Catholic school wars (yet) again: Can teachers take public actions that defy church doctrines?

What we have here is another one of those stories that your GetReligionistas have written about so many times that we have crossed over into a state of frustration.

Can you say “doctrinal covenant”?

At this point, it’s clear that many newsroom managers just can’t handle the fact that the Catholic Church is not (in many zip codes) a liberal democracy, which means that many Catholic bishops still think their schools should defend the contents of the Catholic catechism. OK, maybe the issue is whether people in Catholic schools get to attack the faith in symbolic ways in public.

Once again, no one thinks that journalists have to endorse the doctrines of the Church of Rome. The question is whether reporters and editors know enough about the contents of these doctrines, traditions and canon laws to cover them accurately. At a bare minimum, journalists need to know that there are experts and activists on both sides of these debates, but that — in the vast majority of cases — local bishops, representing the Vatican, are the “prevailing legal authorities.”

So here we go again. Let’s turn to USA Today, for a rather one-sided story about this latest conflict: “Cathedral High School terminates gay teacher to stay in Indianapolis Archdiocese.” As you will see, this story is Act II in a larger local drama:

Just days after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis cut ties with one Catholic high school over its decision to continue to employee a gay teacher, another school is firing one of its educators to avoid the same fate.

Cathedral High School, located on the northeast side of Indianapolis, announced Sunday it is terminating a gay teacher in order to avoid a split with the archdiocese, which stripped Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of its Catholic identity last week.

Brebeuf refused to fire its educator, who is in a public same-sex marriage.

Cathedral's board Chairman Matt Cohoat and President Rob Bridges posted a letter on the school's website announcing the decision to "separate" from a teacher in a public same-sex marriage. The letter is addressed to the "Cathedral family."

The archdiocese made it clear, the letter said, that keeping the teacher employed “would result in forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage.”

OK, let’s unpack this oh-so-typical conflict — yet again.

First, a bit of academic complexity: It appears that Catholic leaders, rather than taking quick steps to fire the offending teacher, discussed the situation for two years — until this person’s contract was up. At that point, school leaders opted not to offer a new contract.

Second, note that the issue here — attention headline writers — is not whether the teacher is gay. The problem was the teacher’s same-sex marriage, a legal action taken in direct opposition to church teachings.

Third, if journalists want to cut to the heart of this matter, they must ask if individual teachers — Catholics or non-Catholics — were asked to SIGN a document requiring them to affirm, or at least not attack, the teachings of the Catholic church.

When interviewing the teacher in question, ask this: Did you sign a contract to teach at this school? Did that contract include clear language asking you to do such and such?

You can see where this piece of factual information leads. If teachers signed such a document, then they are fighting against a document that they voluntarily signed (since religious private schools are voluntary, doctrinally defined institutions). If the teacher was NOT asked to sign a doctrinal-lifestyle covenant, then journalists get to ask school leaders why this kind of document does not exist. How was the teacher informed about the specifics of this job requirement?

Either way, this is crucial, factual information at the heart of this kind of story.

Now, let’s move on to another complex and interesting issue: Are progressive Jesuits still, doctrinally speaking, Catholics? OK, that was snarky. Here’s a more accurate way of stating the issue in canon law: Are Jesuit educators ultimately under the authority of the local bishop or the leaders of their order?

Back to this USA Today story:

The relationship between the two schools and the archdiocese is different, though. Brebeuf is sponsored by the Midwest Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests, and receives no financial support from the archdiocese.

Cathedral is affiliated with The Brothers of the Holy Cross, but relies more heavily on the archdiocese. According to the letter, the school would lose its ability to offer sacrament and could not continue to have diocesan priests serve in the school.

So what should editors do, if the goal is to produce accurate, fair-minded coverage on this issue?

For starters, they need to know that these fights have been raging for decades, pitting progressive Catholic educators against pro-Catechism Catholics. It would help if reporters did some homework by reading "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)” — that’s the urgent 1990 encyclical by Pope John Paul II on reforming Catholic education. For St. John Paul II, “reform” meant asking schools to defend the basics of the Catholic faith, in words and deeds.

Journalists also need to familiarize themselves with this U.S. Supreme Court case — Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. The key: Private religious schools and institutions have the right to take doctrinal issues into account when hiring and firing teachers and staffers.

Why? Because the professionals in these academic communities are “ministers,” in that their lives and work are linked to the doctrines affirmed in their job descriptions, contracts and/or covenants.

It’s important that reporters — the USA Today story is only one example — frequently mention this “minister” status, without explaining the Supreme Court context. This “minister” status, obviously, doesn’t mean that all teachers, staffers, etc., are ordained.

Here is a piece of a National Catholic Register story about the Indianapolis case that puts this information into context. This story is about the Jesuit school conflict that preceded the cathedral school case:

While the Code of Canon Law establishes that religious orders, like the Jesuits, “retain their autonomy in the internal management of their schools,” it also says that the diocesan bishop has “the right to issue directives concerning the general regulation of Catholic schools” including those administered by religious orders.

Canon law also says that the diocesan bishop “is to be careful that those who are appointed as teachers of religion in schools, even non-Catholic ones, are outstanding in true doctrine, in the witness of their Christian life, and in their teaching ability.” …

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis policy, which says that all school teachers and administrators have a responsibility to teach the Catholic faith, is a common interpretation of those norms in U.S. Catholic dioceses.

The archdiocesan June 20 statement notes that the archdiocese “recognizes all teachers, guidance counselors and administrators as ministers.” The 2012 Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC Supreme Court decision established that religious institutions are free to require those it recognizes as ministers to uphold religious teachings as a condition of employment.

In conclusion, here is another resource for reporters seeking input from the pro-Catechism side of this story — a weblog operated by canon lawyer Edward Peters. It helps that he almost always provides direct online links to church laws and documents that are being cited in public debates.

In this case, Peters is discussing statements by Father Brian G. Paulson, provincial for the Jesuit order in this region:

… Paulson regards this matter as essentially turning on the unfortunate fact that “at times some people who are associated with our mission make personal moral decisions at variance with Church doctrine”. What balderdash. Everybody associated with the mission of the Church at times makes “moral decisions at variance with Church doctrine”. It’s called sin, and the response to others’ sin is, as Paulson notes, “to help them grow in holiness”. But the BJPS matter goes far beyond a ‘personal moral decision at variance with Church doctrine’. Here the Jesuits are, among other things, defending a teacher’s public act of defiance against fundamental Church teaching on the nature of marriage, an act taken in the face of the entire faith community and especially before its young boys and their families seeking to receive a Catholic education in word and deed. That is not just personal sin, that is classical scandal (CCC 2284), itself always a grave offense against the common good, and an even graver one when it is perpetrated before youth (CCC 2285).

Stay tuned. Something tells me — #ALAS — that we will be writing about these issues again and again.

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