Negotiating Modernity with the Catholic Church (NDB, LGBT and My Sister)

DCIM120GOPROThis morning I was deeply saddened by a poorly written article I read on my newsfeed regarding my alma mater, Notre Dame Belmont High School (not Notre Dame Namur despite what it says), and a particularly inspiring guest speaker, Gregg Cassin (I refuse to write the publication or author, who obviously wasn’t man enough to leave his name in the byline, as they deserve no such recognition whatsoever). As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, I was raised Catholic, attended Catholic schooling until I left Villanova University after my freshman year of college, and still identify, somewhat as a Catholic. However, personally, my idea of being Catholic probably varies from others’. I do not believe in the Catholic Church as an institution and hierarchy, but I do believe in Catholicism as a spirituality. DISCLAIMER: ITS ABOUT TO GET PREACH-Y UP IN HERE.

My high school years at Notre Dame Belmont were integral to my understanding of myself and the world around me (probably more so than my college years, I must say). Spending four years in an all girls, Catholic environment can either ground you incredibly, turn you crazy, or both (the latter happened to me, obviously). What made Notre Dame Belmont unique is that their understanding of Catholicism was a lot more lax than many other Catholic institutions. Sure, we had nuns all over campus, had to attend religious classes, celebrated St. Julie Day (not to be confused with a hippie festival as sunflowers were everywhere), and went to Mass on occasions, however the religious culture was much more holistic versus rigid.

Granted, an environment of all-girls in their late teens likely would foster hyper-sexuality, especially when our “brother” all-boys school across town had alumnae names like Barry Bonds and Tom Brady (read: jock school). Notre Dame took note and whipped out sex education like it was nobody’s parochial business. And we were all better for it. They were sure to teach “abstinence plus,” which included cringe-worthy handouts like 101 Things To Do Besides Having Sex (“cut each others’ toenails”, “take a nap” and “surf the Internet” are of the winners), accompanied by equally cringe-worthy female anatomy and reproductive lessons. But like I said, we were all better for it.


Also contrary to Catholic teachings, Notre Dame also raised awareness about the LGBT community. In fact, every year Gregg Cassin (who was discussed in aforementioned article) would come in and talk to the girls about accepting and loving yourself as you are. These talks and retreats with Cassin were spectacularly insightful, heartwarming and integral to the development of everyone of my peers’ identities. Underlying Cassin’s talks was the message that we all were beautiful, no matter what (this, is, however a message forced upon you as soon as you enter NDB, because it’s true, and because that’s the kind of environment Notre Dame fosters, and who is to complain really). Gregg Cassin is an absolute visionary, HIV survivor and LGBT activist, and as a community we were extremely lucky to have his continued presence year after year, but also blessed that NDB fostered such a fantastic relationship with him. Notre Dame was a place where self-confidence thrived and blossomed (yeah, I just used blossomed… sue me). Every girl can attribute a fraction, if not a majority of their confidence and charisma to NDB, I’m sure.

When I was a sophomore in college, I received an email from my sister asking me to review and edit her college essays (she’s two years younger than me, thus, was in her senior year at NDB). Why Alex would want me to read her college essays was unbeknownst to me. First reason being my parents had hired a college admissions counselor for her, so why she would want her typo-ridden sister to read, let alone EDIT her essay was mind-boggling. Secondly, Alex was the perfect college candidate: Her SAT/ACT scores alone could get her in anywhere. Add in her extracurriculars (basically every high school sport offered), class president, and her role in ASB during her senior year, she was the ideal college candidate… and the golden child. I, on the other hand, had less impressive credentials in high school (and probably in life in general)… but that’s besides the fact.

The reason why Alex wanted me to read her essays before she let my parents read and edit them was because

she had written about what it was like to be gay and Catholic, and her journey to self-acceptance.

