Do Catholic-school covenants matter?

Anyone who has been paying attention in recent decades knows that large segments of American Catholic culture — especially in academia — operate with a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when to comes to a variety of doctrinal and social issues. This is the reality, for example, that shaped the fierce debates about the late Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Consitiution Ex Corde Ecclesia, addressing issues linked to Catholic education.

So it isn’t news that there are plenty of Catholic teachers who are not true believers or even believers when it comes to important chunks of the Catholic faith.

However, an increasing number of Catholic institutions have begun requiring their employees to sign covenants in which they vow not to openly oppose church teachings. In effect, these covenants spotlight the fact that private schools and other church institutions are, in fact, private associations. Membership is voluntary and, to be blunt, no one has to teach at a Catholic (or Mormon, or Muslim, or Episcopal, or Baptist, or Unitarian) school. People choose to do so.

This brings us to a Religion News Service story that represents another symbolic front in the culture wars battles inside American Catholicism. Here’s the opening of the report:

NORMANDY, Mo. – A popular music teacher at a Catholic Church was fired after church officials learned that he planned to marry his male partner of 20 years in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal.

The teacher, Al Fischer, confirmed that he was fired Feb. 17 from his job of four years at St. Ann Catholic School. When asked to comment on his firing, Fischer declined and referred to a letter emailed to his students’ parents shortly after his termination.

In the letter, Fischer tells parents of “my joyful news, and my sad news” — the former being his plans to marry his longtime partner in New York City, and the latter, “that I can’t be your music teacher anymore.” Fischer’s partner, Charlie Robin, told the Post-Dispatch that the couple’s relationship was not a secret at St. Ann, and that Fischer was fired after a representative of the St. Louis Archdiocese overheard him talking to co-workers about his wedding plans.

No surprises, so far. The crucial information arrives a few paragraphs later:

Asked about the Archdiocese’s role in the firing, a spokeswoman replied in an email that the Archdiocese “fully supports the action taken at St. Ann Parish School as it is in full compliance with the Christian Witness Statement signed by every educator in the Catholic school system.”

The Christian Witness Statement, which educators sign when applying for work in the archdiocese, says all who serve in Catholic education should, among other requirements, “not take a public position contrary to the Catholic Church” and “demonstrate a public life consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.” …

The Roman Catholic Church does not condemn homosexuals who remain “chaste,” but it takes a strong stance against same-sex marriage and homosexual acts.

Robin confirmed that his partner had signed a witness statement.

The key to the story is that Fischer and Robin insist that they were open about their relationship with SCHOOL OFFICIALS, but not with archdiocesan officials. This underlines the actual news story here — which is not really about gay marriage.

The key is the existence of these two separate cultures, the academic culture and the church culture. This trend is highly relevant, for example, in coverage of the disputes about the Catholic schools that fiercely oppose the new Health and Human Services regulations and the Catholic schools that do not.

Thus, one academic culture cares that Fischer signed the Christian Witness Statement and the other does not. The teacher thought he was “out” at one level of church life, but not at another. Then the two Catholicisms clashed. That’s the real story here.

Meanwhile, religion-beat veteran Tim Townsend added the following practical, and sobering, note to the Post-Dispatch coverage, in one of his “Keep the Faith” columns:

The church believes that if it allows the people who work for it to behave in a way that’s contrary to church teaching, that behavior could be emulated by other Catholics. The perils are great for both sides.

Large institutions that hope to attract talented employees — Catholic hospitals that want to hire the best nurses, for instance — may see an economic benefit to being less demanding about the behavior of their employees. But at what cost to the consistency of their mission?

Those whose lives don’t conform to the deeply held and First Amendment-protected beliefs of the religious institutions they work for can’t be surprised when that institution lets them go for publicly flouting those beliefs.

Do Catholic institutions actually want to defend the Catholic faith? That’s a story. The fact that this particular teacher signed a doctrinal covenant, and then was fired for not honoring his vow, is the news hook — but not the heart of the conflict.

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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.

  • Richard Mounts

    tmatt, I am interested in learning about the conversations between the school’s Head and the person (people?) representing the diocese. I’m sure that the Head was reminded that the right to be called “Catholic” entails obligations as well as privileges.

