Catholic teachers, Catholic unbelievers?

The other day we had a lively comments-page discussion of whether it is acceptable for Catholic schools to ask the parents of students to either affirm or, harder yet, live by the central teachings of the Catholic faith.

It’s hard to enforce that kind of doctrinal idealism in a pluralistic age. It is also hard in an age when Catholic birthrates in North America are roughly the same as those found in oldline Protestant churches, which means that many or most Catholic schools need to enroll plenty of non-Catholic students in order to pay their bills. Many the leaders of many Catholic schools also believe that they need to hire non-Catholic teachers, too.

So here is the question of the day: Is there anything wrong with atheists teaching in Catholic schools? Can Catholic schools fire employees who affirm atheistic beliefs in an online forum or some other public place?

No, I am not making that up. Check out the top of this Desmoines Register report:

A Catholic-school teacher from Fort Dodge has been fired because of a Facebook survey in which she said she did not believe in God.

Abby Nurre, 27, was hired last summer as an eighth- grade math teacher at St. Edmond Catholic School. In August, she responded to a Facebook members’ poll in which she was asked whether she believed in God, miracles or heaven. In response, Nurre answered, “No.” Her answers then became part of her Facebook autobiography page, which was accessible only to her designated “friends.” …

Five weeks later, she was called to the office of Monsignor Kevin McCoy and handed a letter informing her that she was suspended for making “atheist statements in a public forum.” McCoy barred Nurre from school grounds. A few days later, without discussing the matter with Nurre, the school’s board of directors fired her for violating a policy that prohibits employees from advocating “principles contrary to the dogmatic and moral teaching of the church.”

Now, I assume that this policy statement was (a) in public documents that Nurre reviewed as a condition of her employment and (b) that she signed them as a sign of her intent to live by them. This was a covenant, so to speak, that made her part of a voluntary association. No one forced her to take the job.

But what if she never saw a copy of this policy or had it explained to her in a meaningful way? What if she was not asked to sign it? Then that’s really interesting and, yes, a hot story.

Nurre argued that her affirmation of atheism didn’t mean that she was endorsing atheism and said that she was simply using atheistic sites as a form of “personal education.” Or something like that. She had not intended for students to access her Facebook page (an amazing statement, in and of itself).

The teacher argued this was a free-speech issue, in other words. The story then offers a fascinating piece of dialogue from this discussion of her case:

“I believe in knowledge,” she testified. “I believe in communicating with other people of different beliefs. I believe in being an open person. That, to me, is not immoral.” …

On cross-examination, Paul Jahnke of the Iowa Catholic Conference pressed Nurre on her religious beliefs.

“Do you deny that you are an atheist?” he asked.

Nurre testified, “I am not an atheist.”

Jahnke asked Nurre why she responded to the Facebook survey by saying she didn’t believe in God.

Nurre replied, “I feel that opinions on such things constantly change.”

So, you ask, is this really a problem? Is this a news story elsewhere? And what happens if Catholic schools hire unbelievers who manage to keep their true feelings to themselves?

That questions leads us to another fascinating story, this time from The Globe and Mail. This is the story that, I think, should make the wheels start turning inside the heads of mainstream reporters and editors in urban areas that have giant Catholic school systems, especially during these hard economic times.

Here’s how the report opens:

Unemployed, non-religious educators are turning to Catholicism in an attempt to secure a coveted teaching position, even it means lying in confession about whether they’ve had pre-marital sex, some have revealed.

“I don’t particularly like going (to mass) every Sunday, but if this is what I have to do, then I’ll do it,” said a Toronto-area woman, who didn’t want to be identified. “I just really want to be in a career. I just want it so badly.”

The teacher said she has also been going to confession regularly and speaking with a priest on a weekly basis in order to receive the documents she needs to apply to the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

She is not Catholic. In fact, she doesn’t consider herself religious.

As the story notes, there were 12,000-plus new teachers in the province in 2009 and only 5,000 open jobs. That means there are plenty of teachers out there who are highly motivated to take the plunge into religious schools.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Catholic District School Board requires that all teachers, and other employees who work directly with children, be Catholics. Yes, some in modern Canada now argue that this doctrinal policy is discriminatory.

Ah, but is it acceptable for teachers to tell lies in order to land these jobs? Is it acceptable for these adults to read up on the faith a bit, take the right vows to join the church and then take part in the Catholic sacraments, with their fingers — metaphorically speaking — crossed behind their backs?

The anonymous teacher puts it this way:

During her first confession, she crept into a dark confessional box and tried to spout out nearly 30 years of sin, but the priest startled her with one question: Had she engaged in pre-marital sex?

