Lessons in Catholic Judgment: New York Times

“WOULD Pope Francis Sign the New Catholic Teacher Contract?” That’s the question spelled out on a dozen billboards that have gone up around Cincinnati over the last week or so.

And it’s an excellent one, because it flags the tension between what’s been said in Rome and what’s happening in Ohio, between a message of greater tolerance and the practice of the same old intolerance, between the direction in which the Catholic church needs to move and the matters of sexual morality on which it keeps getting stuck.

Those matters take center stage in an expanded employment contract that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is forcing on more than 2,000 teachers, some of whom are refusing to sign it. In what the document does and doesn’t spell out, it sends the tired message that virtue resides in whom you share your bed with and how you do or don’t procreate.

The more things change, the more they remain mired in libido and loins.

Teachers in Catholic schools have long been forced to accept a vague morals clause telling them that they shouldn’t contradict Catholic doctrine. But teachers in Catholic schools in the Cincinnati archdiocese are being given a longer, more explicit litany of words and deeds that could get them fired.

The new contract expressly forbids a “homosexual lifestyle” and any “public support” of one. But it says nothing about public support of the death penalty, something else that the church opposes.

The new contract specifically rules out any use or advocacy of abortion rights, surrogacy, even in vitro fertilization. But it doesn’t address possible advocacy of the sorts of bloody military engagements that the church often condemns.

The new contract forbids “living together outside marriage,” “sexual activity out of wedlock” and any public endorsement of either. But there’s no reference to concern for the downtrodden, to the spirit of giving, to charity. And while those are surely more difficult to monitor, aren’t they as essential to Catholic principles, and closer to the core of the faith?

The Cincinnati document could be a harbinger of similar ones around the country. Already, Catholic officials in Hawaii and in Oakland, Calif., have introduced new teacher contracts that reflect the same concerns or delve into the same specifics.

And these specifics contradict what Pope Francis said last year about the church’s undue attention to a handful of divisive social issues.

Remember: Faithful Catholicism has never been a condition of employment in most Catholic schools, which have Protestant teachers, Jewish teachers, teachers of no discernible religion. They know to be respectful. They know to be discreet. But they’re there to decipher the mysteries of algebra, to eradicate the evils of dangling prepositions. They’re not priests.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is blurring that distinction, labeling the new employment agreement a “teacher-minister contract.” The language is deliberate. Religious organizations can claim exemption from anti-discrimination statutes in the hiring and firing of ministers who are actual caretakers of the faith. Putting teachers in that category — lumping them together with clergy — is an end run around laws that govern other employers.

But if Catholic schools are allowed an exemption from public accountability, shouldn’t they be denied public money? In Ohio they receive a significant amount of it, in the form of school-choice vouchers that families can use for parochial education.

With the “teacher-minister” classification and the long list of forbidden behaviors, Catholic officials in Cincinnati are trying to insure themselves against lawsuits like one filed by an unmarried female teacher who was fired after she became pregnant by artificial insemination. (A jury awarded her $171,000.) They’re also rationalizing decisions like the dismissal last year ofMike Moroski, a dean who indicated support for same-sex marriage on his blog.

Over recent days I spoke with him and other former and current employees of Catholic schools in the Cincinnati area. They wondered why religion gets to trump free speech.

They also wondered about run-of-the-mill political activity: Can a teacher be canned for attending a rally for a candidate who’s pro-choice? The contract suggests so.

Does a Catholic-school teacher relinquish the basic privileges of citizenship? The contract raises the question.

And what constitutes “public support” of a Catholic no-no? If a teacher’s Facebook page includes photographs of her niece’s same-sex wedding, is that cause to be fired?

“THE previous contract was two pages,” Richard Hague, who has taught literature and writing for 45 years at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, said to me. “It was sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell.”

The new contract is six pages and offends him in its suggestion that he must, for example, not express support for gay people in his life. Before it was distributed, Hague, 66, planned to teach for another five years. Now he doesn’t, and explained in a letter to the archdiocese: “I simply cannot believe that Jesus would require me to condemn my friends.”

Hague, who described himself as “a recovering Catholic,” said that his objections were distilled by a priest who told him that the archdiocese was turning “matters of the confessional” into “matters of the firing line.”

Mindy Burger, 63, is also declining to sign the contract, which she called “really misogynistic.”

“If I’m a teacher in a Catholic school and I’m a man, who’s going to know if I’m having sex outside of marriage?” she noted. “But if I’m an unmarried woman and get pregnant, I’m fired.”

