Catholic teacher in Ocala, Florida faces termination over presentation about Islam

Mark Smythe, who teaches at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Ocala, Florida, faces termination due to having students read quotes from St. John Bosco, unless he signs a letter of reprimand.

Screenshot (left) of April 19th Huffington Post article and screenshot (right) of Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Ocala, Florida [Google Maps]

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.”

The tempest

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.”

Fr. Straviskas pointed out that from an historical point of view, “nothing in Don Bosco’s presentation is inaccurate; in fact, every serious historian presents the same data.” The weight of “scholarly” analysis down the ages converges in agreement about the nature of Islam as described by St. John Bosco and presented to Smythe’s students. The divisiontoday isn’t about the teachings of the saints and scholars. It is about the best diplomatic strategy for Christianity’s engagement with Islam.

As for good judgment in presenting Don Bosco to sixth graders, Fr. Stravinskas believes that “given the highly charged environment in which we all now live and work, I think [Mr. Smythe’s] decision lacked a degree of prudence, especially given the grade-level of the students. If I understand the situation accurately, the principal discussed the problem with the teacher and counseled him toward greater caution in the future. That was the right thing to do, in my judgment. And that’s where it should have been left.”

“To have the diocesan school office intervene,” he notes, “is a big over-reach. After all, canonically speaking, a diocesan superintendent has no real authority over a parish school; the pastor is the superintendent!”

By all reports, Mr. Smythe is a well-liked and respected teacher who is popular with students and parents. Many parents have come to his defense. One parent wrote to the principal, “I’m am disheartened this particular situation has garnered the attention that it has. I don’t feel it is an accurate reflection of the kind of love and heart Mr. Smythe pours into his students every day.”

The same parents also note that the principal’s assurance that safety of the children is his top priority is appreciated. The safety of students is a very present concern in the diocese where just a year ago 49 young people were slaughtered in nightclub by a man who dialed 911 to dedicate his assault to Allah. The ironic effect of the principal’s concern for student safety is how it underscores the writings of St. John Bosco on the violence done in the name of Islam and Allah.

The road ahead

The eventual fate of Mark Smythe may be a canary in the coal mine, an early-warning signal about the fragility of religious freedom in America. It’s hard not to have deep empathy for the dilemma that bishops face. Catholic shepherds are ordained to hand on the authentic faith to their flock. Today, as in past eras, they must also keep a prudential eye on the tensions caused when Muslim communities perceive “hate” wherever Christian teachings address Islamic beliefs.

Each bishop’s charge is made more difficult by media hostile to Christianity. The clerical sex-abuse scandal left American bishops acutely sensitive to how the media shapes public opinion about the Church. Additionally, there is a double bias at play when mass media softens news reports about violent acts committed by self-described Muslims who dedicate their crimes and acts of violence to Allah.

The article in the Huffington Post sharply illustrates the bias of mass media in this instance by turning a Catholic university against Catholics. The Huffngton Post quotes Jordan Duffner of Georgetown University’s “Bridge Initiative” whose mission includes working “to uncover the operational mechanisms of engineered Islamophobia; and to develop and disseminate alternative narratives that raise public awareness and enrich public discourse on this dangerous form of prejudice.” Duffner, according to the Post, observed that “it’s not uncommon… on some conservative websites to selectively cite centuries-old anti-Muslim texts written by Catholic scholars and saints.” The implication is the same misunderstanding that Ms. Flanigan accepts—that “centuries old” texts are somehow less “Catholic” than Nostra Aetate. If that were the case, the Gospels and the vast majority of Catholic teaching down the ages are suspect in terms of “current” Catholic thinking.

Equally disturbing, when applied to a real community incident, is the apparent intent of the Huffington Post to hide the true nature of their “Catholic” source. “The Huffington Postdoesn’t bother to tell you that the Bridge Initiative is a Saudi-funded endeavor to stigmatize and thereby shut down all critical speech about Islam, which would have the effect of enabling the global jihad to advance without a murmur of protest or resistance,” says Catholic scholar, Robert Spencer.

Spencer, author of numerous books on Islam, has been described by Church historian, Fr. C. John McCloskey, as a leading Catholic expert on Islam.

When asked to comment on the circumstances at Blessed Trinity School, where a Muslim parent of a former student took her grievance to the national media, Spencer noted that it isn’t unusual for Muslims to choose Catholic schools. They typically opt out of the religion classes, he said, but even in Muslim majority nations, such as Pakistan, Catholic education is valued for its quality.

Spencer also explained that skipping over local authority, including the principal and the pastor, and taking their complaint to national media is not uncommon for Muslims who employ this tactic as “part of a concerted effort to intimidate Americans into fearing to oppose or speak out against jihad terror. The ‘hate speech’ charge is a tool for the de facto imposition of Sharia blasphemy laws, which forbid criticism of Islam.” It is “a strategy that is encouraged by Islamic advocacy groups such as the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). They want the national publicity in order to give the impression that there is a wave of “hate speech” against Muslims, and to inhibit non-Muslims from speaking out against jihad terror or Sharia oppression.”

The difficulty for many American Muslims is the reality of a religiously plural society where our differences may be freely noted. And each subset within American society is free to pass on their history and faith to the next generation.

Clearly “Catholic thinking” on Islam comes to us over the long history of engagement. The Church’s most venerable minds have spoken wisely and plainly, not withholding the truth from the faithful. Since the founding of Islam, various Church Fathers have alerted Catholics to the challenge the religion represents. The first was St. John Damascene, a sixth century Syrian monk and scholar. In his book, The Fount of Knowledge, under the heading “Heresies”, he described Islam as the “forerunner of the antichrist” and Mohammed as a false prophet who “after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy.”

Sharp warnings regarding Islam continue down the centuries, forming a large body of history and thought about Christian-Islamic relations. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Doctors of the Church, used strong language in Summa Contra Gentiles when he wrote that Mohammed attracted “brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Muhammad forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms.” Aquinas warned, “truths that he taught he mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity.”

St. Alfonsus Ligouri, in his History of Heresies and Their Refutation, wrote: “The Mahometan paradise, however, is only fit for beasts…” Popes have also denounced Mohammed and Islam in what many today would deem “hurtful” language. Leo X, for instance, described Islam as “totally unyielding blindness.”

These warnings from the finest minds of the Church remind us that the weight of thirteen centuries of Catholic wisdom on Islam isn’t confined to an associate superintendent’s opinion on “current” Catholic teaching. Because Islam isn’t new, the witness of saints and popes down through the centuries needn’t be new, but stand as truth that contemporary Catholics, even sixth grade students, ought to know.

Across the city of Ocala, in a Muslim Center, students are also taught the tenets of the Prophet Mohammed. Muslim youth study the Qu’ran, including the shocking verses that justify death to “infidels.” There are verses that teach that Jews and Christians are accursed (Quran 9:30) and must be warred against and subjugated under the rule of Sharia (Quran 9:29). Catholics, however, are not reporting the lesson plans of Muslim teachers as “hate speech” in the Huffington Post.

About Mary Jo Anderson 20 Articles

Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN’s “Abundant Life,” and her monthly “Global Watch” radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.

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