Across the country, people who proclaim themselves to be on “the right side of history” are demanding that those in the wrong must be banished from shared society, with the latest most-prominent example being the Mozilla CEO who was forced out of his position based on a 2008 donation toward California’s traditional-marriage-supporting Proposition 8.
A much smaller-scale example has arisen in Rhode Island with a surprising twist. Some parents whose children attend the Prout School — a private Catholic school in Wakefield operating within the Providence Diocese — have been calling for the resignation of the school principal for allowing a visiting priest to answer students’ questions about homosexuality, divorce, and adoption according to what (in his expert opinion) the Catholic Church teaches on those matters.
Of course, it takes a little additional research to understand what actually happened. An article in the South County Independent (apart from mischaracterizing Opus Dei as “an orthodox division of the Roman Catholic Church”) calls the event a “speech” and an “address” and entirely allows the protesting parents to describe what happened as well as to present the event as if it was being recorded surreptitiously with harsh punishments for those who wouldn’t clap for Rev. Francis “Rocky” Hoffman.
Linda Borg takes things to another level in the Providence Journal, starting out with the assertion that Rev. Hoffman is “an inflammatory speaker.” Borg broadens the attack on Opus Dei (declaring it to be controversial, naturally, without offering any competing statement from its supporters). This gem of passive voice and anonymous statement of opinion is an archetype of its genre, bad grammar and all:
The group has been criticized for being secretive, sexist and for following certain practices that are considered outside the mainstream of the church.
Apart from some aggressive commentary that Borg lifted from Facebook, the only voices in the piece are school principal David Carradini, who appears to lack the fortitude and conviction one might want in a leader, and the diocese’s superintendent, offering general organizational support for him.
What’s the reality?
Father Hoffman is one of a pair of priests who conduct a call-in radio show called “Go Ask Your Father,” the very purpose of which is to answer confusing or difficult questions that Catholics (or others) have about the faith. In this format, it would be impossible for people in the audience not to know that they’re being recorded, because he keeps announcing commercial breaks. A great comment on the Independent article suggests that this was exactly the case:
So I go to Prout and was at the assembly. First off, we knew that this was a radio broadcast (IDK what this article is talking about), that was made perfectly clear to us, in fact, we were supposed to ask questions to Fr. Hoffman. Students whose questions were chosen, would get to ask them on the radio station. Questions were asked about gay marriage, abortion, and other theological issues. Fr. Rocky answered them all the way you’d expect him to. The problem was that for entertainment purposes, he said some dumb things: atheism is just a phase, gay people need to get with it (something to that affect), parents need to grow up and not get divorced (even though marriage is about love)…….the way he said somethings didn’t fit in with the idea of a loving and open Church.
General interactions with Catholic priests and listening to some of Father Hoffman’s other productions suggest that there may be a gap between what he was conveying and what students heard, but even so, this was a loose forum offered as part of a Catholic education. On the downloads page for the show, the episode from Friday, April 4, is a Q&A with students at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro. None of the students’ questions pointedly addressed the topics that apparently came up at Prout, but there’s an interesting Q&A at around the 28 minute mark. It’s worth listening to the four-and-a-half minutes because they give an indication of Fr. Hoffman’s views on social issues that are difficult for the modern Church and a sampling of the language that he uses in speaking with these younger audiences.
For example, he notes that when Jesus told the crowds that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood, “people said, ‘You’re sick.’ And they started drifting away.” He talks of an elderly couple that stays together because, when the husband is being obnoxious, the wife reminds herself that she can’t divorce him, and she can’t kill him, so they patch things up. “But many times, the world’s saying, ‘He’s being obnoxious; ditch him.'”
What Catholics who lament the growing gap between popular culture and the Church want, however, is not for priests to speak the language of the day, or communicate doctrine in a way that the audience will better understand, but rather to maintain the holy facade while edging out the doctrine. Just so, when the officials of the school, lamentably including chaplain Rev. Joseph Upton, held another assembly the following Monday to offer “a more welcoming message,” they did so only in a very narrow sense.
When the voices of “tolerance” proclaim the value of “diversity,” they don’t mean they tolerate real, substantive differences. Rather, they will only tolerate people whom they have labeled as “diverse” — as in, different from people with whom they disagree. When a “welcoming” community gathers together to sharpen its pitchforks and drive out people who make challenging statements, the message isn’t that they are, in fact, welcoming, but that they will insist on the absolute right to determine who is welcome. (How welcome, I wonder, do any students now feel who might have agreed with Father Hoffman, or whose parents do?)
Just as the separatists and censors of politically correct America do at the national level, the principal of Prout and his young chaplain have done their community academic and spiritual harm. Mr. Carradini should have stated the plain fact that Fr. Hoffman is an experienced and well-regarded priest, putting forth an argument held by many of his co-religionists, and presented it as a challenge to those who disagree with him to put together an intelligent, well-sourced, and respectful argument about why he was wrong in his explanations, at least in the way he articulated them. And Father Upton should have affirmed that the Church is in many ways in conflict with society, that it will always remain so, in one way or another, and that the process of working through the friction is a function of the Holy Spirit, acting through all of us — not in denial, but in respect and love.
Far from working to prevent Relevant Radio from the airing the episode, the community at Prout should be anxious to promote it, perhaps inviting Father Hoffman back for further exchanges.
- It can only dissuade men and women from pursuing religious life if they can’t trust in their own extended community to give them the benefit of the doubt.
- Students’ education can only be stunted if their experience is limited only to things that do not offend them, whether because they do not care or because they do.
- And if Father Hoffman is so dreadfully wrong, if he was being abusive (albeit inadvertently), then his own soul may be in danger.
Of course, our secular age, with its inversions of tolerance, diversity, and welcome, doesn’t show much belief in souls, and its mobs therefore aren’t so concerned with the growth of the individual, but rather with the imperative that nobody stand in the way of remaking God’s creation in our own fallen image. A mob can’t be fomented under the banner of being bigger people interested in helping those it declaims, only under the call of proving itself more powerful and destructive.