“That was one of the things he mentioned at the end. I said no,” said the teacher, who admitted she felt guilty for lying to a priest. “I haven’t gone for my, um, what do you call it the bread thing yet. … Communion. I’m nervous about it,” she added.

Church leaders said they attempt to vet teachers to see if they are active in the faith. But how would they know what is happening inside the mind and heart of an unbeliever who urgently needs a job?

Here is the main question: How can journalists cover this story, in a fair and responsible manner? For obvious reasons, the voices of anonymous teachers would be crucial. But how much weight can be placed on their testimonies?

Fascinating stories. Fascinating issues for journalists to consider. Catholic bishops might be interested, too.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    tmatt asks:

    So here is the question of the day: Is there anything wrong with atheists teaching in Catholic schools? Can Catholic schools fire employees who affirm atheistic beliefs in an online forum or some other public place?

    Part of it would depend on whether or not the school is specifically incorporated as an RC institution or is in the Catholic Tradition as some are. I suspect this would tell us what legal restrictions are in place on employment practices.

    I definitely feel that any religious school can restrict hiring to members of its denomination. Or give preference to such members. Beyond that, a lot depends on local law and state policy. And financing, which include public funds. Accepting public money does change things IMHO.

    Subject matter also enters in here. I do not see how the religious views of a math or shop or PE teacher are of interest. But most definitely the English and history teacher’s are.

    I’m all over the place on this.

  • mattcat

    Some years ago, a member of the (mainline Protestant) church I was pastoring became a Roman Catholic in order to keep custody of her child (nasty custody case) and to save $$ on Catholic school tuition. When I talked with her priest to give him a heads up about the situation he said that he didn’t care _why_ she was becoming a Catholic; all that mattered was that she was. He didn’t care that she didn’t believe anything the church taught, didn’t intend to practice her faith, etc.

  • Jerry

    She had not intended for students to access her Facebook page (an amazing statement, in and of itself

    I’m not at all amazed by that statement. I think most people have only a hazy notion of facebook privacy settings given their complexity, how often they’ve been changed and in how many ways. People could easily assume that their information is private (friends only) when it’s really public.

    How can journalists cover this story, in a fair and responsible manner? For obvious reasons, the voices of anonymous teachers would be crucial. But how much weight can be placed on their testimonies?

    This is a good question, of course, but why would anonymous teachers be any different than in any other situation? Having someone who fears their job is at risk speaking out anonymously is not a new situation so the reporting would, I think, follow that well-trodden path.

  • tmatt


    OK, what is your journalistic point?

  • tmatt


    I am not a fan of anonymous sources, but there are times that they have to be used. This is one of them.

    However, the key to this story is the candor of the balancing sources. What is the content of these codes, again? How is the vetting process carried out?

    In all Christian higher education, it is hard to know how sincere a job candidate’s faith is, in all kinds of settings — left or right.

    I, myself, have been vetted by liberal professors and by conservatives. I have to say that the professors on the left (during my Denver days) felt free to be VERY specific in their doctrinal questions. People on both sides need to know what they need to know.

    So, how do journalists pursue balance and ON THE RECORD FACTS for a story of this kind? A balance of strong voices?

    Never forget that when dealing with personnel issues, school leaders may not be able to respond to critics or confirm rumors because of privacy laws. So you can have these candid, strong anonymous voices alleging one thing and the school leaders may, legally, have to remain silent. Is that fair? This is one of many challenges linked to these kinds of stories, Fair-minded journalists have to care about balance AND accuracy, too.

  • dalea

    The Des Moines Register tells us how this became a story:

    The board voted a second time to fire her. The school and Iowa Catholic Conference then challenged Nurre’s request for unemployment benefits.

    That led to a recent hearing where Tim Hancock, the St. Edmond business manager, testified on behalf of the school. Hancock said that by becoming a member of the Atheist Nexus site, Nurre violated the principles of the Catholic church.

    “She should be denied unemployment benefits for being a member of an atheist Web site,” Hancock testified.

    The judge ruled:

    Administrative Law Judge Steven Wise ruled that Nurre was entitled to unemployment benefits because the school had failed to prove misconduct.

    Wise said the Facebook survey and Nurre’s posting to the atheists’ forum “did not involve publicly advocating principles contrary to the teachings of the church and did not involve immoral conduct.”

