DENVER - Catholics around the country are comparing two outspoken, theologically conservative Catholic leaders, and Denver's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has just passed Boston's Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley on the right.
The two bishops reacted very differently to attempts by local pastors to exclude the children of gay parents from Catholic schools.
St. Paul Elementary School in Hingham, Mass., had admitted an 8-year-old boy, but recently withdrew its acceptance after learning his parents are two lesbians.
The Boston Archdiocese first responded Friday with a statement that exclusion was not its policy. It has no prohibition against same-sex couples sending their children to its schools even though the church teaches that marriage is a heterosexual union.
"Catholic schools exist for the good of the children, and our admission standards must reflect that. We have never had categories of people who were excluded," O'Malley wrote late Wednesday in his blog.
Chaput, in contrast, supported the expulsion decision made in March by the Rev. William Breslin, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Boulder. Chaput said at the time in his Denver Catholic Register column that it was "common sense" to exclude the two young daughters of two lesbians from attending beyond preschool and kindergarten.
"The idea that Catholic schools should require support for Catholic teaching for admission, and a serious effort from school families to live their Catholic identity faithfully, is reasonable and just," Chaput wrote.
The Boulder incident caused Catholic educators across the country to scramble to formulate or review their policies before someone made it an issue in their dioceses, said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington.
"Who are Catholic schools for? We need to answer this question. There is some real mission confusion," Weitzel-O'Neill said at a recent conference.
Mary Grassa O'Neill, superintendent of Boston's Catholic schools, issued a statement that the archdiocese believes that every parent who wishes to send their child to a Catholic school should have the opportunity.
"Our schools welcome children based on their parents' understanding that the teachings of the church are an important component of the curriculum and are part of the student's educational experience," O'Neill said.
She then offered to help the parents enroll their son in another school in the archdiocese.
But O'Malley also defended St. Paul's pastor, the Rev. James Rafferty, who made his decision to expel, O'Malley said, "based on his pastoral concern for the child," and who has the cardinal's full confidence and support.
"It's remarkable, but not surprising that Cardinal O'Malley would take a different position than Chaput," said Chris Korzen, executive director of the liberal nonprofit Catholics United. "O'Malley has a reputation for being a pastor. He's not pushing a political agenda out of Boston."
O'Malley and Chaput, while close to each other theologically, differ as to how theology intersects with public life, Korzen said. Many Catholics will now take their lead from O'Malley or Chaput.
"My suspicion is that there are tons of kids in the same position across the country," Korzen said. "For a long time, no action was taken."
Denver Archdiocese Chancellor Francis X. Maier said this week that Chaput remains confident in his decision about Sacred Heart and already has explained his reasoning thoroughly in his column.
"Bishops almost never comment about the circumstances or decisions in other dioceses, and for good reason: The people and pastoral conditions are often different, and each individual bishop has the authority to speak only for his local church," Maier said.
O'Malley wrote that it is clear that the Archdiocese of Denver's policy is intended to foster "the welfare of the children and fidelity to the mission of the church."
"Their positions and rationale must be seriously considered," O'Malley wrote.
The conservative Christian lobbying group Family Research Council, founded by James Dobson, recently defended Chaput's stance.
"Religious organizations have every right to exclude people whose beliefs or lifestyles contradict the moral and theological teachings of that organization," senior fellow Peter Sprigg told the Catholic News Agency Friday.
Breslin said in a March interview with theNational Catholic Reporter that his decision was not about turning away sinners.
Breslin said he didn't want to put lesbian couple's children in the position of hearing the Catholic teaching that gay marriage is against the will of God.
"If Catholics take their faith seriously, they naturally follow the teachings of the church in matters of faith and morals; otherwise, they take themselves outside the believing community," Chaput wrote.