Dave Helling

JoCo Catholic school’s rejection of gay couple’s child based on ‘cafeteria theology’

My parents were practicing Catholics, and so was our family. Each week on Saturday, my brothers and sisters and I endured ritual ear-cleanings and fingernail-clippings in preparation for Sunday Mass.

We attended parochial schools, as our parents had. Our Catholic confirmations were big deals. Like all Catholic boys, I was going to be a priest. Catholicism wasn’t a thing we did, it was a thing we were.

In 1965, a day short of her 30th birthday, Mom gave birth to her fifth child. She loved our new sister, as she loved all of us, but she was worn out physically and mentally after five kids in 10 years of marriage. She asked a priest if she could use artificial birth control to prevent another pregnancy.

Absolutely not, she was told. God forbids it.

Mom was furious. She and Dad rejected the decision, and within a few years, they began a long drift away from the Catholic Church. Their kids, to one degree or another, drifted away too.

I thought of this story during the past few weeks, as the controversy over admissions practices at St. Ann Catholic School in Prairie Village drew the attention of the nation. Church leaders here have denied admittance to a child whose parents are gay.

Last week, Catholic Archbishop Joseph Naumann in Kansas City, Kansas, defended the decision in a lengthy column. “I fail to see how admitting a child of same-sex parents to one of our schools is merciful or helpful to the child,” he wrote.

My parents would have recognized the tone of that statement. In making it, the archbishop claims a moral clarity he denies to the same-sex parents of the kindergartner, or my family, or anyone who believes that human decisions are complicated things.

That kind of inflexibility has convinced millions of people to abandon the Catholic faith. That, in turn, has aggravated some Catholic leaders who have derided “cafeteria Catholics” for wanting to choose which rules to follow and which to ignore.

Yet, as the current controversy demonstrates, Archbishop Naumann and other church officials can act as cafeteria theologians, picking and choosing which version of Jesus they wish to follow.

Jesus’ teachings about marriage are complicated, for example. His understanding of homosexuality is the subject of disagreement.

But his views about kids seem pretty clear. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” he said. That statement does not appear in the archbishop’s column.

Nor does Pope Francis’ declaration of a few years ago. “If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them?” he said. “The Catholic Church teaches that gay people should not be discriminated against; they should be made to feel welcome.”

Debates like this are found in the history of every faith in the world. That’s why mercy and free thought, not rigid dogma, are features of successful religions. Real faith comes from careful thought, not mindless obedience.

Inflexible faith institutions become cults, filled with people who assert exclusive access to divine wisdom.

I doubt the archbishop will be swayed by anything I might say, or by the people petitioning on behalf of the would-be student. And the private school can freely decide who can attend its classes and who can’t.

But it might be helpful if Archbishop Naumann — who fought the Affordable Care Act — would drop the pretense that he is arguing some immutable moral truth. He has made a political decision, guided by his own political beliefs. He could be wrong.

That’s another thing my parents would have understood.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.