Would a federal investigation find you are really Catholic?

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5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Feb. 6, 2011
Isa 58:7-10; Ps 112; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Matt 5:13-16

Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?”

I think the meaning of this phrase is well illustrated by something that happened last month. A government agency told a Catholic college, in effect: “You aren’t Catholic enough.” That’s rather strange, isn’t it? Not something that we expect government agencies to do. So let’s take a look at this to see what was going on.

The agency was the National Labor Relations Board; and the college was Manhattan College, located in New York City, founded about 150 years ago by the Christian Brothers, whose founder was St. John Baptist de la Salle. They identify themselves as a Catholic college; they have crucifixes in all their classrooms; they have a campus ministry, with Mass celebrated 6 days of the week. And they had contended that they are a “church-operated institution” that is exempt from the jurisdiction of the board.

But that board knows that sometimes businesses will try to claim to be “church-operated,” even when they aren’t, in order to gain this advantage. And so the board isn’t convinced by what you call yourself or put on your walls. It has several court-defined characteristics of what qualifies. And so the board says: Talk is cheap; show us who you really are, what you really do; then we’ll know whether you qualify.

Salt in Jesus’ time was highly prized for what it did. It acted upon food to enhance its flavor. In an age without refrigeration, it could preserve meat, because of how it acted upon the meat. It could even be used as an antiseptic in wounds because of how it acted upon those cells and any bacteria.

And this board is asking, in effect: Are you really what salt is? Do you do what salt does? Are you salty enough? Are you Catholic enough? And we see in their report that they investigated several main questions; and let me mention three of these.

First: who governs you; how are you directed? Manhattan College was founded and run by the Christian Brothers. But today it is governed by a board of trustees. 5 of the trustees are Christian Brothers; 32 are not. Their president is no longer a Christian Brother. Their literature states that they are independent of Church control. The agency says: it is clear you are not governed as salt is governed.

Second: what about the money; where does your funding come from? Today, the Christian Brothers contribute $100,000 per year—out of an annual budget of $84 million. That’s just a drop in the bucket. And the agency says: you are not funded as salt is funded.

Third: what are your goals? One long-time professor told the agency that, back when he started in the 1960s, “the ‘primary purpose of the college’ was not only educational, but also ‘to indoctrinate students into the Catholic faith and to proselytize students.'” And as a professor his job was “not just academic to teach [students] theology, but also to make them Catholic.” But that has all changed now. The college’s literature speaks often of “freedom” and “diversity”; and it says that, unlike parochial schools, it does not seek to “indoctrinate in the faith” or “insist on religious observance.” It requires students to take one Catholic Studies course from a list of options, all of which intellectually examine some aspect of Catholicism but do not seek to make students Catholic in mind or in practice. And the agency says: you do not have the goals that salt has.

The National Labor Relations Board noticed that Manhattan College will often identify itself with the founder of the Christian Brothers, St. John Baptist de la Salle, and will speak of itself as “Lasallian.” But it looked carefully and noticed that the saint has been redefined; reinvented. One trustee document says explicitly that recent scholarship “has made it possible to disengage his educational achievement from its roots in the Catholic France of the 17th century and implant the characteristic Lasallian vision in a variety of cultural and religiously pluralistic contexts.

The saint has been reinvented as a modern secular figure; his story has been made to lose its saltiness. Jesus speaks of salt losing its taste; and we know that it is impossible for this to happen to sodium chloride. But in Jesus’ day, what was called salt might be an impure mixture of sodium chloride with other things; and when the sodium chloride was leached out of this mixture, it lost its taste and the rest of its salty properties. There could hardly be a better picture of what Manhattan College has done to the story of its saint, and to itself: becoming a pile of something that calls itself salt, but no longer tastes or acts like salt at all.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

The story of Manhattan College is very similar to that of many American Catholic institutions, and of many American Catholic persons and families, over the past 50 or 60 years. It was natural that the children and grandchildren of immigrants should want to adapt culturally to this land: in language and dress and customs; to share in the education and jobs and neighborhoods and governing and cultural life of mainstream America. But at what price? Perhaps no figure exemplifies this transition better than President John F. Kennedy. For he won the prize of the presidency; but he won it at the price of promising beforehand that he would drive a wall between his thoughts and decisions, and his Catholicism. He won it by promising that he would lose his saltiness, and hide his lamp under a bushel basket.

And how many more have made that compromise, and continue to do so?

Imagine if the National Labor Relations Board decided to investigate your life—your mind, your heart, your actions, your priorities—in the way that it investigated Manhattan College. It’s not enough to call yourself Catholic, and hang a crucifix on the wall, and come to Mass on Sunday, the agency would say. Lots of people do that, to gain some benefit. Let’s look deeper.

First, let’s look at your beliefs. Do you know what the Church teaches? Do you understand it? Do you believe it? Are there teachings that you reject? And if you do: how is that any different from the people around you?

