Do Catholic-school covenants matter?

Anyone who has been paying attention in recent decades knows that large segments of American Catholic culture -- especially in academia -- operate with a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy when to comes to a variety of doctrinal and social issues. This is the reality, for example, that shaped the fierce debates about the late Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Consitiution Ex Corde Ecclesia, addressing issues linked to Catholic education. So it isn't news that there are plenty of Catholic teachers who are not true believers or even believers when it comes to important chunks of the Catholic faith.

However, an increasing number of Catholic institutions have begun requiring their employees to sign covenants in which they vow not to openly oppose church teachings. In effect, these covenants spotlight the fact that private schools and other church institutions are, in fact, private associations. Membership is voluntary and, to be blunt, no one has to teach at a Catholic (or Mormon, or Muslim, or Episcopal, or Baptist, or Unitarian) school. People choose to do so.

This brings us to a Religion News Service story that represents another symbolic front in the culture wars battles inside American Catholicism. Here's the opening of the report:

NORMANDY, Mo. -- A popular music teacher at a Catholic Church was fired after church officials learned that he planned to marry his male partner of 20 years in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal.

The teacher, Al Fischer, confirmed that he was fired Feb. 17 from his job of four years at St. Ann Catholic School. When asked to comment on his firing, Fischer declined and referred to a letter emailed to his students’ parents shortly after his termination.

In the letter, Fischer tells parents of “my joyful news, and my sad news” -- the former being his plans to marry his longtime partner in New York City, and the latter, “that I can’t be your music teacher anymore.” Fischer’s partner, Charlie Robin, told the Post-Dispatch that the couple’s relationship was not a secret at St. Ann, and that Fischer was fired after a representative of the St. Louis Archdiocese overheard him talking to co-workers about his wedding plans.

No surprises, so far. The crucial information arrives a few paragraphs later:

Asked about the Archdiocese’s role in the firing, a spokeswoman replied in an email that the Archdiocese “fully supports the action taken at St. Ann Parish School as it is in full compliance with the Christian Witness Statement signed by every educator in the Catholic school system.”

The Christian Witness Statement, which educators sign when applying for work in the archdiocese, says all who serve in Catholic education should, among other requirements, “not take a public position contrary to the Catholic Church” and “demonstrate a public life consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.” ...

The Roman Catholic Church does not condemn homosexuals who remain “chaste,” but it takes a strong stance against same-sex marriage and homosexual acts.

Robin confirmed that his partner had signed a witness statement.

The key to the story is that Fischer and Robin insist that they were open about their relationship with SCHOOL OFFICIALS, but not with archdiocesan officials. This underlines the actual news story here -- which is not really about gay marriage.

The key is the existence of these two separate cultures, the academic culture and the church culture. This trend is highly relevant, for example, in coverage of the disputes about the Catholic schools that fiercely oppose the new Health and Human Services regulations and the Catholic schools that do not.

Thus, one academic culture cares that Fischer signed the Christian Witness Statement and the other does not. The teacher thought he was "out" at one level of church life, but not at another. Then the two Catholicisms clashed. That's the real story here.

Meanwhile, religion-beat veteran Tim Townsend added the following practical, and sobering, note to the Post-Dispatch coverage, in one of his "Keep the Faith" columns:

The church believes that if it allows the people who work for it to behave in a way that's contrary to church teaching, that behavior could be emulated by other Catholics. The perils are great for both sides.

Large institutions that hope to attract talented employees -- Catholic hospitals that want to hire the best nurses, for instance -- may see an economic benefit to being less demanding about the behavior of their employees. But at what cost to the consistency of their mission?

Those whose lives don't conform to the deeply held and First Amendment-protected beliefs of the religious institutions they work for can't be surprised when that institution lets them go for publicly flouting those beliefs.

Do Catholic institutions actually want to defend the Catholic faith? That's a story. The fact that this particular teacher signed a doctrinal covenant, and then was fired for not honoring his vow, is the news hook -- but not the heart of the conflict.

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