WORCESTER, Mass. — Bishop Robert McManus of the Diocese of Worcester has ordered that a Black Catholic school in Massachusetts remove a Black Lives Matter sign from its facade or face penalties, according to reports.
The 19-year-old Nativity School of Worcester, 66% Black/biracial and part of an independent Jesuit network, was addressed in a statement released by the bishop on Sunday, also addressing a Pride flag the school has displayed alongside the racial justice banner for over a year.
“The flag with the emblem Black Lives Matter has at times been coopted by some factions which also instill broad-brush distrust of police and those entrusted with enforcing our laws,” McManus said.
“We do not teach that in our schools.”
McManus’ statement does not name Nativity directly, but headlines have flowed in the days since its release, including a Boston Globe op-ed detailing that the school is indeed the target and was encouraged to raise the flags by the students themselves.
That piece also notes that McManus has previously taken similar actions against local Catholic schools, including a visit to the College of the Holy Cross in 2019 where gave a speech criticizing the school’s perceived support for transgender rights.
(Notably, since last year, Holy Cross has been headed by President Vincent Rougeau—a Black Catholic who has voiced support for both LGBTQ+ inclusivity and the BLM movement.)
As with a similar situation in the Archdiocese of Denver last fall—concerning a BLM flag at a local parish—following McManus’ statement on Nativity, the school's two flags were removed by an unknown party before being restored to their place by the school.
Nativity has also released its own statement on the larger controversy, with President Tom McKenney emphasizing its independent status and fully donor-funded operations.
“The Black Lives Matter and Pride flags fly below the American flag at our school to remind our young men, their families and Nativity Worcester staff that all are welcome here and that they are valued and safe in this place,” he said.
McKenney also noted that Nativity “proudly” operates in the diocese but is not diocesan, being sponsored by the USA East Province of Jesuits. McManus himself has served in the diocese nearly coterminously with the existence of Nativity, having been appointed by Pope St John Paul II just months after the school was founded.
The Jesuits are no strangers to such controversies, having been recently rocked by a similar scandal in Indiana. There, the independent Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory was stripped of its formal Catholic identity by Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis following school officials’ decision to renew the contract of a teacher civilly married to someone of the same sex.
That dispute is ongoing, with the school appealing Thompson’s ruling to the Vatican in 2019 and canonical mediation beginning in 2020. While that has yet to conclude, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education—which received the appeal and temporarily rescinded Thompson’s action—issued a new document on Catholic school identity late last month that may have inspired McManus’ action in Worcester.
In it, the congregation emphasized the need for adherence to Church teachings and states that no institution, “although in fact Catholic, is to bear the name of ‘Catholic school’ without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority”—in this case, the local bishop.
However, the 97-point document also states that Catholic schools must assist students in becoming “capable of building a society based on justice and solidarity, which are prerequisites for a peaceful life among individuals and peoples”.
Overall, the document displays the influence of Pope Francis, who has not budged on essential Church teachings but has irked some conservatives with his willingness to push traditional boundaries on social issues.
Concerning the ongoing racial justice movement in the United States—eminently connected to BLM—Francis went so far as to call protesters in the wake of the murder of George Floyd “collective Samaritans”, part of a striking statement that made headlines around the world.
McManus’ own metropolitan, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap. of Boston, has also voiced support for the movement, using the capitalized “Black Lives Matter” motto in an official pastoral letter on Floyd in June 2020.
In Nativity School’s statement, McKenney ultimately characterizes the flags as a message to students that is in line with both Church teaching and acknowledgment of basic human dignity.
“It says to them that they, in fact, do matter and deserve to be respected as our Christian values teach us,” McKenney said.
“That is the purpose of flying these flags.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).