaos and confusion.

Mr. Kobasa states that the requirement to display the flag “creates the unmistakable impression that national loyalty is being valued over faithful obedience to the Gospel.” In reality the fundamental principles upon which the United States was conceived are in harmony with Judeo-Christian principles. Mr. Kobasa makes the incorrect leap of logic that a sign of national patriotism is overriding his personal religious beliefs. I cannot find evidence of that in the article.

On a more mundane level, Mr. Kobasa makes reference to “my classroom.” In actuality, the classroom belongs to the senior high school where Mr. Kobasa is employed. If Mr. Kobasa cannot resolve this impasse with his employer, then he should do like the rest of us in the real world and seek employment elsewhere!

Hampton, Va.

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Kolbe Cathedral in Bridgeport, Conn., a Catholic high school dedicated, says its mission statement, to “provid[ing] a dynamic learning environment in which students respect the opinions of others,” has fired longtime teacher Stephen Kobasa because he refused to routinely hang the flag in his classroom and pledge allegiance to it.

Kolbe Cathedral School principal Jo-Anne Jakab, school superintendent Margaret Dames and the Bridgeport diocese’s education association (which refused to represent Kobasa in the dispute) have all demonstrated their ignorance not only of Jesus’ message of peace, but also of the most basic understanding of what it means to be an American.

America’s greatest gift to the world is the reality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that a citizen’s patriotism is not given free and mumbled in a mandatory pledge. No. Government must each day earn the patriotism of its citizens by preserving their rights.

Governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Therefore, consent freely given by rote means nothing. We are most American when we skeptically evaluate our government to see whether it is doing right by us. And the Declaration tells Americans that when they find the government destructive of their welfare, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”

As a reward to Mr. Kobasa for demonstrating such thoughtfulness and patriotism, the Bridgeport diocese fired him. What a stupid way for Kolbe Cathedral School to “respect ... the opinions of others.”


* * *

As a Catholic and a retired public school teacher who also taught in a Catholic high school, I was pained to read about the termination of Stephen Kobasa at Kolbe Cathedral High School.

At first I could not reconcile in my mind the loss of his teaching position over his refusal to fly the American flag in his classroom. It seemed to me that there must be another issue just as substantial as freedom of speech and moral conviction surrounding this dilemma.

After some consideration about this unfortunate event, I realized that the defining element missing from my thoughts about the confrontation was the institution’s right to its property.

Now the decision of a business, educational system or any other institution to fly its banner or national flag is its own prerogative and not subject to an employee’s approval or condemnation.

If the organization deems that such is its policy, no individual employee has the right to subvert it without impunity. Also, the fact the flag is not his or her property militates against any action in opposition to its display. Both parties must negotiate, and one would hope a mutual resolution would be achieved; however, if that is not the case and reconciliation is not possible, complete separation is absolutely necessary.

Bridgeport, Conn.

Scribes and Pharisees

In a recent essay (NCR, Oct. 7), Arthur Jones wrote as an aside that he’d like sometime to hear a homily based on Matthew 23:1-7.

The reading came up on Sunday, Oct. 30. I asked myself, “Will the celebrant have the courage to talk about the duplicity of the scribes and Pharisees?”

No. The celebrant remained seated; the deacon (bypassing the recent ban on deacons preaching) read a broad, safe interpretation of Matthew 23.

Your challenge, Mr. Jones, still stands in my parish.

Arlington Heights, Ill.

Beached whale

Eugene Kennedy’s essay “Bishops and the beached whale” (NCR, Oct. 21) was magnificent.

Many thanks to Eugene Kennedy for having the courage to write such an in-depth piece about the machinations of the hierarchy. My only wish is that it would find its way into the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

Westchester, Ill.

* * *

While Eugene Kennedy makes some interesting points in “Bishops and the beached whale,” I would suggest some important cautions. The doctrine of hierarchy is a richer notion than simply something “designed for the exercise of power, for authoritarian control.” Rather, hierarchy also includes the important notion that the universe works together as a whole, that there is no absolute division of the parts. The same God made the stones as made the angels. This notion holds true for the church, also, which is why one of the main criticisms of the bishops is that they seemed to have cared about only one part of the church, the clerics involved, but not about another equally important part of the church, the children and other victims.

Thus, the church cannot jettison the doctrine of hierarchy. What must be attended to is how authority is exercised and accountability is rendered. In this regard, a married clergy might be helpful. However, I have counseled enough married couples to know that there is no guarantee a man will learn true relationality within marriage any more than in other lifestyles, including a celibate commitment. We all need the grace of God and the example of Jesus if we are truly to be his church.


