Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
In an effort to be more accommodating to students of other faiths, an independent Catholic school in San Anselmo, California opted to remove a number of statues of Jesus and Mary and the Saints, claiming they were too alienating for children of other religions, a move that has outraged many parents.
The Marin Independent Journal (MIJ) is reporting on the dust-up which occurred at San Domenico School where a new strategic plan was devised to change the school’s image from being a Catholic institution to more of an independent school.
“San Domenico is both a Catholic school and an independent school,” said Head of School Cecily Stock, “but what we were finding after doing some research is that in the broader community we are known as being a Catholic school and are not necessarily known as an independent school. We want to make sure that prospective families are aware that we are an independent school.”
As a result, Amy Skewes-Cox, who heads San Domenico School’s board of trustees, said that removal of some of the school’s 180 religious icons was “completely in compliance with the new plan, which was unanimously approved by the board of trustees and the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.
“If you walk on the campus and the first thing you confront is three or four statues of St. Dominic or St. Francis, it could be alienating for that other religion, and we didn’t want to further that feeling,” Skewes-Cox told Fox News.
The school was founded by the Dominican Sisters in 1850 and currently serves 671 students grades K-12. Of these students, 121 are boarding students and 98 of these are international students from British Columbia, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mexico, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The students attending San Domenico come from a variety of religious backgrounds besides Christianity: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Tuition for an incoming kindergartner at San Domenico is $29,850.
“Over the last few years we’ve had fewer Catholic students as part of the community and a larger number of students of various faith traditions,” Stock said. “Right now about 80 percent of our families do not identify as Catholic.”
But instead of focusing on spreading the faith to children and their families, which is one of the missions of Catholic schools, San Domenico is choosing to suppress its Catholic identity and cater to the changing demographics.
Sister Maureen McInerney, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, says she went along with the idea because not all of the statues were removed. Of the school’s 180 statues, about 18 are remaining.
“I try not to get into the details of the operation. That really isn’t my place,” McInerney said. “So if there has been a reduction in the number of statues but there are still many statues around the campus, I think that would be fine.”
She added: “San Domenico is a Catholic school; it also welcomes people of all faiths. It is making an effort to be inclusive of all faiths.”
But according to parents, the problem goes much deeper than the removal of the statues. They’ve been witnessing a steady erosion of the faith inside the school for some time.
“Articulating an inclusive foundation appears to mean letting go of San Domenico’s 167-year tradition as a Dominican Catholic school and being both afraid and ashamed to celebrate one’s heritage and beliefs,” wrote Shannon Fitzpatrick to the MIJ, whose 8-year-old son attends the school.
“In our time here, the word ‘Catholic’ has been removed from the mission statement, sacraments were removed from the curriculum, the lower school curriculum was changed to world religions, the logo and colors were changed to be ‘less Catholic,’ and the uniform was changed to be less Catholic.”
She added: “There are other families having the same concerns I do. Many parents feel if the school is heading in a different direction then the San Domenico community should have been notified before the signing of the enrollment for the following year.”
As the MIJ reports, rather than “indoctrinating” students in Catholic theology, the school is opting to provide students with instruction in world religions and philosophy.
“It’s really about empowering each student and giving them the information so they can discover their own purpose, their own truth,” Stock said. “We believe the best way to understand your own faith is to learn about the faiths of others.”
While schools must be “open to the universality of knowledge,” the Church teaches that the Catholic school in a pluralistic environment must also “have their own specific nature, which comes from their being rooted in their believing in Christ the Teacher and their belonging to the Church.”
In this document written by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, he insists that “Catholic schools avoid both fundamentalism and ideas of relativism where everything is the same.”
Instead, they are encouraged to progress in harmony with the identity they have received from their Gospel inspiration, he writes.
“They are also invited to follow the pathways that lead to encountering others. They educate themselves, and they educate to dialogue, which consists in speaking with everyone and relating to everyone with respect, esteem and listening in sincerity. They should express themselves with authenticity, without obfuscating or watering down their own vision so as to acquire greater consensus. They should bear witness by means of their own presence, as well as by the coherence between what they say and what they do.”
Watering down the vision of the role of the Catholic school doesn’t work for anyone except those whose vision sees no further than the bottom line.
Cheryl Newell, who had four children graduate from San Domenico, told the MIJ that the school has been “intentionally eroding their Catholic heritage.”
And as a result, “They’re trying to be something for everyone and they’re making no one happy.”
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