2008-10-31 / Columnists

It's My Turn

The CYO Dust-Up
By Jeffrey Marlin

Jeffrey Marlin is a longtime Rockaway resident whose grandchild plays in the St. Francis de Sales intramural basketball league.

St. Francis de Sales Church runs intramural basketball leagues as well as a CYO program. My granddaughter plays on an intramural team, and played CYO prior to the Monsignor's decision to give preferential team eligibility to parish girls in good standing, which effectively discarded the merit system that these basketball teams traditionally selected - as aptly reported in The Wave of 10/13.

Last week, heading for an intramural game, my granddaughter met up with two friends and longtime teammates in front of the gym and the subject of the policy change arose.

In fact, my granddaughter's systematic exclusion (and that of other friends) has excited some cross-generational anger and dismay, and an enterprising sixth-grader has collected more than 100 signatures in opposition to the change.

Standing in front of the gym, someone suggested discomforting the Monsignor by way of a more direct protest. I do not recall the exact suggestion or who voiced it. When one of the chatting friends expressed enthusiasm for the idea, I asked her why, she replied "because my religion does not allow discrimination on race, or religion, or whatever, and he is going against that." I was touched by what might appear to some as the purity of her thought and to others as a knack for cloaking personal resentment in high principle. However interpreted, the response enhanced my high regard for this spirited and wholly admirable child. It also rekindled my interest in the matter.

Because my family is involved, I have endured (and somewhat enjoyed) more than my share of discussions on the subject. In doing so, I have tended to focus on two points: the whole thing has the weight of a feather. Set against the real problems that people face here and elsewhere, its importance is slight to nil. Therefore, it ought be accepted as the way of the world and not trouble anyone's digestion; the notion of religious discrimination is so far-fetched as to be denounced as preposterous - and never tinge the discussion.

In this connection, I vividly remember a childhood in which local anti- Semitism (some of it expressed from the pulpit) was heatedly discussed in my parents' home decades ago. Now, I find a cheerful indifference to other people's religious and unreligious beliefs to be one of the neighborhood's many uplifting qualities.

That being understood, the priestpunishing enthusiasm of the brighteyed youngster referenced above took me a little deeper into the issue. As a result, I now have doubts about the two positions I previously urgued on predominantly unreceptive ears. Those of us approaching the joys of old age share keen appreciation for calm in the digestive system. Therefore, I cannot encourage others to trouble theirs. However, it no longer seems entirely appropriate to ignore the principle of the thing by dwelling only on the relative triviality of the outcome. And in fact, there is more to this outcome than the frustration of highly privileged children contemplating the lost pleasure of playing CYO basketball with less than a full complement of cherished comrades. A second and more interesting outcome is surely found in the minds of the children involved.

This brings me back to the question of discrimination raised above. As noted, I do not believe that religiously inspired animus - or any animus at all - has a significant part in this. Rather, I believe that the decision was taken despite the Monsignor's admirable regard for all children and all adult segments of the community. However, we will be known by our acts as well as by our intentions. And this act has imprinted upon at least two aspiring young reformers the straightforward perception that their local coreligionists are in favor, and all others are, as a practical matter - not.

The perception of prejudice is clear, simple, and shared - although the facts of the case are neither simple nor entirely clear.

The rules in play are self-evidently subjective, having just been reinterpreted to alter a longstanding, nonpartisan, merit-driven selection process.

The story behind the change is incompletely known, residing only in the mind of the monsignor. He has reportedly explained that feelings within the parish struck him as justified and moved him to grant this new advantage to children of parishioners. The full details of those exchanges have not been shared with the public, let alone me. Still, none of this ambiguity suggests animus, let alone bigotry, and most certainly none on the Monsignor's part. On the contrary, it paints a plain picture of ordinary church politics common, I would think, to most denominations.

However, it is also true that only sincere (or apparently sincere) Catholics are entitled to be members of the parish. As far as I know, non-Catholics may not join and purely tactical conversions are summarily rejected. Thus, while the parish has long performed a truly public service in exercising a benign monopoly on youth basketball activities hereabouts, it now erects an explicitly religious barrier to full participation in this public, decidedly non-religious activity. Legal procedural, and public policy arguments to the side, this situation leaves intact the youthful perception that Catholics are preferred to our Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Seven Day Adventist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and unaffiliated basketballers.

To the extent that any of our children will be guided by the best teaching of their religions or maintain a gracious respect for best intentions of religions not their own, they will not be shaped by congregational politics, which are profane.

Instead, they will be more fascinated by the complex challenge of right and wrong, which is not profane. Injustice to the innocent parties - those athletes disrespected as well as those excluded - is the only aspect of this situation, which they judge, worth considering. They see no mitigation to the violation of justice. For this reason, I take the whole dust-up just a little more seriously than I did before. It now seems to me quite likely that:

Those excluded by the Monsignor's policy may find themselves tempted to the defensive. Those not included but outraged may emerge with visceral understanding of a painful historical lesson - against the invested authority the beatitudes stand a small chance. And those rewarded by this decision may find a new awareness of where real virtue lies.

While all of these discoveries may be inevitable, I expect that the timing could be a good deal better.

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