This was how Alex had come out to me and my parents. I was overjoyed and so proud of her for being able to share this with me. However, I also realized how her Catholic identity came into stark contrast with who she innately was. For Christssakes, Alex was a Catholic nerd: for a quiz group/Academic Decathalon she specialized in the Gospel of St. Mark, and in middle school she regularly read books about various saints… again, my Catholic credentials were not as impressive. To know my sisters’ commitment to being Catholic and understand her inner conflict with who she was made me realize that it was difficult for her to accept herself as is, especially when the Catholic Church broadcasts the message that being gay is not widely accepted within the Church.

“I would say that a big obstacle to my own coming out was being Catholic and knowing that in the Church’s eyes, I was somehow less than ideal. But on the other hand, going to NDB taught me that there are some things that transcend the doctrine of the Church, like being reasonable human beings and putting love and acceptance first. Notre Dame played a huge role in helping me accept myself, and reconcile being gay and Catholic. There’s still a lot that I don’t agree with regarding the Church; but I do know that if more Catholics learned to think and accept as NDB taught us to, we’d all be better off”

Alex Tabing

I’ve been extremely grateful for the nurturing, accepting and all-inclusive environment that I found at Notre Dame. Not only because it has shaped me into the woman I am, but also because it has allowed others, especially my sister, to love themselves and accept the person they are, period. Even faculty, staff and teachers liberally believed the Church was behind on the times in terms of acceptance. It deeply saddens me when right-wing Catholics cannot see that the doctrine does not make up the Church; rather, that the diverse peoples ARE the Church.

Tell me about it, Pope.

The aforementioned article calls upon people to contact NDB, archdiocese, and local Catholic elementary school faculty because they “may be unaware of the catastrophic state of religious education in Archdiocesan high schools, and they are the persons with the greatest ability to effect change, by their willingness to steer students towards or away from prospective high schools”.

What is sickening is that the only “catastrophic state of religious education” is the fact that some believe an outdated doctrine holds more importance and comes before acceptance, respect and love. It’s as simple as that. As times are changing and communities are becoming less homogenized and more diverse, so too must institutions like the Catholic Church change in order to remain relevant in peoples’ daily lives. Notre Dame clearly understands how to negotiate dated beliefs with this need to modernize the Church, and for that we are thankful.




Add yours →

  1. Fantastic piece.

  2. Sing it, sister! The NDB community is strong because of the love and acceptance the school fosters. No hyper-religious bully is going to win out over love.

  3. My favorite piece by far Maddy.

  4. Amazing article Maddy! I love reading all of them, but this one was just perfect!

  5. Rosemary Boardman April 18, 2014 — 09:56

    Thanks Maddy for expressing so eloquently what so many alums feel about NDB and the accepting and open community created there. And to Alex for her openness that set an example for others to be able to share their truth in a safe and trusting environment.

  6. You have so eloquently stated how so many of us alums feel about this issue. Thank you for your honest and true portrayal of NDB. I am so proud of you and your sister, you have learned your lessons well.

  7. Thank you for this piece. I admit I don’t think much about the ‘NDB community,’ much, but it saddens me to think that those outside it would attack Gregg, and by extension, us, without recognizing the wonderful influence he and his message had on us as teenagers. Teenage girlhood is rough. There are not so many adults who can reconcile growing up, faith, and self-acceptance as Gregg does–and share that message in a way that resonates with teenage girls. I can’t stand that people would use faith to justify depriving girls of some of the most compassionate and accepting wisdom they’ll get to hear in high school. -NDB class of 96

  8. The Tabing Sisters are everything.

  9. Stephany Swenson April 29, 2014 — 20:41


  10. This is so wonderful!! I came across this article because my youngest sister is attending NDB now (also my alma mater) and was telling about the controversy. The quotes from your sister’s essay brought tears to my eyes. I have so much gratitude for NDB for teaching all of us to be “reasonable human beings” who “put love and acceptance first.

