Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, a Catholic girls’ school run by the Salesian Sisters of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary in Washington, D.C., recently announced that its alumnae magazine will now include notices of former students’ same-sex unions. Sister Mary Berchmans VHM, Mother Superior of the Visitation Monastery, sent an email to school students, parents, and alumnae on May 3, notifying them of the new policy. The following is a letter from one group of alumnae in response to Sr. Berchmans’s email.
Dear Sr. Berchmans,
As young Visitation alumnae, we love receiving updates about our old school. Visitation was our home for four of the most formative years of our lives, and the lessons we learned on Thirty-fifth Street have continued to guide us for years after graduation. Above all else, the greatest gift we received at Visitation was a solid grounding in our Catholic faith, shaped by teachers and friends who mirrored God’s love for us and taught us what it meant to be faithful daughters of the Church. In a world that is so often cynical, blind, and self-serving, Visitation taught us faith, vision, and purpose. We could not have asked for a better place to grow up.
It was with dismay, therefore, that we received your letter on May 3, in which you announced that news of alumnae same-sex unions would henceforth be included in the school’s alumnae magazine. We share your desire to ensure that Visitation is a welcoming and inclusive community, and if the school wishes to share LGBTQ alumnae news, there are loving and faithful ways to do so. But your letter goes far beyond announcing an update to the alumnae magazine. It signals a fundamental shift in the administration’s approach to Visitation’s Catholic identity and Salesian charism. It also sets the stage for a conflict that we have seen, far too often, ending in the breakdown of that identity and the persecution of those who fight to preserve it.
As a professed Sister of the Visitation for 67 years, I have devoted my life in service to the Catholic Church. The Church is clear in its teaching on same-sex marriages. But, it is equally clear in its teaching that we are all children of God, that we each have dignity and are worthy of respect and love. I have been blessed to live my vocation here at Visitation, where I have welcomed and come to know, respect, and love thousands of unique, intelligent, passionate, and faithful women, each made in the image and likeness of God.
As I have prayed over this contradiction, I keep returning to this choice: we can focus on Church teaching on gay marriage or we can focus on Church teaching on the Gospel commandment of love. We know from history - including very recent history - that the Church, in its humanity, makes mistakes. Yet, through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it learns and grows. And so, we choose the Gospel commandment of love.
Beginning with the fall issue of our alumnae magazine, we will publish news of our alumnae's same-sex unions, along with all updates our alums choose to share with their classmates…
As a Salesian school, it is our mission and ministry to understand the value of diversity and respect the dignity of each person… This change is an important part of ensuring that every individual is respected.
In claiming a “contradiction” between Church teaching and the gospel message of love, your letter betrays a deep misunderstanding of Catholic sexual teaching. Catholic doctrine is intrinsically unified: The Church’s teaching on sex and marriage is of a piece with its teaching on the value of human life, the urgency of caring for the poor and marginalized, and the promotion of peace. To reject any one of these teachings is to reject them all. Catholic sexual ethics does not ignore, but embodies, the depths of God’s love as expressed in His plan for human life, happiness, and the family. The Church champions marriage as a total gift of self, open to new life, that endures until the end, and teaches that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are both loved by God and called to chastity.
As Fr. James Martin, S.J., explained in America last summer, “the most fundamental of all church teachings about gay and lesbian people is this: God loves them… every person is called to the chaste expression of love.” We are all called to love and be loved. Sexual union in marriage is only one among many possible paths to a life full of love; human dignity does not depend on sexual expression, and it is perplexing to hear a professed religious sister insinuate otherwise. For Catholic educators to suggest that Church teaching is in error is misguided and offensive. We were taught, at Visitation, to hold ourselves to a high standard of intellectual rigor, and to defend our faith with courage. It is deeply distressing to see these lessons undermined by those who taught them to us.
By pitting the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage against the love of the gospels, the logic of your letter is that those who affirm Church teaching are acting against love—in short, that they act out of hate. Offenders on this list would include not only the Holy Father and millions of Catholics around the world, but also Visitation’s founders, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. If Visitation’s current leadership has decided not to “focus” on Church teaching, it cannot pretend to do so under the auspices of the founders’ mission. To use quotations from St. Francis’s writings in order to cast aspersions on the truth of Church teaching, as you do in your email, is a heartbreaking betrayal of their author’s intentions.
You are each in my prayers - and those of all our Sisters - as you heed St. Francis's maxim to “Be who you are and be that well to honor the Master Craftsman whose handiwork you are.”
Please know that you always have a home on Thirty-fifth Street.
The list would also include every Visitation student, teacher, parent, staff member, and alumna who believes in the truth of Catholic teaching. Your letter ends with the promise that we will always have a home on Thirty-fifth Street. But the same flawed logic on display in the letter has been used to systematically bully faithful Catholics out of public life in nearly every field. In the course of preparing this letter, we have been overwhelmed with private messages of support from young alumnae who share our concerns, but are afraid of being rejected and condemned if they voice these concerns publicly. The false choice you have set up, between embracing the truth of Catholic teaching and loving our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, is already spreading a culture of fear. If Visitation’s leaders will not affirm Catholic teaching, the school cannot promise to be a home for students and teachers who do.
Above all else, we write with sadness. We loved our years at Visitation, and have been delighted to see younger sisters and friends flourish there as we did. We pray that Visitation will remain an institution dedicated to nourishing the faith of the young women entrusted to its care. We pray that Visitation’s leaders will reaffirm their commitment to teaching the Catholic faith in its fullness within the school’s walls, and witnessing to it beyond them. You are right—for so many of us, Visitation is much more than a school. It is our spiritual home. We pray that it will continue to be home to the truth, too.
Yours in Christ,
Flo Martínez Addiego
Class of 2016
Class of 2012
Jeanne Marie Hathway
Class of 2016
Molly Gurdon Pinkoski
Class of 2012