In the current pontificate, Mary Jo Anderson at The Catholic World Report reminds us, speaking the truth about Islam is verboten:
A Catholic teacher in Florida remains under fire in his diocese, three weeks after the Huffington Post reported that he assigned “anti-Muslim” material to sixth- grade students. Mark Smythe, who teaches social studies and religion at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Ocala, Florida, faces termination unless he signs a letter of reprimand. Theresa Simon, Human Resources Director for the Diocese of Orlando, in consultation with Henry Fortier, Superintendent of Schools, informed the school’s principal that Mr. Smythe “must” be reprimanded because he caused an incident that distressed Muslim community members and furthermore it was an “embarrassment for BT(Blessed Trinity)School, the Office of Schools, and the Bishop’s Office.”
Despite school principal Jason Halstead’s defense of his teacher—“It’s obvious from your comments that you are quite supportive of Mr. Smythe….”—Ms. Simon confirmed that “there is no way around” the reprimand. Should Mr. Smythe decline to sign the reprimand “he will still be held accountable for its contents.”
Mr. Smythe’s class read St. John Bosco’s evaluation of Islam. A mother of a student was surprised to see Islam described as a “monstrous mixture” of several faiths containing “ridiculous, immoral and corrupting” doctrines. She shared the material with a Muslim friend whose children had also attended Blessed Trinity. The latter contacted the Huffington Post’s “documenting hate” project.
When the Post contacted the Diocese of Orlando, Jacquelyn Flanigan, associate Superintendent apologized for the teacher’s “unfortunate exhibit of disrespect” and assured the Post that a reprimand had been ordered. Flanigan, who is not a theologian, pushed further in her statement to the Post, saying “the information provided in the sixth grade class is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Ms. Flanigan had not met with the teacher, the principal, or the pastor, Fr. Patrick Sheedy, to determine the nature of the full presentation of the lesson or the context. Additionally, she gave no authority for her statement that St. John Bosco’s work isn’t “consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Blessed Trinity School uses the acclaimed series, All Ye Lands, by Catholic Text Book Project. Formed in 2000, the Catholic Textbook Project recognized a critical need for textbooks that avoid a secularized, sometimes anti-Catholic worldview. “But most importantly,” states the Project’s website, “our textbooks are Catholic; they proceed from the insight that mankind and history have been transformed irrevocably by Christ and his Church. Put simply, without the Church, history simply would not be the same. We tell that story fully and accurately.”
The introduction to the volume of All Ye Lands that Mark Smythe has in his class states, “Thank you for undertaking the education of the next generation of American Catholics in a century filled with perils and promise. Christ offers our youth a challenge and a hope that no other religion or philosophy permits. We, their teachers and parents, cannot allow our children to be ignorant of the origins of the Faith or of the beliefs of other cultures in an increasingly hostile world.”
In his “final warning” memorandum dated April 28th, Superintendent of Schools, Henry Fortier, again reminded the teacher that the “incident has cast an embarrassing spotlight on Blessed Trinity Catholic School as well as the Diocese of Orlando.” The Superintendent concedes in his memo that Mr. Smythe did balance his presentation in class by citing the areas of faith that Islam and Christianity share: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. However, the material from Saint John Bosco was rejected by Fortier as not currently approved thinking.
Mr. Fortier instructed Mr. Smythe to familiarize himself with “the Catholic Church’s position on the Islam faith” by reviewing “current scholarly Catholic faith-based analysis of the Islam faith… We especially note the writings and living witness of Pope Francis with all Muslims.”
Mr. Smythe was given a deadline of May 7th, to report back to the principal with a list of the documents he had read per the memorandum. Further, Fortier warned Smythe that he is “not to venture away from the approved teachings of the Catholic Church.” And, whether inside or outside of school, “a negative comment about or disparagement of the Islam faith” will result in immediate termination.
Finally, Smythe is directed by the memo to sign the reprimand. According to his attorney, Henry Ferro of Ocala, Mr. Smythe has not signed the reprimand because he does not think that his actions warrant the reprimand. Legally, a reprimand in an employment dossier can be grounds for termination and/or make future employment difficult. Smythe is married and has three children. Absent any prior guidelines or statement of policy by the Church, how is a Catholic school teacher, teaching in a Catholic school, to know that material from a canonized Saint, and one who is a patron saint of school children, is disallowed, much less grounds for reprimand that jeopardize his future?
The incident raises other serious questions. Was Mr. Smythe’s pamphlet by St. John Bosco a matter of correct and accurate teaching used imprudently? Did the diocese overreact in order to appease a powerful national media outlet? Are diocesan personnel under the misunderstanding that there is one official “approved” Catholic teaching on Islam? (Requests from CWR for comments from representatives of the Diocese of Orlando have not been returned.)
These questions and others merit a broad discussion within the Catholic education establishment. Is it not the mission of Catholic schools to prepare students to live out and defend their faith in a world increasingly hostile to the Gospel of Christ? If so, how so?
Fr. Peter Stavinskas is the executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation and holds a doctorate in school administration and another doctorate in theology. From his decades of experience as a teacher and administrator in Catholic schools Fr. Stavinskas observed that, as starting point, “There is no ‘Catholic teaching’ on Islam, as such. Don Bosco’s reflection is not ‘Catholic teaching’ but an historical perspective and a straightforward description of what that religion teaches.
Similarly, Vatican II has no ‘Catholic teaching’ on Islam, merely a one-paragraph summary of points of convergence between Christianity and Islam (as Nostra Aetate does for Judaism and even pagan religions).”
As for the diocese’s requirement for more “scholarly” presentations on Islam, and for an analysis more current than even Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (which Ms. Flanigan cited for the Huffington Post), there is the scholarly address given by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg in 2006. If teacher Mark Smythe is remiss for quoting 19th-century Don Bosco on Islam, what then of Pope Benedict’s quote from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s statement, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”