  11. Ms. Annemarie April 29, 2014 — 22:47

    I can attest to the fact that while I was a teacher at NDB, faculty and students alike looked forward to Gregg’s visits because we all left on such a realistic high after hearing him speak. Compassion and affirmation of one’s self are extremely difficult to teach someone, but both come out of every pore of this man’s body. I also had the honor of teaching his daughter, who also has a loving and accepting heart. Gregg touched the lives of both faculty and students with his gentleness and accepting ways…his hugs held a message of acceptance and gratitude for all God has given him. Thank you for your blog. Former NDB teacher

  12. Maddy, what a beautifully written blog! As a childhood Southern Baptist, converted Catholic after I left Arkansas, I shared this on my FB page because I believe that you have nailed it perfectly for not only Catholics but for all religion. You and your sisters of NDB seem to have a better understanding of God’s love, Christ’s compassion and that life is about an open mind and open heart, than most of this country’s/worlds “professional” preachers. Wishing you well beautiful! God bless;) Thank you for your blog. Hello to your family from the Sievers;)

  13. Lisa (Hambrick) Fryer April 30, 2014 — 22:02

    Wow – that brought tears to my eyes! I graduated from NDB in ’86, long before Gregg Cassin started working with NDB, but I had heard of him and was so thrilled that NDB invited him into their community and gave the students the opportunity to hear his message. Your article was spot on and I am so glad to have found it. I am proud to have you as a fellow alumni!

  14. Fantastic article that everyone should read. Your parents I’m sure are over-the-moon proud of you and your sister, and well they should be.

  15. Dear Kick my Sass: This guy had a 20-year run. He’ll be back next year. Let someone speak who knows where life’s landmines are. As for “equality,” how about NDB letting some Republicans address students? That would be true diversity in the Bay area.

    • Hi Jim-

      First of all, let me politely correct you, it’s *Kiss, not Kick My Sass. This “guy” is fantastic. And yes, he will be back next year at NDB, I’m sure. Gregg is the perfect speaker because he has gone through so much loss, discrimination, and general struggle throughout his early life that I think that that would constitute as “life’s landmines”. Jim, I suggest you do your homework before brushing someone off like that. Especially because NDB has allowed many Republicans to address students, as well as Democrats. In fact, NDB (at least when I was a student there) has allowed all parts of the political, social, economic spectrum to have representation. Your completely correct… it IS, indeed, true diversity in the Bay Area.

      Please let me know if you have further questions or grievances. Feel free to comment here or email directly. Would love to chat.


      • I like “kick” better. Good play on words.A pun is fun. I never intended to “brush” him off, but as for landmines he stepped on a few. Regarding diversity: please give me the names of any speaker on the other end of the political “spectrum” who has addressed NDB students for 20 years.

    • Jim, I am sure if you contacted the school, they would be happy to give you a list of the speakers. I am sure that along with your questions on their qualifications of life’s “land mines” you could ask them their political agenda. I am curious though, as a Republican myself, what does being a Republican have to do with any of this? And do tell, what is it exactly that you do? Are you a parent? Just curious;)

      • I don’t think I should have to call the school. That is the job of the reporter, or the one making the claim of diversity. The truth is the sum of the facts, not some of the facts. As for Republicans, I view them as on the opposite end of “sass’s” spectrum. What do I do? I am a retired wire service reporter. I spent 40 years in the belly of the beast, a span split between UPI and AP. I didn’t like some of the things I saw and retired as soon as I could. Then I wrote a book, “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News – to a Killer.” My byline was James O. Clifford. Yes, I am a parent, 7 times. Married to the same wonderful woman since 1962. Any other questions?

  16. Lynn Pereira-Felise May 7, 2014 — 22:54

    Dear Ms . M,
    How proud I am that you can write so clearly the thoughts and feelings of others on this issue. If anything it has people talking and wondering and hopefully planning how we all can “speak up” and do something about how important acceptance is in the Church on many levels in this day and age.
    I’m proud to be a NBD alum. Soooooo proud of you and Alex! And proud to be a modern Catholic woman.
    Love you lots!!!

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