  • Charles Curtis

    As a Catholic who confesses regularly, and who has gone to confession with dozens of priests over the last twenty years, I find the claim of that unnamed teacher that a priest “startled her” by asking if she had “engaged in pre-marital sex” ludicrous. Confession these days isn’t a date with the inquisition. A priest rarely, if ever, will ask a leading question. Such a question about someone’s sexual behavior would probably only come in the context of someone confessing other sexual sins, in which case the penitent shouldn’t be “startled.” I can’t remember a priest ever asking me such a direct question, myself.

    Moreover, confession of sexual sin is very common, and no penitent needs to lie. Father’s heard it all before folks, over and over again. He’s not taking notes, and probably won’t remember any of the details a half hour later.

    One other point: consciously lying in confession about a serious sin (such as premarital fornication) is in itself a sin. Not that someone lying about being Catholic in the confessional would likely be concerned with such “minutiae,” still, that’s context a studious journalist might consider putting in such a story.. No one (certainly no Catholic School principal) ever forces anyone else to confess, but if one does, one ought to at least be honest about all the dull details. Not coming clean defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

  • Stoo

    The “friends-only info becomes public” bit is, while not a religion thing, especially relevant what with the recent controversy over privacy settings.

  • Passing By

    Trying to make sense of the debacle at Baylor University a few years ago, it was my understanding (possibly mistaken) that the issue was whether a “Christian Education” involved learning religion as a subject alongside the various academic disciplines, versus learning academics permeated with a Christian worldview, as well as learning specifics of Christianity – the bible, church history, theology and so on. In the latter case, hiring practicing Christians and Catholics would make sense.

    That would seem to me the unspoken issue of these two linked stories: what does a “Catholic” education entail? Who can provide it adequately? The stories, of course, focus on standard cultural cliches: discrimination, personal rights (sticking it to The Man), and the hypocrisy fundamental to religious practice.

    One question, though: don’t religious schools in Canada accept public funds? They would then, of course, be obligated to the cultural cliches mentioned above.

  • Martha

    “So here is the question of the day: Is there anything wrong with atheists teaching in Catholic schools?”

    I’m wibbling a bit on this specific case, because at first I was thinking “Well, maybe they didn’t know she was an atheist and if they had, then this could have been avoided” because it did seem a bit harsh to sack her for not being Catholic, as such.

    But then when it got to the part where she said in response to a direct question that she wasn’t an atheist, which is a bit difficult to reconcile with her saying that she didn’t believe in God (kind of the standard definition, I would have thought), I’m confused.

    Maybe it’s not the Mean Ol’ Church School making a victim of her. If she told them that she was a believer and then this came out, that’s a somewhat different kettle of fish.

    So I suppose I’d say if the teacher was known to be an atheist when hired, and was agreeable to the conditions of employment, no, I’d say there wasn’t anything wrong with an atheist teaching in a Catholic school.

  • Arthur Tsoi

    Is not the key question whether we consider a ‘Catholic school’ to be one that actively seeks to provide a safe environment and community in which students can receive a Catholic education and develop their faith? If the answer is yes, then it would seem that teachers at a Catholic school must at least acknowledge their role in encouraging that development.

    The personal faith of the teacher does not matter so much per se, but it certainly matters a lot when their faith affects their interactions with students. Students can be seriously affected by how they see their teachers, taking them possibly as role models, as counsellors, advisers. If the teacher’s faith impedes on his/her ability to cultivate the student’s faith, then he/she is perhaps unfit to be teaching at a Catholic institution.

    The problem is that so many ‘Catholic schools’ no longer take on that role of providing a true Catholic education and safe environment for the development of faith.

    I grew up in Hong Kong and attended an Anglican elementary school. (I entered the Catholic Church after years of agnosticism this Easter.) Drawing a slight parallel, I have had experience of a nominally religious school, supposedly providing a religious education, but failing to provide the environment and community for the development of faith. As a result, many end up losing their faith, falling away.

    On a broader note, in order for Catholic schools to fulfill their mission, they must remember the importance of creating that space, that environment, in which the student feels welcome, invited, and encouraged to develop and deepen their faith, not on their own, but with their fellow students, and their teachers.

    In His Name. Amen.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “So here is the question of the day: Is there anything wrong with atheists teaching in Catholic schools?”


    “Can Catholic schools fire employees who affirm atheistic beliefs in an online forum or some other public place?”



  • Tony Layne

    I flop back and forth on this issue. On the one hand, it seems to me to be an act of mercy to hire a well-qualified teacher who needs a job in spite of her beliefs. However, it also seems to me that there are so many ways even a well-intentioned, honest non-Catholic can unintentionally subvert the students’ faith. At the very least, they should go through an RCIA course — without the expectation of conversion — tailored to help them avoid the more obvious pitfalls. But perhaps the parish or the diocese can find them other work which helps them without posing such a moral dilemma.

