Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester has issued a decree forbidding a Black Catholic, Jesuit school in his diocese from identifying as Catholic, following the school’s refusal to remove Black Lives Matter and Pride flags from its campus.
The flags at the all-boys middle school in Massachusetts had previously been vandalized by an unknown assailant after McManus' original request in March.
“The Nativity School of Worcester is prohibited from this time forward from identifying itself as a “Catholic” school and may no longer use the title “Catholic” to describe itself,” McManus' document reads, released in the diocese’s Catholic Free Press newspaper on June 16th.
“This decree is effective immediately.”
Nativity has also been forbidden to celebrate the sacraments—and sacramentals—on campus, or by sponsorship at any Catholic building within the Diocese of Worcester.
The school—66% Black/biracial and part of an independent Jesuit network—had previously been addressed by McManus in an open letter on May 4th, following the school’s refusal to remove the flags after the bishop’s first statement on the matter in early April.
“The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has co-opted the phrase and promotes a platform that directly contradicts Catholic social teaching on the importance and role of the nuclear family,” McManus said in Thursday’s decree, repeating a popular criticism of the BLM organization based on a former part of their platform that was removed in September 2020.
“The flying of these flags in front of a Catholic school sends a mixed, confusing and scandalous message to the public about the Church’s stance on these important moral and social issues,” he added.
The school has addressed the situation with a new statement of its own, released to the Nativity community on June 15th and underscoring that the school does not receive funding or governance from the diocese.
“In January 2021, Nativity started flying the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags following our students’ (the majority of whom are people of color) call to express support for making our communities more just and inclusive,” said school president Thomas McKenney.
“As a multicultural school, the flags represent the inclusion and respect of all people.”
He noted in the statement that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed support for the BLM movement, presumably referencing the reflections released by the USCCB featuring several writers, including a Black bishop and a priest.
On the issue of LGBTQ+ advocacy and Pride, McKenney pointed to the position of the Holy Father himself.
“Pope Francis has praised the outreach and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people,” he said.
As recently as last month, Francis openly expressed support for the LGBTQ+ community—saying that “a ‘selective’ church, one of ‘pure blood,’ is not the Holy Mother Church, but rather a sect.” He also explicitly lent support to the BLM movement in a little-known book released by a Jesuit priest last year.
“I am going to mention one of those you talk about, #BlackLivesMatter, because of its potential for reconciliation,” Francis wrote in the foreword.
“This image allows us to understand that, although hope imagines the future, there is also an energy nurturing hope in an individual (life story) and a common past (History). In fact, depending on our disposition towards the events of the past, this will be the measure of our acceptance and reconciliation of them as a source of wise hope.”
McManus does not mention the pope in his decree, but he cites canon law and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Catholic Education, which recently issued new guidelines on Catholic identity in Church-affiliated schools.
“It is my sacred duty and inherent responsibility to determine when a school claiming to be “Catholic” is acting in such a way that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church and disregards my legitimate authority as the guardian and overseer of Catholic education in the Diocese of Worcester,” McManus wrote.
“Despite my insistence that the school administration remove these flags because of the confusion and the properly theological scandal that they do and can promote, they refuse to do so. This leaves me no other option but to take canonical action.”
In the months since he first spoke out against the school, McManus has faced mounting public scrutiny, including from Worcester’s own College of the Holy Cross—a Jesuit school headed by a Black Catholic—where McManus critiqued gender ideology during a speech in 2019.
Holy Cross also had a hand in founding Nativity in 2003, according to McManus’ decree.
A few days after his original statement against Nativity’s flags, it was announced that McManus would not be attending Holy Cross’ commencement exercises for the fourth year in a row. More than 500 students and alumni signed a petition calling for him to be officially disinvited.
On April 27th, a group of Holy Cross alumni protested at the Diocese of Worcester headquarters, displaying BLM and Pride flags of their own. Criticism has also been leveled against McManus in relation to his arrest for drunken driving and other offenses in 2013.
McKenney noted in his statement that the school plans to appeal McManus’ decision, becoming the second Jesuit school in less than three years to face a similar decision involving LGBTQ+ issues.
Brebeuf Jesuit Prep in Indianapolis—whose student body is roughly 30% Black or Hispanic—was canonically stripped of its Catholic identity in 2019 by Archbishop Charles C. Thompson for its refusal to fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage. That move remained on appeal as of March 2022.
Nativity’s appeal is likely to eventually involve its metropolitan bishop, Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston, who employed the “Black Lives Matter” motto in an official pastoral letter concerning George Floyd in June 2020.
In the interim, a Nativity representative has said that the best way for onlookers to support the school is to make a donation. McKenney says the school also plans to keep its flags flying “to give visible witness to the school’s solidarity with our students, families, and their communities”.
“Commitment to our mission, grounded and animated by Gospel values, Catholic Social Teaching, and our Jesuit heritage compels us to do so.”
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).