Five nuns at Marin Catholic High School walked out of their classes on Friday, April 17 to protest flyers handed out by students promoting the Day of Silence, which, according to Marin Catholic Principal Chris Valdez, the administration did not authorize in advance. The nuns were also protesting a post on the school’s Facebook page related to the Day of Silence that connected the school with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the national organization that runs the event.
The Day of Silence is an event aiming to raise awareness about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer and/or Questioning (LGBTQ) bullying and raise support for the LGBTQ community.
The national Day of Silence is sponsored by GLSEN, which Sister Teresa Benedicta, one of the five nuns, described in an email to the faculty and staff as being a “notoriously anti-Catholic organization that makes no attempt to hide its aversion to Church teaching.”
The students who observed the Day of Silence by distributing posters and stickers in relation to the event are members of the Teach Acceptance Mission. Teach Acceptance is comprised of students and parents in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and was formed to protest San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s proposed morality clauses that he released in February. These changes include the insertion of language that specifically mentions “homosexual relations” as “gravely evil” into the school handbooks for the four Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which includes Marin Catholic.
Marin Catholic senior Sarah Coduto, who is involved with Teach Acceptance, said that the school’s administration had previously given permission to the group to observe the Day of Silence, but that morning, they prohibited the students from distributing posters and stickers. However, Valdez said that he was never approached about specifically handing out posters.
“We’ve been consistent on [handing out flyers] even just around any Teach Acceptance materials, we’re not having flyers passed through school,” said Valdez. “This is just an attempt to keep things as depoliticized as possible on campus, with a goal of focusing on academics.”
According to Valdez, the school chose to instead acknowledge the Day of Silence by holding a prayer for the marginalized over the loudspeaker on Friday.
Coduto said that this prayer was different from the original prayer that she had written in honor of the Day of Silence that had been planned and approved for the morning, which had included the line “we especially want to pray for our LGBT youth, and…for those who feel they have no voice on their campuses.”
Valdez acknowledged that the prayer was originally supposed to explicitly mention LGBTQ youth, but that after the controversy in the morning with the nuns, the administration wanted the prayer to be well-received.
“I’d worked with the head of campus ministry to write a prayer that explicitly mentioned LGBTQ youth, which would have been a big deal because, to my knowledge, no one at Marin Catholic has ever mentioned that population over announcements, but the school pulled the plug the morning of because they didn’t want to fan the flames any more,” Coduto said.
Valdez said that he gave permission for the school to post on their Facebook page that they would be recognizing the Day of Silence but not participating in it. However, he said this Facebook post got misconstrued and was partially why the nuns were upset.
“It was communicated in a way that encouraged participation,” Valdez said. “What happened there was that the Facebook post associated us with GLSEN, and it simply wasn’t an authorized association.”
According to anonymous senior “Emma,” the group handed out the posters in secret, which she said caused the nuns to walk out.
“When we arrived at school to find flyers and stickers being passed out supporting this, we felt that our Catholic faith and the school’s mission were being compromised,” Sister Teresa Benedicta said in her email to faculty and staff.
Senior Luca Sullivan said that the sisters are a well-liked presence on campus, and he thinks that their protest was only regarding GLSEN as an organization.
“[GLSEN was] using the school, a Catholic institution, as a forum to promote their agenda, which the sisters thought was wrong because you can’t be using a Catholic school to promote something like GLSEN,” Sullivan said. “So they felt really uncomfortable about that and that’s why they left.”
In an email statement, GLSEN’s Chief Communications and Advocacy Officer, Juan Martinez, said that the organization’s goal was simply to ensure all students in all schools, including Catholic ones, were treated with respect.
Senior Lauren Sharps said that she does not blame the sisters for their actions.
“I do think that because the sisters have committed themselves to a life of obedience and chastity and purity to God, of course Catholic things, that this protest did make them uncomfortable because it was in their eyes going against church teachings,” Sharps said.
Coduto said that the flyers were not meant to be an attack on Catholic ideology.
“The people who participated in the Day of Silence weren’t attacking the sisters,” Coduto said. “The only thing we intended to do was to support LGBTQ youth, but the sisters walking out changed the way that the entire school perceived [it].”
Sullivan said, however, that it should be expected that educators in a Catholic institution promote ideals such as those put forward by the Archbishop.
“At the end of the day, it’s a Catholic school, and therefore teachers are going to have to preach, practice and promote Catholic things,” Sullivan said. “Doing anything less than that would defeat the purpose of a Catholic school.”
According to Emma, it is not just the students who are divided over the issue.
“It’s dividing the teachers, especially the theology department versus the rest of the school,” Emma said. “That department stands behind the sisters because they also believe strongly in [Catholic ideology], but the teachers in the other departments such as science, math, and English don’t all agree with the sisters or the Catholic church.”
Coduto does not believe that GLSEN is anti-Catholic, as the nuns stated in their email.
“I’ve been trying to tell the administrators at school that there’s this very clear distinction between anti-Catholic and contrary to Catholic teaching,” Coduto said. “And GLSEN is not anti-Catholic.”
Coduto has been attempting to start what she calls a “safe space” club at Marin Catholic, which she said would be similar to a Gay/Straight Alliance club. Coduto said she has met backlash from the administration, however, Valdez said that he is considering the idea.
“I was looking at how we’re going to do that on our terms within our school system here,” Valdez said. “One of my real hopes was that creating a club or an organization would actually be a unifying element here on campus because everybody wants to ensure that kids who feel marginalized are protected and safe. That may feel like resistance to some people, but that was what I was trying to do.”
Valdez said that he was approached by the students petitioning to start the club after Easter break, and that they wanted to start the club before the Day of Silence in order to be able to sponsor a school-wide observance of the event.
“To mobilize that fast was a logistical impossibility,” Valdez said.
Coduto said that the campus has a mixed level of tolerance towards the issue of LGBTQ rights, although they do discuss it in class.
In the junior year of Marin Catholic’s theology class, students study morality, which includes a unit on sexual morality. While the students are taught the doctrine of the Catholic Church, according to Coduto, they are allowed to disagree with its teachings.
Despite the school allowing students to question its theological teachings, Sharps said that it is difficult to be taught the traditional Catholic beliefs on sexuality.
“I consider myself Catholic and I do love God, but it’s so hard to sit in theology class when the teachers are sitting there having to tell you something that you don’t believe is true at all,” Sharps said.
Coduto said that there is also a strong conservative presence on campus, which can make for a mixed attitude towards acceptance of LGBTQ students.
“The students who are openly gay are only open about it to their friends and to the people who they know will be accepting,” Coduto said. “There’s a really strong politically and religiously conservative population at my school and they’re very vocal about their beliefs, so you would never ever see an LGBTQ kid talking openly about his or her sexuality to a member of that population.”
Sharps said, however, that the campus is accepting as a whole.
“I know that when my close friend did come out to me, I was very excited for him only because he was so open and positive about his sexuality, and he didn’t mind what anybody thought,” Sharps said. “And of course nobody else minded that he came to his true self. We all saw him as the same person and of course still loved him the same, and that includes teachers, admin, even higher powers.”
According to Valdez, the administration does not allow any kind of political activity outside of the classroom.
“Anything that is going to be potentially politically distracting, we try to avoid,” Valdez said. “We deal with hot button or controversial issues all the time in our curriculum, but that’s where we prefer the debate to happen, within the context of our curriculum and within our classrooms. The same is true for any political club.”