    I’m also leery of the conditions under which Catholic institutions accept public funds, because of the “he who pays the piper” rule. It’s become clear that certain members of the Obama Administration intend to use public funding as leverage for imposing non-Catholic values and practices on institutions which depend on them to any extent. And the Canadian government seems to have picked up a relativist, secularist antipathy towards the Church, which makes the idea that Catholic schools may accept and even depend on funding from them a very queasy one indeed.

  • tmatt


    We are not commenting on THE ISSUE.

    Comment on the journalism challenges in covering the issue.

  • Jerry

    So, how do journalists pursue balance and ON THE RECORD FACTS for a story of this kind? A balance of strong voices?

    A balance of strong voices often degenerates into two sides shouting at each other as we can see on TV or sometimes in print. If those strong voices are willing to listen to each other, then fine, otherwise I’d want to see a different avenue explored.

    As reported this particular issue is about belief and about honesty and perhaps the two are too entangled to have a very useful story.

    One obvious area to explore is to look at the publically available job application forms to see what they say. I found a couple pretty easily and neither said that believing in God was a condition of employment but rather than teaching in accordance with Catholic doctrine was:

    2. Are you a practicing Catholic?
    3. Do you have knowledge of Catholic doctrine
    and are you willing to teach in accordance with it?

    Another application asks:

    If non-Catholic are you willing to support Catholic teaching and philosophy?

    That sets forth a clear and straight-forward expectation that I would expect to be explored in a job interview and to be a condition of employment.

    If I were a reporter, I would have explored this obvious avenue.

  • dalea

    What I see with this story is that it is meant for local consumption and assumes that the reader has some knowlege of general laws and customs regarding employment in Iowa. This works until the story goes national. And does not have a paragraph explaining how things work in Iowa.

    All we have is the UI judge ruling that she was not fired for cause despite the school arguing for that. Employment, despite the covenant idea, is a regulated activity. Such regulations vary from state to state. All we know is that the judge did not find the firing justified and awarded her damages in the form of UI. The story really needs a lot more explanation of the local laws on the subject.

  • McGowan: David

    30 years ago I spent a decade teaching in Australian Catholic School system. In the spirit of “Aggiornamento” the coordinating Catholic Education Office decreed that teacher in Cath Schools need not be catholics and it didn’t matter what their backgound. The difficulty for any teacher trying to express the tenets and practices of the faith, is that most of the teachers did not give an example of the practice of the faith (eg fasting in lent, fasting before communion at a school mass), as for irregular adult relationships, well we won’t go there. Many catholic parents in spite of their own human failures in teaching their children, expected the advwertised catholic school to at least help. So the Catholic Education system failed in its primary duty as an agent of teaching the faith. Only 10% of that generation of children are practicing their faith today. This new generation of parents not only don’t practice the faith but have largely lost any belief even in the basic belief in the existence of God. If there is an argument over conditions of employment in the US Catholic Schools, employment of non-catholic teachers in Catholic schools even though they are teaching maths and other secular subjects should be resisted lest the same awful harvest we have in Australia. I’m well retired now, but I don’t think things have improved much.

  • Cathy

    I’ve taken jobs in three different dioceses, and in all of them, it was written in that I had to teach in accordance with Catholic faith and morals. I never had the impression that I had to believe everything myself wholeheartedly. (I mostly do, but that is besides the point.)

    My guess is that this teacher signed a contract with that clause in it. If that is the case, then Facebook postings about atheism violate that contract.

    These contracts are not exactly sub rosa documents. How hard would it have been for the reporter to find one and read it?

    Of course, I can well believe that either the teacher thought this was inconsequential as in “I’m here to teach math.” Or the principal could have said, “It is what we all have to sign, but don’t worry about it” (speaking from practical experience myself) and so the teacher thought it didn’t matter. I am guessing that some background reporting among other teachers could have fleshed this out somewhat.

  • Shacoria

    In my opinion, I think it’s wrong for someone who isn’t Catholic and never plans on being Catholic to be teaching at or attending a Catholic school. It just seems wrong to me. I don’t think there should be Atheist teachers at a Catholic school. If parents wanted that, they would just send their kids to a regular public school. It’s not fair in my opinion.

  • Kevin J Jones

    Journalism issue: suppose a paper has taken a strong stand against religious hypocrisy in the past. How can it then treat with sympathy these teachers, who are themselves engaging in hypocrisy and sham piety?

