Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second. This leads to a simple question: Are there other LGBTQ individuals — Catholics in particular — who teach in Catholic schools and work in other church institutions?”

The answer is: #DUH.

Are there different kinds of “gay Catholics” working in these institutions?

The answer: Of course there are. Have they all been fired because of their homosexual “orientation”? Of course not. Why is that?

The answer is blunt, but — in real life — quite complex. Based on decades of covering these stories, let me list a few types of “gay Catholics” I have encountered.

There are gay Catholics who:

* Are celibate and who agree with the church’s teachings on sexuality. They do not make a public issue of their same-sex orientation and have no trouble signing Catholic school/institutional contracts and covenants.

* Are celibate and openly discuss their same-sex orientation. They support the church’s teachings, but want to see open discussions of how the church relates to single adults of all kinds, including LGBTQ Catholics. They have no trouble signing Catholic contracts and covenants.

* Strive to live according to the church’s teachings, but struggle. These struggles are known by their spiritual fathers/Confessors (as are the sins and struggles of lots of other people). They do not publicly oppose the church’s teachings in any way.

* Are sexually active and they keep this a total secret from students, faculty, managers, etc. The key: Their managers do not know.

* Are sexually active, but do not make their beliefs and actions public. Their managers know this or suspect it — but do not care if this violates church teachings or they believe they can do nothing about it. There is no public scandal, you see.

* Are sexually active, but only hint — to selected students or colleagues, maybe — about their opposition, in word and deed, to church teachings. Their managers may hear about this, but do not care. Once again, there is no public scandal. Yet.

* Take stands that — to one degree or another — announce their opposition to church teachings and to the details of their contracts and/or covenants. These actions may be social-media posts about a same-sex union rite or holding a leadership position (listed on a website, perhaps) in an organization that opposes Catholic doctrines. Here is the key: Their managers (maybe even bishops) do not care and may privately share this opposition to key church teachings.

* Take public stands that announce their opposition to church teachings and to the details of their contracts and/or covenants. Once again, these actions may be social-media posts about same-sex union rites or they may hold a leadership position in an organization that opposes Catholic doctrines on sexuality. The key: They have one or more manager who does care about these actions and wants to take a stand to enforce church teachings.

I could go on and list several other options, but you get the point. This is a complex situation.

I would also like to stress that you could write a similar list about the beliefs and actions of heterosexual Catholics who work in these institutions and are single or married. Cohabitation? Clearly an issue. Premarital sex? Ditto. Adultery? Obviously. Why are some Catholic managers and activists so concerned about the sins and struggles of gay Catholics, but not those of straights? That’s a great question. There are valid news stories there.

Now, look back over my “gay Catholics” list and ask: Was Joshua Payne-Elliott fired for “being gay” or because of his “sexual orientation,” alone?

Yes, CNN was accurate when stating that this is why this particular man says that he was fired. That’s an accurate quote. But could the complexity of this situation have somehow been expressed in the headline and the overture to the story? Once again, read my final option in the list printed above. The CNN story does note this:

Cathedral High School fired the teacher in late June following 22 months of deliberation and after Archdiocese of Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson told the school it would forfeit its ability to be recognized or identified as a Catholic institution by the archdiocese.

The archbishop issued his ultimatum after a member of the Catholic community saw that the teacher had announced his marriage on social media and complained to the archdiocese, multiple sources told CNN.

Then there is this legal note:

… The Archdiocese of Indianapolis said it considers all teachers, school leaders and guidance counselors at its schools to be "ministers and witnesses of the faith, who are expected to uphold the teachings of the Church in their daily lives, both in and out of school."

The other crucial question, in Catholic canon law, concerns the degree to which a local bishop has authority over the teachers and leaders in his local schools and/or Catholic institutions.

My point, once again, is quite simple: There are plenty of gay Catholics who work in their church’s schools and institutions without creating a crisis of this kind. Why is that?

The essential journalism question: Is it simplistic to say that a teacher was fired for “being gay” or his/her “sexual orientation” when the facts of the situation are more complex than that? What wording would be more accurate, in terms of linking the job termination to the individual’s public actions that express opposition to church teachings?

Just asking. Again.

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