‘Kitchen’ poem

Thank you so much for the poem by Benedictine Fr. Killian McDonnell, “In the Kitchen” (NCR, Nov. 4). With the Fourth Sunday of Advent coming soon, I will certainly share this gem with the three scripture study groups I facilitate.

Toddville, Iowa

Synod on Eucharist

I suddenly realized that the Holy Spirit truly was at work in the eucharistic synod (NCR, Oct. 14 to Nov. 4), and I can agree with Cardinal George Pell that the “massive endorsement” of celibacy was one of the “major accomplishments” of the synod. If married priests had been approved, it would have set the ordination of women back a hundred years. By reaffirming celibacy, but also officially recognizing the priest shortage, the bishops left only one obvious solution to the problem -- the ordination of celibate women. The ordination of women is an issue of justice and so should come before a change in the celibacy requirement, which is only a matter of church discipline. It is easier to change a matter of discipline than a matter of injustice, but that does not make the change in discipline the primary concern.



Regarding the article on fundamentalism (NCR, Sept. 9): People today cannot profess to be Christian without having to dissociate themselves from this 20th-century religious movement. “Christian” now commonly means “fundamentalist.” And no one takes issue!

The term “Christian fundamentalism” is an oxymoron. Its deliberate insistence on a literal Bible rejects a Christian essential: the belief that we encounter God in history. A fundamentalist view claims contact with God via a book extracted from its historical particularities, and so fundamentalism has abandoned Christianity and morphed into a new and dangerous religion. (For details see my Aug. 15, 1997, piece in NCR.)

Why do we ignore the elephant in the room? In Christ’s name, fundamentalism advocates war, subverts science, erodes human rights, spiritually enslaves people and demeans other faiths (see Jeff Daniel’s Oct. 7 letter in NCR about this last point). And we sanguinely comment on the phenomenon!

Where are our religious leaders when someone should blow the whistle? They have shamefully snuggled up to conservative bedfellows to bolster their myopic political agenda about women’s rights, abortion, comatose patients and homosexuality. Our “religious leaders” have sold Christianity down the river.


Abena’s word

Regarding “An African and an American disagree on ordaining women” (NCR, Nov. 4): In that commentary, Abena, a friend of the writer was saying, “Women shouldn’t be trying to be like Jesus, but should try only to imitate the humility and obedience of Mary.” She does not describe the Mary I have grown to know and respect over the past few years.

Consider Mary’s independent, self-assured manner when we first meet her with Gabriel. After Gabriel presented his information to her for approval, she first asked, “How would this pregnancy happen?” When he responded to her satisfactorily, she agreed. She didn’t ask for anyone’s permission. She said, “All right. Let that be done to me according to your word.”

A few years later when Mary was experiencing, as Abena describes, “the beauty of raising a child,” she had the experience of having her son stay out all night when he was only 12 years old. She and Joseph searched the streets, inns and whatever until they found him back in Jerusalem in the temple. She went straight to him and strongly scolded him, “How could you do this to us?! We’ve been out for days searching for you.” I don’t think his answer soothed her a bit.

Don’t worry, Abena, about us neglecting to imitate Mary. She is our champion in every way. And if she points the way to some special women to go for ordination, don’t waste your time trying to stop her or them.

Spokane, Wash.

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I usually enjoy reading your periodical but I was horrified at “An African and an American disagree on ordaining women” by Peg Helminski.

I am not upset at the discussion of the women’s ordination issue, one expects discussion of this old chestnut from NCR, but that you would publish such a condescending and culturally elitist article is truly surprising to me.

Peg’s humility is obvious; she quickly establishes her own “superiority” by quoting Abena as saying, “You are a woman of wisdom and faith.” When Abena displays her horror at the thought of women priests, Peg quickly points out to the reader that “this was Abena, a very simple woman.” Peg is effectively reassuring her public: “Not to worry, Abena is not as sophisticated as we are.”

When Abena continues to offer her understanding of the dignity and position of women, Peg fights her anger and then benevolently forgives Abena because “I recognized that she is a product of her culture. Only recently from Cameroon.”

Abena offers her opinions in her second (perhaps third) language. She has suffered for these beliefs, and like thousands before her, her suffering only served to increase her conviction about the truth of those beliefs. Yet those beliefs are dismissed as obviously wrong because they do not conform to Peg’s comfortable, Western, feminist worldview.