  • tmatt


    And what is your journalistic point?

  • Mollie

    In light of the issue Kevin raises, it’s probably worth mentioning that this would be a classic case of hypocrisy — publicly professing something you don’t believe. We usually use the word hypocrisy to describe failing to uphold a standard of behavior that you advocate.

  • Lynn Miller

    What puzzles me about the coverage is how little investigation was done. I think some fine questions have been raised here, but shouldn’t the news reporting have addressed those topics in their articles?

    The article at does a good job at combining the national AP story and the Des Moines Register story, as well as answering some of the questions raised here. But should it be up to a national politics blog to be providing the information which should be provided in traditional news media?

    For that matter, the local daily newspaper in Fort Dodge, Iowa didn’t cover the issue at all until a day after the story went national. Even then, that newspaper’s article didn’t provide information which wasn’t first reported elsewhere.

    I can’t help but think that newspapers aren’t doing their job of investigating or reporting thoroughly on their story.

  • Crimson Wife

    How about providing some context as the percentage of Catholics in the general population in the Toronto area? Also, does Canada fund any other faith-affiliated schools? If the answer is yes, what policies do these have for their teachers?

  • Bern

    It seems odd that if there was a “covenant” arrangement that it would not have been brought up by the ICC rep at the unemployment hearing. But maybe it’s not relevant for such: I’m not familiar with employment law in Iowa. At any rate, the issue was not whether or not St Edmunds could fire Nurre but whether or not she could collect unemployment insurance. Again, I’m not familiar with how such things work in Iowa but in NY if you show up at the hearing you pretty much get it.

    BTW: the questions of the day (there are two) are NOT journalistic questions so it’s no wonder folks are commenting on them. (And my vote is “No” and “Yes”

  • Brian Walden

    Something doesn’t add up in the Toronto story. The teacher is not Catholic, yet she’s going to regular confession. Normally if you’re coming into the Church you make your first confession just before you’re received into the Church – not regularly throughout the RCIA process. And it’s possible that this person has never been baptized, the article says she’s not religious and mentions no previous Christian affiliation – if that’s the case why is she going to confession at all?

    And why would she need to go to confession regularly to receive the documents she needs to teach? The Church extremely protective of privacy in the confessional, I can’t imagine any bishop allowing a school in his diocese to require teachers to show that they’ve gone to confession.

    About the description of her first confession, most churches do not have confessional boxes anymore – they have small rooms instead. And why was the confessional dark? The priest outright asking about a specific sin is very strange, I’ve confessed to many priests and some ask if I have anything else I’d like to confess but never ask about specific sins. Maybe, because it was her first confession, he was walking her through an examination of conscience and actually asked her several questions and that one question startled her.

    And what does it mean that she’s performed religious rituals? That’s just odd phrasing for describing Catholics – with no context provided it could mean just about anything.

    So maybe she’s entering the Church by working directly with a priest instead of going through RCIA like 99% of converts do, and maybe for some reason she’s going to regular confession even though that’s not what’s supposed to happen, and maybe her church still has confessional boxes, and maybe they’re dark, and maybe the priest asks her random questions about her sex life and has her “perform religious rituals”. But it sounds this woman, because she’s only faking it, doesn’t have the language to describe what’s happening like someone who’s honestly going through RCIA would and the journalist embellished a few details (like a dark, scary confessional box) or the whole thing is made up.

    P.S. why is the article supportive of this woman who’s openly lying and making a mockery of a religious group’s practices. If this was happening in a religion the media liked, the story would not have been written this way.

  • Peggy

    Brian W hit on exactly my concern w/the Toronto story. This woman is allegedly receiving regular confession and sounds quite ignorant of the process and of Catholic belief about holy communion. Has she not been through RCIA? Doesn’t she know that the parish that considers hiring her will seek baptismal, first communion and confirmation records from her? Going to confession in an allegedly dark box won’t get her the docs she claims she needs. Is it possible that the woman was baptized but not practicing today? Not a believable story.

    I recall similar stories in which the Catholic diocese is the bad guy b/c it won’t hire or will fire a person who violates the moral code. There was single woman teacher who became pregnant and was fired ore redirected to a nonteaching position–NJ or NY? Then there was a woman, I think TX, had a nonCatholic wedding, found to no longer practice the faith. The internet is coming back to bite these people. Facebook seems to make people stupid.

  • tmatt


    Excellent point about the questions, of course. This is why I then turned the post in a GetReligion direction — which is how journalists could fairly and accurately cover this kind of story.

