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January 23, 2014

"Gay Marriages Confront Catholic School Rules"

This article in the New York Times covers an incident that MOJ veteran Eduardo Penalver has addressed at dotCommonweal (for example, here and here) and that is similar to cases arising around the country.  The Times story, it seems to me, could have done more to engage and present "the other side" and could have tested at least a little bit the premise of some of those quoted in the story that Pope Francis's election, statements, and views weigh against the decision of a Catholic school to dismiss a well liked administrator after he legally married another man.  But, the quality of the Times' coverage of religion- and Catholic-related stories is a matter for another day (and, probably, a different blog!).  

As a legal, constitutional, and political-theory matter, I guess I am committed to the view that a Catholic high school is and ought to be able to decide (a) that teachers and administrators must teach and form students in accord with the Church's proposals and teachings and (b) whether or not a particular teacher or administrator is failing to do so.  That said, cases like these are (as Eduardo has pointed out) tricky for several reasons:   Even those Catholic schools that are most committed to tethering hiring and firing decisions to their Catholic mission and character do not, generally speaking, investigate employees' private lives to be sure they are entirely consistent with the Church's moral and other teachings.  (Phew!).  What's more, failures to live in accord with the Church's teachings regarding sexuality are failures, but they are not necessarily, as a category, more "serious" or "grave" failings than the failure (of so many of us!) to live in accord with the Church's teachings on charity and humility, and yet we don't hear about many Catholic school teachers being fired for exhibiting insufficient joy.  And, my sense is that the Church and Catholic schools do oppose unjust discrimination against and demeaning treatment of persons because of their sexual orientation.  

But . . . what is it reasonable to expect -- given that the Church teaches what it teaches about sexuality and marriage -- a Catholic school that holds itself out as having a Catholic mission that includes formation in the faith to do when a (popular and otherwise entirely competent) teacher or administrator, say, "goes public" about her support for abortion rights . . . or enters (again, publicly) into a legally valid same-sex marriage?  One student is quoted in the Times piece as saying “It was just shocking that the Catholic Church would turn its back on a teacher for something that didn’t affect his work performance," but . . . isn't that the question?  That is, isn't the question "what counts as the performance of the position as the vice-principal of a Catholic high school (and so what counts as affecting that performance)"?

The students who are quoted in the piece speak movingly about compassion and their opposition to discrimination.  The piece states that some people support the decision to dismiss Mr. Zmuda, but we do not "hear" their reasons.  (I assume it is not because they oppose compassion or support discrimination.)  In any event, we will, I expect, see more and more of these cases and, I expect, we will see -- to say nothing of litigation -- similar disagreements between Catholic schools' decisionmakers, on the one hand, and students and alumni, on the other.  These disagreements will have to involve conversations about, again, what is the mission of a Catholic school and what is (and is not) involved in the education and formation of students at these schools. 

UPDATE:  Michael Sean Winters responded to my post here, and elaborated on the issue.

Posted by Rick Garnett on January 23, 2014 at 04:34 PM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink