Catholic teachers, Catholic unbelievers?

The other day we had a lively comments-page discussion of whether it is acceptable for Catholic schools to ask the parents of students to either affirm or, harder yet, live by the central teachings of the Catholic faith. It's hard to enforce that kind of doctrinal idealism in a pluralistic age. It is also hard in an age when Catholic birthrates in North America are roughly the same as those found in oldline Protestant churches, which means that many or most Catholic schools need to enroll plenty of non-Catholic students in order to pay their bills. Many the leaders of many Catholic schools also believe that they need to hire non-Catholic teachers, too.

So here is the question of the day: Is there anything wrong with atheists teaching in Catholic schools? Can Catholic schools fire employees who affirm atheistic beliefs in an online forum or some other public place?

No, I am not making that up. Check out the top of this Desmoines Register report:

A Catholic-school teacher from Fort Dodge has been fired because of a Facebook survey in which she said she did not believe in God.

Abby Nurre, 27, was hired last summer as an eighth- grade math teacher at St. Edmond Catholic School. In August, she responded to a Facebook members' poll in which she was asked whether she believed in God, miracles or heaven. In response, Nurre answered, "No." Her answers then became part of her Facebook autobiography page, which was accessible only to her designated "friends." ...

Five weeks later, she was called to the office of Monsignor Kevin McCoy and handed a letter informing her that she was suspended for making "atheist statements in a public forum." McCoy barred Nurre from school grounds. A few days later, without discussing the matter with Nurre, the school's board of directors fired her for violating a policy that prohibits employees from advocating "principles contrary to the dogmatic and moral teaching of the church."

Now, I assume that this policy statement was (a) in public documents that Nurre reviewed as a condition of her employment and (b) that she signed them as a sign of her intent to live by them. This was a covenant, so to speak, that made her part of a voluntary association. No one forced her to take the job.

But what if she never saw a copy of this policy or had it explained to her in a meaningful way? What if she was not asked to sign it? Then that's really interesting and, yes, a hot story.

Nurre argued that her affirmation of atheism didn't mean that she was endorsing atheism and said that she was simply using atheistic sites as a form of "personal education." Or something like that. She had not intended for students to access her Facebook page (an amazing statement, in and of itself).

The teacher argued this was a free-speech issue, in other words. The story then offers a fascinating piece of dialogue from this discussion of her case:

"I believe in knowledge," she testified. "I believe in communicating with other people of different beliefs. I believe in being an open person. That, to me, is not immoral." ...

On cross-examination, Paul Jahnke of the Iowa Catholic Conference pressed Nurre on her religious beliefs.

"Do you deny that you are an atheist?" he asked.

Nurre testified, "I am not an atheist."

Jahnke asked Nurre why she responded to the Facebook survey by saying she didn't believe in God.

Nurre replied, "I feel that opinions on such things constantly change."

So, you ask, is this really a problem? Is this a news story elsewhere? And what happens if Catholic schools hire unbelievers who manage to keep their true feelings to themselves?

That questions leads us to another fascinating story, this time from The Globe and Mail. This is the story that, I think, should make the wheels start turning inside the heads of mainstream reporters and editors in urban areas that have giant Catholic school systems, especially during these hard economic times.

Here's how the report opens:

Unemployed, non-religious educators are turning to Catholicism in an attempt to secure a coveted teaching position, even it means lying in confession about whether they've had pre-marital sex, some have revealed.

"I don't particularly like going (to mass) every Sunday, but if this is what I have to do, then I'll do it," said a Toronto-area woman, who didn't want to be identified. "I just really want to be in a career. I just want it so badly."

The teacher said she has also been going to confession regularly and speaking with a priest on a weekly basis in order to receive the documents she needs to apply to the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

She is not Catholic. In fact, she doesn't consider herself religious.

As the story notes, there were 12,000-plus new teachers in the province in 2009 and only 5,000 open jobs. That means there are plenty of teachers out there who are highly motivated to take the plunge into religious schools.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Catholic District School Board requires that all teachers, and other employees who work directly with children, be Catholics. Yes, some in modern Canada now argue that this doctrinal policy is discriminatory.

Ah, but is it acceptable for teachers to tell lies in order to land these jobs? Is it acceptable for these adults to read up on the faith a bit, take the right vows to join the church and then take part in the Catholic sacraments, with their fingers -- metaphorically speaking -- crossed behind their backs?

The anonymous teacher puts it this way:

During her first confession, she crept into a dark confessional box and tried to spout out nearly 30 years of sin, but the priest startled her with one question: Had she engaged in pre-marital sex?

"That was one of the things he mentioned at the end. I said no," said the teacher, who admitted she felt guilty for lying to a priest. "I haven't gone for my, um, what do you call it the bread thing yet. ... Communion. I'm nervous about it," she added.

Church leaders said they attempt to vet teachers to see if they are active in the faith. But how would they know what is happening inside the mind and heart of an unbeliever who urgently needs a job?

Here is the main question: How can journalists cover this story, in a fair and responsible manner? For obvious reasons, the voices of anonymous teachers would be crucial. But how much weight can be placed on their testimonies?

Fascinating stories. Fascinating issues for journalists to consider. Catholic bishops might be interested, too.

Please respect our Commenting Policy