Mount St. Mary Academy has limited its public comments on the recent departure of English teacher Tippi McCullough to this statement by president and CEO Karen Flake, now posted on its website. McCullough was forced to resign by Principal Diane Wolfe because she married her partner, Barbara Mariani, in New Mexico, where same-sex marriage is legal.
Wolfe, said McCullough, cited Catholic church teaching and a contract “morals” clause. McCullough said her relationship was known to Wolfe, but publicly entering legal matrimony was cited as the reason the issue was forced. Critics of the decision have asked whether the school enforced the clause against, for example, teachers who used birth control pills.
I”ve now been provided by an anonymous source a copy of remarks made to Mount St. Mary staff last week by Msgr. Francis I. Malone, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, which sends many students to Mount St. Mary, where he once taught. He related the bishop’s feelings to the staff as well as reporting to staff on conversations he’d had with St. Mary students in religion classes. He said he was asked repeatedly by students why the action was taken since the couple was known to live together and he also said he was repeatedly asked for “clarification” of what Pope Francis said about homosexuality.
Malone’s remarks provided the best window yet into church thinking, from a defense of the action to a criticism of the Sisters of Mercy, the order of nuns that has sponsored the school for more than 160 years, for not being outspoken enough in support of the school’s decision in its initial response. He also suggested Pope Francis’ recent remarks about sexual issues weren’t well understood. He and Karen Flake also endeavored to explain that Flake had been reaching metaphorically to explain the imperfection of human beings — physically and spiritually — in a remark reported by several students. They had understood Flake to compare homosexuality to being born with Down syndrome. She intended no such comparison, she told the staff and elaborated in this prepared statement to me today:
During one recent class discussion a Mount St. Mary student stated that people do not choose their traits or qualities, but are born with them and should not be judged on that basis. I concurred with her observation. There was no negative comparison of Down Syndrome in relation to any other human condition. I shared more than one example of my own family members who have faced public reaction due to their birth conditions; one of them was born with Down Syndrome. I made the point that we must show compassion and sensitivity to everyone, respecting them for who they are and who God made them to be. Later, when a faculty member asked me about my choice of examples, I realized that I should have chosen a different example to illustrate the value of respecting everyone for their intrinsic worth.”
Malone emphasized, among other points, the difference in public and private actions. He said most of his staff of 70 women at Christ the King are women and in child-bearing years, “but they’re all not spitting out babies.” He said the likelihood that some used artificial contraception was probably high. “But it’s none of my business … we don’t police bedrooms.” But he added, if there was a public meeting “and I found out that in my absence that one of these teachers got up and publicly said, ‘You know what? The church’s teaching about contraceptives is a bunch of hooey. I don’t believe it, my husband and I have been practicing artificial contraception for years, he has no problem with it and there’s nothing wrong with it,’ that’s her last day on the job.” He said that would be publicly espousing a teaching contradicting the church while a representative of the church. “So there’s a difference in those things that are public and those that are private and I think that’s what the pope was saying as well.”
Malone said Bishop Anthony Taylor had written a letter in support of the school’s action. But he commented: “Although the [Sisters of] Mercy leadership sent two sisters to visit this week, when pressed for a similar letter of support they sent a letter that was so nuanced that it’s still difficult to know where they stand. I have written personally last evening to Mercy leadership, I challenged them to support this administration and to proclaim publicly their support for the teaching of the Catholic Church, specifically about marriage, but we are still waiting for that to come. For the bishop’s representative I want to state publicly that neither Diane nor Karen had a choice in this matter and I want to thank you publicly for dutifully carrying out your responsibilities, as painful as they were.”
Flake later in the staff meeting read a letter from the Sisters of Mercy leadership team to the school. It spoke of the order’s concern for all involved at a painful time and promised the order’s continued presence, encouragement and love. It urged goodwill and mutual respect and also commented, “We believe as a pastoral educational institution of the Diocese of Little Rock, you have acted with integrity in the name of the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy South Central leadership team.” Malone told me this afternoon that his criticism was aimed at a brief initial response by the order, but he’d since learned that its leaders were engaged in a conference when events began developing. He said the letter Flake read was a subsequent and better response, though he’d still encouraged the order to speak more clearly.
Malone initially sent a general response to my inquiry about his remarks before calling to elaborate on a couple of points. I will quote from his remarks to staff on several points of interest after the note I received from Malone:
E-mail from Msgr. Malone:
Thank you for writing. The meeting to which you refer was a private meeting I had with the faculty and staff. The purpose of the meeting was to report back to the faculty about my pastoral visits to 23 groups of students, which encompassed the entire school.
I was asked by faculty and administration to visit with the students, primarily to ask them how they were doing. Secondarily, to respond to questions and comments in an objective way, since I do not know Tippi McCullough, and could not comment on personnel matters.
I approached this meeting with the faculty in the same was I attempted with the students: as a pastor concerned about them, and to do this without demonizing anyone.
At the same time, it gave the students and faculty the opportunity to ask, again in a generic way, about authentic Catholic teaching, particularly about marriage.
I do not know what you received about the content of my remarks, but this is basically the approach I took as a pastor and as one called to help the MSM community, students and faculty alike.
* RECEPTION FROM STUDENTS: Malone said in 23 class meetings, “With only two exceptions the girls were respectful.” He said he’d asked that they not ask subjective questions about McCullough, “because I don’t know her. However, I did tell them that she must be an extraordinary teacher because everyone — and I mean everyone — from administration to faculty to students have said that about her. I told the girls that this is another one of the reasons why I think there is hurt, because there’s a situation where there’s absolutely no winners.”