Abena has an intellectual honesty rarely found in the Western world. She may be a “simple product of her culture,” but these facts do not destroy the validity of her beliefs. Her beliefs are in fact more universal (read catholic) than Peg’s are, and for this I hope Peg can forgive her.

Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Global South’s impact

John Allen’s article “Global South will shape the future Catholic church” (NCR, Oct. 7) was interesting, informative and inaccurate.

Giving a figure to the number of Catholics in the Global South is like trying to determine how many are on the voting rolls in Chicago -- the answer depends on who is asking and why. Thus, when one wants to over-exaggerate the importance of the Third World church one counts all who are baptized, even though most don’t frequent a church. In these areas “cultural” and “syncretistic” Catholics far outnumber “committed” or even “practicing” Catholics. This explains why they have fewer priests, fewer bishops and, hence, fewer cardinals than the United States or Europe.

Also misleading is Allen’s assertion that “Catholics in the developing world tend to hold traditional views on matters of the family and sexual morality.” The reality is that their views derive more from their local customs and traditions than those of the Catholic church. When my wife and I worked for Catholic Medical Missions in Honduras, we found that the traditional view of marriage of a Honduran Catholic was that a couple just lived together -- often for life -- without the propriety of either a civil or church marriage. Likewise we didn’t encourage birth control not just because of the church but because it didn’t make much sense in a macho society that regarded the number of children as a sign of the male’s virility.

The global South will have some say in the future of our church -- but to say it will “set the agenda” is to place a burden on it that it should not be expected to handle.

Alamogordo, N.M.

Food for the world

I definitely share Fr. Robert Drinan’s concerns about children’s deaths from starvation (NCR, Nov. 4). But the actual value of the green revolution and genetic modification of seeds in preventing hunger has been persistently misrepresented in multibillion-dollar advertising campaigns waged by the industries that sell the chemicals necessary for both green revolution and genetically modified agriculture. The high cost of green chemicals and depletion of water supplies has been a major cause of drought and crippling debt in many developing countries. Use of genetically modified seeds would increase these problems, plus it has already raised numerous ethical, legal, health and environmental questions. The developing countries would have food now if they didn’t have to export it to wealthier countries in order to pay the interest on their debts. What all countries need now are farming methods that can produce healthy foods without constant need for irrigation, polluting chemicals or prohibitively expensive seeds. Those methods are available and workable. Let’s encourage them!

Columbus, Ohio

The Taizé experience

I want to thank you and John Allen for a wonderful story on Taizé, France, a place that is so dear to my heart and soul.

As usual, John was erudite and well informed. He went to the heart of the story of Br. Roger and the community he founded more than 60 years ago.

However, I would love to hear about John’s own personal impressions of the community. I was not clear on how he gathered his information, how long he spent there. An afternoon is not enough, believe me! I would have liked John to share in a personal way the impact his stay had on his spirit. It would have given those who have never been to France a taste of the beauty of the shared life that is lived by so many. By doing this, I would hope it shows that the Taizé community has never been a “cult of Br. Roger.”

I suppose I am hard. I want everyone to experience what I have come to know and love for a long time: the quiet, the solitude, the compassion, the complete acceptance of you as a young person, the trust placed in you and your validity for the church. But above all, Taizé is not a vision of the future of the church. After 20 years of being in spiritual community with the brothers, I can say that it is the church that Vatican II called for in 1962.


Peace Corps volunteers

Regarding Colman McCarthy’s column supporting the National Call to Service Act (NCR, Oct. 14): The act will get Peace Corps volunteers killed. It is a terrible idea, and your one letter to the editor about it before now (NCR, Nov. 4) is the only support for it that I have seen from many, many returned Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps has a prohibition against any former intelligence-related person being a volunteer. Any violations to this code would put volunteers at risk in virtually every country in which they serve. During the time I served in Zambia (1999-2001), I knew of one volunteer who had been in the Navy and was planning to return to the Navy after her Peace Corps service. I had no problem with that because, first, she had not been involved in intelligence work and, second, her Navy and Peace Corps services were not linked as this act allows them to be. To connect the two and thus blur the line between the military and the Peace Corps creates a link in the minds of host country nationals between volunteers and spying.

In Zambia one evening when about 10 other volunteers and I were preparing supper, one volunteer twice said she thought I would make a good CIA spy. It was an off-the-wall comment to which neither I nor anyone else responded, yet she may have actually believed it was true (it wasn’t). After that she seemed to be afraid of me. If volunteers themselves suspected their comrades of being spies, why would the nationals not suspect as much?

Anchorage, Alaska

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2005