    I have probably killed about 10 comments on this thread that contained no information whatsoever, merely people offering (sometimes shouting) their opinions about Catholics, Christian schools, etc.

    The key, as always, is to focus on the actual content of the news reports and the post. Keep turning back to the point: which is how journalists can do a better job on this beat.

  • John Pack Lambert

    There is a lot of gray room about the religious criteria in schools.

    Wayne House makes it seem pretty staight forward by stating “if there is an established principal that only men should teach religious classes this can be done, but if there is no such principal women teachers can not be excluded.” (see this link )

    Especially in House’s example, this is not the case. Case law has demonstated that a religious teacher is under the ministerial exception, not the Title 7 exception, and so no charges of race, age, sex or such discrimination are possible.

    There are two questions that come up in cases involving teachers at religious schools or employed by religious bodies. The first is “are they religious teachers”. Personally I would enquire into this matter differently than most courts do so. The problem with how many courts do it, as you can see from this blog relative to the ruling on a case in the 6th Circuit, , is that the amount of time given to what the courts themselves often decide based on their own preconcieved notions is “religious instruction” is used as the basis of deciding whether the teacher is ministerial.

    This recognizes the reality that many teachers in religious schools teach both religious and non-religious subjects, but in some cases it ignores the fact that subjects titled “history”, “biology”, “geography” and “literature” can be clearly taught in a religious way. The same 6th Circuit earlier this year ruled against another teacher as reported here .

    There is however also the religious exemption to Title 7 non-discrimination laws. This says that if you are a religious organization you can use religious criteria in determing the status of all your employees. The classic case upholding this was handed down in about 1989 in Amos v. Corporation of the Presiding Ibshopric in which the Supreme Court held The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could fire janitors for not adhering to rules against drinking alchohol and such.

    In another case the firing of a Muslim teacher from a Christian school for wearing hijab in the classroom was upheld. The courts have ruled that a religious school can use any sort of religious criteria it chooses to enforce. Public declaration of being an atheist is clearly within this domain.

    For the media to adequately cover this issue they would need to dig into the religious reasons for creating religious schools. So many religious schools, especially Catholic Schools, function more as a way students avoid the horrors of the non-functional big city public schools that it would require talking to the administrators and not the students and parents connected with these schools to understand this. On the other hand the fact that a court can rule that a teacher who teaches one of five classes they teach in a day as a religious class and also leads students in prayer and works on developing litergies (see this Baptist Joint Committee report ) it is clear that even the courts where these things are studied in depth fail to accept that people actively speading a religion are actively spreading a religion.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In the US there is clear precedent that firing a teacher at a religious school on religious grounds is acceptable. In Deleware a federal judge has upheld a Catholic school teacher being fired for writting a letter to the editor in favor of abortion.

    Thus cases that clearly involve religious principals will die quickly, and not make big headlines. It is cases involving application of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or sex, race, whistleblower protection, age and other such status issues that will get taken to the Federal Circuit Courts and maybe even the Supreme Court.

    These cases will get the publicity, and will probably create outrage against the Church involved in some cases. It is the nature of the American judicial system that the cases that most often make the headlines are the complexed ones that give no easy answers.

    The questions is these cases surround the ministerial exemption, which cuts to the core of what it means to be a religious school.

    What journalists should ask in this case is does the school in question seek to consider the whole curriculum in a religious context. If you math problems involve angels dancing on the head of a pin, and figuring out how many are there by calculating the area of the pin and the area each angel needs to dance, is it now religious instruction? If your biology class embraces creationism than it is probably clearly religion, but what if you argue that evolution is the process by which God “took of the dust of the earth and breathed into man his spirit”? You state that our physical bodies came about through genetic evolution, but our spirits were put there by God, with Adam and Eve being the first beings who had spirits, although there were creatures who had the outward, physical and genetic likeness of humans before that.

    The mention from the Mount Morris case of “religious principals in math” I am guessing was slightly more thoughtout than the example I gave. However, I think the biology questions hint at the complexity involved.

    The biggest problem foran inquiry as I suggest is that it would best be done before a suit emerges. Once the School is sued, many parties are tight liped, and others may be reticent to speak on the matter. This would actually be a worthwhile angle for a journalist to puruse “religion and the broader curriculum: How religious are religious schools”.

    It actually could be very informative. There are two approaches. One is to assume that most religions do some form of schooling, and trying to identify what it is. This method has the advantage of focusing not only on those religions that attempt to offer both religious and secular subjects in regular schools, but also the various forms of release-time and extra-curricular religious instruction done to supplement secular studies.