Second: how about your actions? Do you know what the Church teaches is right and wrong, good and bad? Does this shape how you live your life? Or do you reject some of it—not just slipping into sin occasionally, but outright rejecting some aspect and consistently choosing to live against it? How is that any different from the people around you?

In your words and actions every day, do you have an effect on others like salt? Like light in darkness?

Third, let’s look at your finances. Do we see real evidence of your Catholic faith? Or is it just a token, a drop in the bucket—like the Christian Brothers’ tiny contribution to the college’s annual budget? Do your finances look like everyone else’s?

Fourth, let’s look at your calendar. Here too, do we see real evidence of your Catholic faith, in how you choose to spend your time?

If the National Labor Relations Board investigated your life in this way, what would they find? Would they find that you really are salt in the world, and light in darkness, as Jesus’ urged? Or would they also find that the reality of your life doesn’t match the surface? And if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?

I want to close by considering two days: today, and this past Wednesday.

Today—this evening—there is something happening. I can’t imagine what. It isn’t a federal holiday; it isn’t on your employer’s calendar; it isn’t on your children’s school calendar; I doubt it is even a Hallmark holiday. And yet, mysteriously, 100 million people will do something different than they do on a normal Sunday; 100 million. They will all watch the same television channel, so that it will be the most-watched program of the year—perhaps even of all television history, as it was last year. They will all make special food, especially chili and wings, so that it ranks only second to Thanksgiving as food purchasing for a holiday. It might even generate more prayers, on behalf of one team or the other, than many other days of the year.

Yes, the government investigator would probably find evidence of the Super Bowl in your finances and your calendar. It shows up; it makes a bump.

But what about last Wednesday? The investigator would point to the evening of February 2 and say, “It says Presentation; was that some sort of talk you were giving?” “Oh no,” you would say, “that’s the Feast of the Presentation—one of the great feasts of the Church year. It comes 40 days after Christmas, and celebrates when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple. And so the Lord entered his Temple. And the old man Simeon said he would be a ‘light to enlighten the nations.’ And so the whole parish gets together in the evening. And we start out in the front of the property, and the priest blesses candles, and we have this candlelight procession, singing, until we get inside the church—which has been a Catholic tradition for centuries. And then we celebrate Mass. And then we go to the parish hall for a great dinner—with traditional foods for that feast day. And there are games for the kids; and one class always puts on a little skit about the day. It’s so much fun. I look forward to it every year. You know, you should come next year. I think you would really enjoy it.”

And the investigator would mark down: Yep, this one is Catholic. This one is salt and light. This Feast of the Presentation isn’t a federal holiday, or on the employer’s calendar or the school calendar or in the Hallmark cards; but it sure makes a bump in his life.

Of course, that didn’t happen last Wednesday, did it? But it could! If you would like to help make plans for feast days like that one, let me know. The Feast of the Annunciation is coming up on March 25.

If salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? I wonder.

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Update (3/10/11):

If you are reading this because you are concerned directly with Manhattan College:

Please realize first that the text above is a homily given during a Sunday Mass to my Catholic parish in Maryland. My purpose in speaking of the NLRB’s investigation of Manhattan College was to use this spectacle of a government agency investigating a Catholic college, and probing deep below the surface in doing so, as a tool to help my parishioners more vividly understand our Lord’s words about being salt and light, and so to better apply his message to their own lives. For this reason, my description of the case is shaped for this purpose—not for the purpose of straight-forward commentary on Manhattan College itself.

Nevertheless, I did read through the NLRB’s document, as well as the college’s public statement in reply, and its president’s letter on the topic, and I have a few thoughts and observations to share.

The NLRB presents the situation in a way that makes perfect sense to me. As they summarize in their document, they have a mandate from the government that involves overseeing and taking certain actions related to labor organizing within certain organizations/businesses. But they have a big exception: a “church-operated school” is exempt from their jurisdiction. Why? Because, understandably, if a school is truly governed by a church organization, is funded by it, sets goals of indoctrinating its students in belief and practice, and imposes requirements of belief and practice when hiring its employees—then there is no way for the NLRB to do its labor-related job in such an institution without becoming entangled in religion, and so it is just supposed to stay out.

Looking carefully at Manhattan College, and not being satisfied with superficial language, the NLRB has concluded that the college does not qualify as a “church-operated school,” as defined by earlier court decisions, and thus is not exempt from its jurisdiction. This seems to me to be the correct conclusion—indeed, as such an obviously correct conclusion that I don’t know why Manhattan College has tried to claim otherwise, if it is motivated by truth and not just self-interest. But both of the college’s statements seem quite clouded, not grappling clearly with the true questions involved here.

So, if you are concerned directly with Manhattan College, I encourage you to read all three documents carefully and thoughtfully for yourself: the NLRB’s document, the college’s public statement in reply, and the president’s letter. And let your thoughts and actions be guided by a clear view of the truth.

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