He said he was surprised that a junior student “who was clearly very angry asked a question on what was really faulty research that she had done on Biblical translations …. The point she wanted to make was that the translations of the Bible were unreliable and who are we to say that the Bible is a truthful source for teaching. … At the end of the class, she slammed her book shut and proclaimed, ‘This is why I will not raise my children Catholic.’ While there may be others who feel as she does, she was a standout in terms of disrespect.”
Generally, he said, “some girls are angry, some are hurt, most are confused and some appeared indifferent.”
* THE MEDIA: The story is now “yesterday’s news,” he said. “I pointed this out to the girls as an example that the media is not the least bit concerned about them. Only a topic that was hot for a few days and that one lesson they can learn in life is that the media rarely get it right and do not care about people’s feelings nor protect their privacy …. the ones that really care about these students and who care about you are sitting in this room.”
* TIPPI MCCULLOUGH: To voice support for the school “is not to demonize Tippi,” he said. “I don’t know her. I can only go on what virtually everyone has said about her teaching skills and character and heart, what she and her partner said publicly, things that were aired locally and nationally. The fact of the matter is this, and we have to be honest about this, the action is hers to initiate. LIke you she signed a contract that contains a morals clause. … The morals clause is essential because Mount St. Mary’s Academy is not, contrary to the opinion of some, a private school separate from the Catholic Church. …. It would be completely and absolutely against the very nature of a Catholic institution for any one of its members to publicly support, propagate, manifest or demonstrate that which is contrary to the Catholic Church. This situation, as tragic as it was for this teacher, demonstrates exactly why moral clauses are necesssary.” A right to dissent, “does not come without a price.”
* PUBLIC APPEARANCES: Students, gay rights groups and others have publicly protested the decision. But said Malone, “…if you think that the outcry by those who do not subscribe to this action was significant, I can assure you that in the face of the public nature of what took place in New Mexico and what was known already here in Little Rock, had the administration chosen to turn a blind eye to it, the Catholic community in Little Rock and the Catholic Church in this country would have come down on this institution like a plague and rightly so — asking the question that some have been asking already, ‘What makes Mount St. Mary Academy Catholic?'”
* THE DEVIL AT WORK: Malone began his closing by telling the assembled staff that “the devil is real.” He observed: “Good and humble people go to confession. In the same way the devil does not go after bad people, because well frankly, he already has those bad people. He goes after people like you and institutions like this one and he uses all sorts of people and circumstances to take from you what he does not have and what he wants to take. And you have to be aware of that. Don’t give in to him. Rise up above this like the good and decent people God has made you to be. And truly are. I’m edified by being in your presence this week and just the feel of this place so recognize that — you’ve heard of of that expression the devil’s in the details? — he is here and he is real. He wants to do something really bad to this place and you’ve seen evidence of that. But that’s also a sign again that this place is really good and has something wonderful about it or he wouldn’t come after us at all. So rise above it and don’t be afraid to speak the truth.”
Malone, in response to a question from me, said these remarks should not be taken as personal characterizations of McCullough or Mariani. He said he had deep affection for the school, a good place, and good always faced malign influences. He said the remarks were meant more to soothe supporters of the school who felt it had been “under attack” in recent controversies, including an unrelated case involving a teacher’s sexual abuse of a former student.
* POPE FRANCIS ON ABORTION: Malone sought to explain remarks the pope had made recently in press interviews on abortion and homosexuality. He said his translation of the remark on abortion was that the pope “said we should stop hammering people with the subject of abortion as if it’s the only topic in the church.” He said there were “so many other things we need to be talking about.” He said there’s a pastor in the diocese who, “if you’ve heard one sermon you’ve heard every sermon he’s ever preached.” Added Malone, “He’s a wonderful priest and a very compassionate man, he only has one sermon. That’s where the Pope said you should stop hammering on this one subject …” Malone said the pope had followed this interview with remarks slamming doctors who perpetuate the “culture of death.” He added, “It’s as tough as you ever heard from Pope Benedict so he wasn’t saying get off the subject.”
* POPE FRANCIS ON HOMOSEXUALITY: “His response was, who am I to judge. Well, that’s a beautiful way of approaching the subject.” Malone said he had a relative who’s “as gay as the day is long.” He said he loves him dearly. He went on to detail that, from an early age, he had noticed “there were what we would call the stereotypical signs of perhaps he was more inclined to be gay.” He wanted to play with dolls and wear girls’ clothing. As he grew up he was “far more concerned about designing things and dressing up and listening to musicals and dancing …” Now a dress designer, “he’s a wonderful young man,” the monsignor said. He said “if I found one of my staff members was homophobic, critical of people simply for their orientation, I said I would fire them. That’s what the pope is talking about. Because someone is oriented one way or the other, that’s not the issue. It’s how we act on our orientation. If you are gay and you are straight the church is going to say the same thing to you about sexuality outside of marriage — same thing. So the orientation is not the issue. That’s what the pope is talking about: who am I to judge? It’s not for me to judge. When things become public, however, public acts, that’s a whole different ball game, especially if people at the same time represent the church.”
* MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: Malone commented at length on religious marriage and civil marriage. There’s no Biblical reference to marriage other than between man and woman, he said. “You can call it a same sex union, you can call it whatever, but you can’t call it marriage.” He said the state had injected new ideas into the contract, such as inheritance rights for wives. But he said, “Where society lacks competence is to say there’s something called divorce.” It may be true in a civil sense, but not a Biblical sense, he said. But he explained that there were cases where he would counsel a legal end to an abusive marriage and then seek to help with an annulment “because any man that would beat his wife and children up is crazy anyway.” So, even though the church may not sanction divorce, “divorce by itself does not exclude somebody from the church.”