    The other method would be to compare specific religious schools. One could even compare a set of Catholic schools to see how each one handled religious requirements for faculty, attendance at mass by students, enrollment in religious classes, conformity to religious based rules at school and elsewhere, and infusion of religion into non-religious curricula.

  • Julia

    For the media to adequately cover this issue they would need to dig into the religious reasons for creating religious schools.

    Actually, Catholic schools in the US were started in the 1800s because the typical public school taught a civic Protestantism, using Protestant Scripture for reading lessons and requiring students to participate in daily Protestant prayers. During the Know-Nothing period in particular there was a hostility and contempt for Catholic children. So – Catholic schools were started.

    The business about being safer and all that came much later. My Catholic girls’ high school in East St Louis, IL in the 50s had many non-Catholic students. But we had black students that were Catholic and non-Catholic – so attendance wasn’t to get away from integration – which had not yet occurred in the local public schools.

    I think the first S. Ct. case on Catholic schools had something to do with the state of Oregon forbidding parents from sending their children to private, religious-connected schools.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is possible that when the paper says the lady in the Toronto case is “not Catholic” it means she does not think of herself as Catholic, but is an actual baptized Catholic.

    If she had been baptized at birth but had not gone to church since would she count as being not Catholic? The press is so into letting people self-identify their religion that they may allow people to self-identify out of a religion.

    self-identification as Catholic is a bigger issue with those who are declared automatically excommunicated due to certain actions. However, it is altogether possible the lady self-identifies as non-Catholic, is openly unsure of the existence of Gd, but is a member ofthe Catholic Church according to the rules of the Catholic Church.

    I think it is worth noting that the paper did not say she was “never baptized a Catholic”. While generally it is assumed that “not Catholic” means that someone has no official standing as a Catholic, the whole matter may be more complexed than what it at first appears.

    This problem could be agrivated by jornalists using terms in unique ways. Journalists more so than other writers ought to try to use terms in standard was. That is the whole point of the Associated Press style guide. An article that mentions “the Mormon Church” or “Harry Reid is a Mormon” will often not have time to explain beyond this, so we hope that there is some regularity in usage.

    When people treat their religious belief as something that can change at a moments notice but expect religious employers to leave them in jobs for the long haul we have a problem. Maybe the problem is we focus too much on employment as a right and ignore the fact that teachers are supposed to fulfill a certain job.

    Inherently, the job public school teachers and religious school teachers fulfill is different. The outward form may be the same, but in the minds of religious schools even a gym teacher or a football coach should exemplify certain Christian principals.

    In many ways the media gives us a one-sided view of issues like academic freedom. It is normally cast as a censoring institution in conflict with individual rights. However, if the institution is a private one we are inherently imposing on its rights by deneying it academic freedom.

    While the case for institutions supported by public funds not advocating particular views works, private institutions have a right to determine their own goals and seek to have faculty that work for them.

  • tmatt


    I think that you need your own weblog.


  • John Pack Lambert

    Creating schools to avoid civic protestantism is clearly a religious reason. Arguably some Catholic schools were created to preserve Polishness and other ethnic heritages in the face of attempts to destroy it in an Americanization process. There are other issues as well.

    I would also note you are the first one to bring up race. I said nothing about race. Most of the people who choose to send their children to Catholic schools over failed big city public schools, at least from what I have observed, have been black parents in primarily black areas.

    This is probably a slight over-generalization, and it is built on a very limited number of cases. However with Detroit being 82% black, 8% Hispanic and only 10% non-Hispanic white (these figures are general, there is also a large Hmong population), especially with close to half of the “whites” being Arabs, Chaldeans and others from the Middle-east, it is not white parents sending their children to Catholic schools to avoid attendance at Detroit Public Schools.

    On the other hand a great many Catholic schools in Detroit have closed down in the last decade. This is also true of the New York Archdiocese of New York. The difference is that Detroit has been closing parishes heavily as well, has a declining Catholic population with many of the city parishes, especially on the east side filled with congregations where the average age is probably at least 67 and funerals far outnumber baptisms.

    Many of the Catholic schools that have fared the best have been those conected with various orders that have moved into the suburbs.

    In the New York archdiocese on the other hand some schools have closed that were connected with booming parishes. THe New York Times did an indepth story exploring why this was several years ago. They said that part of it was there was not a sense of open-anti-Catholic feeling in public schools as there was in the 19th Century, partly it was because of the decline in the number of nuns and thus having to pay at least somewhat competitive saleries to get teachers, and partly it was because a lot of parents saved their money to send their children to Catholic or other private high schools, figuring that pre-high school public schools were not deathly dysfunctional.

