Margie Winters: The Making of A Rebel

When I first read the story of how Waldron Mercy fired Margie Winters, a lesbian married to another woman, from her post as head of religious education, I argued that she’d been treated shabbily, and not in accordance with the best of Catholic teaching. Even so, only half aware of doing so, I formed a mental picture of her as vivid as it was unflattering.

In my mind, Winters had eyes that sent all comers straight to the paredón. Her mouth was either twisted into a sneer at bourgeois morality, or wide open, as she swore to drive the bishops into the sea. In her fist, she brandished – something. A bullhorn? A Georgia O’Keeffe painting? An axe to grind?

Actually, my mind never quite resolved that detail, but you have the general idea.

Imagine my surprise at reading Lizzie Crocker’s Daily Beast profile, where she describes Winters as “warm and engaging, empathetic and even-tempered, with a gentle sense of humor and a patient attitude toward problem-solving.” Winters and Andrea Vettori, the woman she married, even share a house surrounded by – wait for it – a white picket fence.

If Crocker has done her job, then Winters’ story is the story of someone who had no interest in becoming a divisive figure, much less a rebel or a revolutionary. It is the story of someone whose immersion in and commitment to Catholicism long predates her sense of herself as a sexual being, and who succeeded in harmonizing the two, to her own satisfaction, only after a great deal of thought. If the direction of that thought was not orthodox, it seems, at any rate, to have been undertaken with care.

When Winters first discovered, as a university student, that she was a lesbian, she considered it “a quiet piece of my identity.” Her priority was testing her vocation to religious life, which she did by living in community with the Sisters of Mercy. There, she and Vettori met and began a “non-Platonic” relationship, but decided “to go through the discernment process separately before committing to each other.”

Initially, upon going to work for Waldron, Winters, though newly married to Vettori, was happy to adopt a non-confrontational stance toward conservative parents. What Lizzie Crocker calls her “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy held for seven years, unraveling only after Winters clashed with a parent over the sex-ed curriculum. (I have been unable to dig up any details of that curriculum, although Winters told The Daily Beast that she had rejected changes proposed by the parent, implying that her own curriculum was acceptable to administrators.)

What happened next, in the words of NewsWorks, was “murky.” Winters claims the parent divulged her personal life in a letter that eventually found its way to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which ordered principal Nell Stetser to dismiss her. While denying that he had ordered Winters’ dismissal himself, Archbishop Charles Chaput has stated he “fully supports” it.

Then – and only then – did Winters take to the barricades, which is where she now stands. Earlier this week, she and some of her supporters appeared at the chancery to submit a petition, bearing 22,000 signatures, calling for “a moratorium on the firing of LGBT employees.”

In this pundit’s opinion, Chaput would be very short-sighted not to accept that petition.

One defining feature of this age is a profound mistrust for vested and credentialed authority. If Tea Partiers, Occupiers and snarky Gawker bloggers can agree on anything, it’s that the people who make up the establishment – political, financial or cultural — are incompetent and self-interested. If they can agree on anything else, it’s that they, the people – or at any rate, the people who shout loudest and boldest – are absolutely right, or, if they’re not, that a sort of general will, expressed through the Internet, will cast them back down in good time. Virtual reality visionary Jaron Lanier has dubbed this phenomenon“digital Maoism.” Though its real-time counterpart hasn’t quite emerged, the very idea of it should scare the living hell out of any thinking person.

The Church hasn’t been visited by either version yet, and good thing, too. If the Church is not a democracy, it mustn’t turn into an ochlocracy.

The Church has succeeded in holding its ground against popular passions for several reasons. One is simply tradition, including the Code of Canon Law. There’s only so much a disaffected Catholic can do or say without incurring a stiff and binding penalty. But another reason is Pope Francis. Much as his constant chatter gets on my nerves sometimes, it does have the effect of putting the Church leadership at the head of the so-called conversation. His style, both jaunty and commanding, animates the idea that authority ain’t all bad. If he doesn’t make anyone docile, he does keep people tuned in, which is pretty remarkable in its own right.

And yet the situation remains potentially volatile. The general pull away from the center is very strong. We have charismatic media personalities (no names need be named here) acting as substitute magisteriums. To boot, we’ve got some of our brightest minds thinking aloud in terms of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which seems, at least in this embryonic stage, to differ from established lay ecclesial movements in not anticipating much hierarchical oversight.

Last spring in National Catholic Reporter, Patrick Reardon imagined a Chicago parish in 2063. Priests and bishops have been reduced to functionaries; executive power in each diocese, as well as in each parish, is vested in a chancellor, which Reardon describes as a CEO, and “who, except in rare cases, is a woman.”

It’s good that creative energies have been engaged; for the Church hierarchs to suppress them completely would be a terrible waste. But someone has to ride herd. To do that, bishops must establish — or re-establish — their credibility. Chaput couldn’t transform himself into a carbon copy of Francis any more than I could – and he shouldn’t have to. But, simply by agreeing to the proposed moratorium, he could effectively establish himself as a benevolent leader.

As I argued earlier, keeping sexually active gays and lesbians – and, for that matter, other species of manifest sinner – on diocesan payrolls might be a sacrifice. But, by making it clear that he was acting in deference to Church teachings on the importance of work to the human person, not from any ambivalence toward Church teachings on gay marriage, Chaput could ensure the sacrifice was strategic. He would be accommodating rather than capitulating, awarding something as a gift before anyone started demanding it as an entitlement.

He may not get another chance. Margie Winters is 50 years old. Younger people, more certain of the rightness of their sexuality than about anything the Church teaches, might not approach him, or his successors, so politely. It’s better to accept an Olive Branch Petition now than be forced into a Phrygian cap later.

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