A North Carolina Catholic school fired a teacher in September 2021 after he announced on social media that he was going to be married to his male partner. A few years ago, a Catholic high school in Indianapolis was put into a difficult position with the archdiocese when they failed to fire a man married to his same-sex partner. Also in 2021, a music teacher in New York was fired following his same-sex marriage a few months prior.
Of course, LGBT teachers are not the only ones who have found themselves out of a contract or a job in Catholic education. Others who have allegedly violated a range of moral standards advanced by the Church have been let go over the years by Catholic schools. In early 2022, two women were fired from a Catholic school for their role in publishing a student essay written in favor of abortion rights. A pregnant woman was fired for having sex outside of marriage. Another Catholic high school teacher was fired for using racial slurs.
Each of these stories has made waves in local and often national media. It is abundantly clear that the Church has failed to handle all these difficult situations with the tact and care they deserve. A document recently promulgated by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, entitled “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue” seeks to provide an “intentionally concise and practical tool that can help to clarify certain current issues and, above all, prevent conflicts and divisions in the critical area of education.” These include, for example, the hiring and firing of non-Catholic educators at a Catholic school, codes of conduct, and “Catholic identity.”
The document does not lay down new rules for Catholic education or provide for any new requirements such as Ex Corde Ecclesiae did. But given the topics addressed, as well as the reference to “codes of conduct” and the firing of teachers, the Congregation seems acutely aware of the many issues that have been affecting Catholic schools, particularly in the United States. While many recent media stories cover active legal cases making their way through the courts, at least one Supreme Court ruling looms large, Hosanna-Tabor. Here, the court unanimously held that a church was not subject to employment discrimination claims because “the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.”
However, the question remains: even if the parish or school has the legal right to fire people who do not abide by their moral standards and codes of conduct, when and why should they? What is the predominant concern, and what aspect of Catholic education is defended or advanced through the dismissal of sinful teachers?
The Congregation first acknowledges that situations involving disciplinary or doctrinal issues “can bring discredit to the Catholic institution and scandal in the community. Therefore, they cannot be underestimated both in terms of the nature of the conflict and the repercussions within and outside the school” (80). With these words, the Congregation affirms the concerns of many who see an inherent conflict between the role of the Catholic educator and behaviors that conflict with the Church’s moral teaching.
To resolve these potential conflicts, the document attempts to tread a fine line. For example, it defends the right of the Church to fire educators but only “as a last resort.” Still, it strongly advocates for the use of binding codes of conduct: “Catholic schools must have either a mission statement or a code of conduct. These are instruments for institutional and professional quality assurance. They must therefore be legally reinforced by means of employment contracts or other contractual declarations by those involved having clear legal value” (77).
It also suggests that dismissal is, in a way, a failure of the institution to prevent an escalation of disciplinary measures. In their view, permanent programs of formation, incentives, and regular review of best practices helps to foster a sense of responsibility among teachers and staff to the mission of the school. In other words, by better integrating educators into the Catholic mission and identity of the organization, administrators might see less need to fire anyone for acting “off-mission”. Primarily, the Congregation advocates for the use of a “discernment” that “brings together the human, spiritual, juridical, subjective and pragmatic dimensions” (90).
Here, the Congregation applies some pastoral principles from Pope Francis’s own teachings to these broad policies in order to make them even more practical. The first principle the Congregation addresses is “unity prevails over conflict.” In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope explains that a very common phenomenon when people deal with conflict is that they simply ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist in order to preserve a tenuous status quo. Or, they become consumed by the conflict, unable to address the conflict itself but instead “project[ing] onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction and thus make unity impossible” (EG 227). What’s required, according to Francis, is to confront the conflict “head-on.”
In applying this principle, the Congregation recommends that educational institutions maintain a consistent posture of dialogue and open communication within themselves, with the hope of exposing potential conflicts before they become too burdensome. They warn, “The role of direct and internal communication cannot be replaced by unconnected persons, institutions, mass media, and public opinion” (87).
The second principle the Congregation addresses is “time is greater than space.” Pointing to the parable of the wheat and the tares, Francis explains that there is a temptation to attempt to hold everything together in the present moment, to seek to control outcomes. Responding to this temptation, Francis writes, “This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans” (223).
The Congregation expands on this theme by noting that “there is a risk that those who seek perfect solutions and fight passionately for their realization – often unrealistic – will end up damaging conflict resolution even more with their attempts” (88). Instead, the Congregation advocates for a more patient approach, one in which the law of gradualism holds and people are given the opportunity to grow and learn, particularly through the “progressive application of disciplinary and penal norms.” In the Congregation’s view, the goal should be the establishment of clearly communicated and regular processes and norms that prioritize the salvation of souls, while taking into account a whole range of concerns, such as the objective limitations of the educator and public opinion.
The Congregation also quickly cites the two remaining evangelical principles articulated by Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. By “realities are more important than ideas,” the Congregation refers to the need to keep matters as local as possible and not delegate that process to another arm of the Church that may not be familiar with all the details and everyone involved. Finally, the Congregation uses the principle of “the whole is greater than the part” to emphasize how even local solutions can impact the broader Church. They write, “Any possible solution decided and applied must be considered in a long-term perspective so as not to impair the fruitful and trusting possibility of collaboration between people and institutions” (93).
Reflecting on the previous cases cited above, at times school officials have provided no opportunity for dialogue as recommended by the Congregation, nor have they clearly articulated processes and rules prior to dismissal. Despite the need to avoid scandal, dismissal has regularly been used as a primary means of discipline, rather than as a “last resort,” which ironically has created occasions of scandal or worsened their impact. Of course, all these matters of discipline have been complicated by the fact that they typically invite the scrutiny of the public, where essential details are misinterpreted or simply never disclosed. In turn, school officials have likely been pressured by ignorant third parties into firing teachers against their better judgment, violating the principle of “realities are greater than ideas.”
The Congregation’s document certainly cannot be expected to change the situation on the ground anytime soon. American courts are actively wrestling with these problems and the Church in the United States has often deferred to the local schools or dioceses, with some being more or less strict in their enforcement of codes of conduct. Of course, the Church in the United States is also facing a variety of additional challenges, including the difficulty of staffing nearly 6,000 schools after more than two years of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention the difficulty of paying affordable wages. Compounding the problem, Catholic school enrollment in 2020-21 across the nation dropped 6.4 percent from the previous academic year – the largest single-year decline in nearly 50 years, the National Catholic Educational Association said.
Insisting on a strict standard of moral conduct purports to promote a fully integrated Catholic education and avoid scandal, but in reality, it does none of that. The Congregation warns that this can also jeopardize the entire project of Catholic education. When policies are applied haphazardly or cause harm to otherwise well-intentioned and effective educators, they make these schools less desirable workplaces in general. The Congregation’s document provides a necessary and practical framework for schools and dioceses to reevaluate their current policies, with the hope that Catholic education might be improved, while also avoiding the risk of major public scandals as have afflicted Catholic schools in the past.
Image Credit: Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.