These next weeks will be the end of her 18 years as an art teacher at her Catholic elementary school. She attended that very school decades ago and reared her own children as Catholics, but she told me: “At this point, I don’t consider myself Catholic anymore.”

There are so many losers here: kids — many from the inner city — who depend on parochial schools that will now be drained of talent; younger teachers who can’t afford to quit and will carry an embittered attitude into their classrooms; Catholics everywhere, forced to wrestle anew with their church’s archaic fixations; church leaders, who have such a sad knack for driving people away. Isn’t that what Pope Francis was urging an end to?

“I don’t see much in the gospel about sexual stuff,” said Timothy Garry, a lawyer in the Cincinnati area who sent all three of his children to Catholic schools and is trying to persuade the Cincinnati archdiocese to adjust the new contract.

Burger told me: “With Francis, everyone feels so hopeful. That’s one of the ironies of this.”

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  1. Mary O Vallely says:

    I would hope that I would have had the courage NOT to sign this contract. Intimidation, fear, intolerance of difference, discrimination… what is teaching about if not helping to rid the world of such attitudes? God help us if teachers feel bullied or browbeaten into putting their signatures to this. (No, I haven’t actually seen the contract. This is just my gut reaction to this piece.)

  2. Teachers in a Catholic school ought to be striving to lead and live an upright, good lifestyle. If one is engaged in same-sex activity or relationships, that is not possible since one has given in to these things. One can only imagine the impact this would have on boys and girls. It would give great scandal and bad example to the young, impressionable people. It would do great harm to young people. If one is not married, one is called to celibate chastity, no matter what one’s attractions.

  3. Gene Carr says:

    American Public schools are fanatically ‘religion free’. Public school pupils are not allowed to bring Bibles or any religious books to school. They are not even allowed to pray. Any teacher who by word or example, sought to inject Christian or any other religious influence into the schools would face disciplinary procedures.
    If US public school teachers can be have a rigid secularism enforced upon them, then why cant Catholic schools enforce authentic Catholicism within their own ethos of faith and reason. And the old unjust canard that they receive public money just does not wash. There is no such thing as ‘public money’. It is all taxpayers money and Catholic citizens pay taxes like everyone else. It is also a very frightening principle that if any entity receives ‘public money’ the State is then entitled to impose an alien ethos on that entity.

  4. Con Devree says:

    “WOULD Pope Francis Sign the New Catholic Teacher Contract?” On the basis of her New York Times article Maureen Dowd would probably answer “Yes!”

    Does a Catholic-school teacher relinquish the basic privileges of citizenship? No, not in the United States at least. Unlike Ireland there is a broad variety of schools for teachers to apply to. As happens worldwide, Catholic Schools are victims of their own success. Many who don’t share Catholic culture apply and very often subsequently seek to change the Catholic principles that govern them. Catholics who don’t agree with Catholic doctrine shouldn’t apply. Religion does not “get to trump free speech.” Nor will “parochial schools … be drained of talent” as a result. Bruni seems to want Catholic schools to be shorn of their right to be Catholic.

    Virtue does reside to an extent “in whom you share your bed with and how you do or don’t procreate”, but not exclusively so. The obsession with sex he implies has much less to do with Church and more with culture which as we know the more it claims a liberal ethic the more it has to discuss it and justify it.

    Teachers are unlikely to participate in “death penalty activities” or “bloody military engagements.” Catholic schools naturally show “concern for the downtrodden, the spirit of giving to charity,” but allow teachers to do so in a manner of their own choosing, often outside of school.

    Irrespective of how “closer to the core of the faith” a Catholic principle may be, Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 25) states that “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” Frank Bruni seems to assume that all priests adhere to this!

    With respect to the “handful of divisive social issues” (contraception, gay marriage, abortion) Pope Francis has affirmed Church teachings on each, and has repeatedly referred to the horror of abortion. He distinguishes between non-support for gay marriage and positive support of people of same sex attraction.

    Catholic schools do not fire teachers for committing sin, but if ever, for fostering behaviour at odds with the teaching of the Church.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Shaun, would you recommend that people deny what their conscience is telling especially regarding to whom they are attracted sexually? We see a great impact on children today when they are forced to be people that they really aren’t; the same can be said about adults. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t define natural law, does it? Remember the ten commandments if you want to be a good Christian. That should be the response of the teachers concerning this – reply back with a copy of the ten commandments and a signature below acknowledging that it will be followed to a “T”. That should be a lesson in Catholic judgement for everyone.

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