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In My Opinion

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Charity, and all that it means

Peter St. Onge
Associate Editor, Editorial Pages
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

Bishop Peter Jugis thinks people should be more charitable.

That took a while.

Actually, it took a groundswell of uncharitable behavior toward him and those in his diocese. That’s often the moment – when you’re under attack – that people tend to get religion about tolerance.

For Jugis, that came this week, when he weighed in on a three-week-old controversy at Charlotte Catholic High School. The school has been in an uproar since March 21, when a Nashville-based Dominican nun gave students and staff a speech on “Masculinity and Femininity.”

According to students, Sister Jane Dominic Laurel delivered a stemwinder that day, blending faulty social research with mean-spirited commentary. Among the gems she delivered: Masturbation and porn lead to homosexuality. Also: Children raised by single parents have a greater chance of becoming gay.

Students were outraged at the speech. Parents were livid that they didn’t get a heads-up at what their children were about to hear. At a school meeting last week, angry parents told administrators they felt betrayed. They argued with other parents.

Jugis didn’t attend that meeting, but he sent a statement. He released a second one this week in which he was critical of “uncharitableness and disrespect” at the meeting. It’s now time, Jugis said, to “move forward toward healing with charity.”

There’s a lot bubbling under the surface here, including an underlying tension between traditional and progressive Catholics at the high school, the diocese, and in the larger church. But it’s rich that the Bishop has discovered charity now that he’s on the other side of scorn. Jugis wasn’t nearly such a peacemaker in the days after March 21, when those in the audience from single-parent households were denigrated by the school-sanctioned nun. He still seems untroubled that Sister Laurel suggested to the school’s families that if there were a homosexual in their home, he or she was likely the product of weak parenting.

But to Jugis, charity and healing have long been selective notions, reserved for those with whom he agrees. Where was the charity when he announced in 2004 that he would bar politicians who supported abortion rights from receiving communion? Where was the healing when he publicly pushed for a punitive same-sex marriage amendment that discriminated against members of his community?

But now that the pitchforks are pointing his way, we should all calm down and come together.

We have an astounding capacity in this country to be simultaneously predatory and persecuted. We demand sensitivity for our beliefs, no matter how insensitive they may be. We pounce on any flaws of those we disagree with, but cry for charity when we’re the ones who’ve made a mistake.

It goes both ways, of course. The tolerance movement on the left has become dangerously intolerant now, intent not only on stamping out discrimination, but any disagreement with its worldview. Just like the Religious Right, there’s no allowance for someone to merely be wrong. They must also be condemned and punished.

So what room is left for our differences of opinion? To start, let’s look at Bishop Jugis’ boss.

It’s become a cliche now to point to Pope Francis when we talk about tolerance, but many who do get it wrong. When the pope uttered his now-famous five words on gays last July – “Who am I to judge?” – most everyone forgot six more that followed: “These persons must not be marginalized.”

Francis did not say that homosexuality wasn’t a sin in the Catholic Church. He questioned the emphasis placed on that sin, and our need to vilify.

It was a gloriously liberating statement, an announcement that there is room for belief and disagreement in our lives. It was a reminder to Catholics and non-Catholics, to lay people and bishops, that it’s one thing to think someone is wrong. It’s another to allow them to be.

There’s a word for that space, as elusive as it is.

It’s called charity.

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