    However journalists could also explore the question that the reason Cathoic schools began in the 1840s or even 1920s are not why they exist today. Since many of those old schools have closed, and many present schools opened after the Second World War, the issue is more complexed.

    One factor that people seem a little slow to discuss is the connection between Catholic schools and wanting to send children to a single sex education environment. The belief that seperateness is bad is very ingrained in certain parts of our culture.

    The fact that biological and socio-emotional reality means that at least in some conditions all male or all female education can be beneficial is more deserving of consideration than some admit. The fact that this inflences the decisions of parents to send children to those Catholic schools that are not coeducational is an angle worth journalistic inquiry.

    There is another question that journalists avoid. Public schools are bound by the constitution. They are government agencies. However the cult of rights has made it possible to speak of attacks on free speech by individuals.

    This is actually a slightly misguided view of the matter. Journalists have clearly failed to make this clear. In other ways it is a direct outgrowth of Civil Rights law.

    Basically the nature of the right to assemble is at question. What is not asked clearly enough is who has the power to decide the community standards of a school. In the case of public institutions it has been decided that there are limits to what the community can impose as standards.

    Private schools are a different story. What the media fails to accept is that the administration has the right to draw up whatever community standards they choose, and the source of these standards is not open to outside regulation.

    A public school can not fire a teacher because her open and virulent profession of atheism is likely to cause students to withdraw, especially if it is done outside of school time off property. A religious school can make any rule it chooses, with very little prior restraint. Even more so, if a Jewish school decides they do not like a Christian teacher wearing a cross, which they have never in anyway publicly expressed dislike for, but they have no problem with a Muslim teacher wearing hijab, and they tell the Christian teacher if he wears his cross to school again he will be terminated, and he does and gets terminated he wil loose any suit on the matter.

    This is a big question I have from some of thse news reports. Were these incidents where a teacher did something, and then it led to their termination of employment, or was this actually part of an ongoing process where the teacher had been warned about previous behavior?

  • cek

    Journalists can cover this fairly, but they’ll need to be much more clear in identifying just what kind of behaviour these teachers are engaged in. For me, if we were to swap the issues, we wouldn’t see the barely hidden empathy these articles give to the teachers. A creationist lying about his beliefs to get a plum job teaching neo-darwinian evolution should and would be described as a hypocrite and liar by the press, and so too would an oil lobbyist trying to get a job at the Sierra Club, for example.

    My answer to the second question then would be pretty obvious: There isn’t much weight we can place with these testimonies, these are compromised indivuduals.

  • Rachel

    Brian and Peggy,
    I also find the Toronto woman’s story fishy. I’m Catholic and have taught at two Catholic schools, and my husband is Catholic and has taught at three; neither of us have EVER been required by the school to go to confession. In all five of our schools, there were opportunities for the students to go to confession, but the teachers wouldn’t even have been allowed to confess at that time if we’d wanted to because someone had to keep an eye on the kids who weren’t actually in the booth (if Mrs. Johnson is in a little dark room where she can’t see her entire third-grade class, she’s going to step out and find the whole church covered in Silly String). Unless the school somehow requires teachers to submit a log of when thy go to confession, which is a ludicrous idea, I can’t imagine what she’s talking about here.

  • Kevin

    The discussion of this issue in the Canadian context is quite different. Most of the comments here assume that Catholic schools are private, which is probably true in the American context. In three provinces in Canada they are publicly funded institutions. Yes, it is a problem. Type “separate school” into Wikipedia for a good primer.

  • Dennis

    I do believe that there is room for persons of no faith or another religion. I’ve worked in Catholic schools in countries were the majority of the population is non-Christian. You couldn’t even begin running a basic education program without hiring non-Christian teachers. When hiring, I inform them that they are applying to a school own and operated by the Catholic Church. Most who apply for a job … know this fact and want to work at a Catholic school because of the positive environment! Then I ask if they respect the Catholic Church and its faith. Then I ask if they object to any policies of the Catholic Church that do not allow the same benefits that would be given in other schools (and give examples: we don’t pay for abortions and contraceptive medicine, devices or medical proceedures, etc.). I inform them that there might be some occassional Catholic Church activities or prayers that would necessitate their attending; I give some examples and then ask if they would object to being in such situations. I also let them know that their attendance at such events is never intended to force or even encourage them into becoming Catholic. I inform them that they are always free to live according to their own faith or thinking about religion. Then I ask if still want to teach at a Catholic school. Most still do … and some later become Catholics.