    The privileges include being listed in the so-called Kenedey (sp?) Directory (the “official” directory of U.S. dioceses), and eligibiliy to receive financial and material support. The directory listing is valuable because some donors will give only to listed institutions. The obligations are mostly obvious–following the wishes of the bishop, and even the pastor if the school is part of a parish. What do you think?

  • Jerry

    Then the two Catholicisms clashed. That’s the real story here.

    That makes sense to me.

    But there is also a natural follow-up to this story concerning other positions of the Catholic Church. I assume that straight people who were living together or women taking birth control for reproductive reasons were also covered by the statement because both are against Church policy. Have people been let go for violating these positions of the Church, and, if not, why not?

  • sari

    Fischer’s religion was implied but not explicitly stated. What if he were a non-Catholic working in a Catholic setting? Would he still be expected to sign the form and live a Catholic life even if he weren’t a Catholic?

  • Rick

    My understanding of the “contract” is that if someone is engaging in homosexual activity,living with someone of the same sex or using contraception, that the employee will keep his or mouth shut. The employee will not present it as accepted by the Church. If someone is doing something that conflicts with teaching, but doing it privately,then the employer has no complaint. The contract does not require a non-Catholic to pretend that he or she is Catholic or that that person needs to live like a Catholic. It requires the non-Catholic not to publicly contradict or deny the Church’s teaching.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    When people parade in public the fact they are trashing Catholic teaching they become an example for others to follow. And if the Church does NOT fire them over what is now public knowledge makes the Church complicit in what is a public scandal as well as sin. …

    Indeed, one whole part of the story is based on the truthfulness of one quoted person: Charles Robin, soon to be “married.” I didn’t see any quote from school officials backing up Robin’s claims about what the school allegedly knew.

  • tmatt


    Great question for reporters to ask.

    I would not be surprised if the answer varied from school to school, diocese to diocese.


    The key to your question is whether these people make their sins PUBLIC in defiance of the church, violating the covenant that they signed.

    If people publicly violate the teachings and are not punished, that would be a parallel. Right?

  • Jerry

    The key to your question is whether these people make their sins PUBLIC in defiance of the church, violating the covenant that they signed.

    If people publicly violate the teachings and are not punished, that would be a parallel. Right?

    Right. Of course there’s the minor question of what “public” means in this context. For example:

    The teacher was fired from the Catholic school when a representative of the Archdiocese overheard her talking to co-workers about her use of birth control pills to prevent pregnancy.

    I guess that is public in a sense but certainly not in the press release to the media sense.

  • sari

    Right. Of course there’s the minor question of what “public” means in this context.

    Exactly. Being a non-Catholic, even if one actively practices one’s religion, amounts to acting out of accordance with the Catholic church.

  • Julia

    It has to do with “scandal”, which nobody seems to understand any more.

    It’s defiant, public behavior by a respected person in the Catholic community that leads folks to think that behavior is OK to emulate.

    Without the defiant public aspect, Catholics are to assume a person is in a state of grace, either doing no wrong or that the person has confessed with an honest intention to reform her behavior.

    That’s the difference between public behavior and, i.e., and private behavior like taking birth control pills.

  • sari

    It’s only a scandal if the person in question is Catholic. It becomes far less of a scandal if the person’s affiliation is with a group which allows such behavior. The journalist left readers hanging by omitting this very important detail.

    That’s the difference between public behavior and, i.e., and private behavior like taking birth control pills.

    Well, unless you order online, purchasing any form of birth control poses a risk of discovery. It’s not like condoms aren’t openly available. What about asking for an Rx for BCP and discovering that your OBGYN has children in the school in which you teach? Or disclosing that you once terminated a pregnancy or obtained a civil divorce and remarried? Any private behavior has the potential to become public.

    There’s also the question of heterosexuals who live together without the benefit of marriage. Will they be scrutinized and punished in the same way as a homosexual teacher? I know half a dozen Catholic, church-going couples who cohabit. Is it right to assume marriage for some couples but not for others?

    It seems like the only way such a contract can work is if the school or archdiocese vets the person ahead of time to determine if he or she is a) a practicing Catholic and b) living a life consistent with Catholic canon law.

  • Joel

    I can’t describe how impressed I am that this writer takes the time to define both the Church’s position on homosexual inclination vs. behavior and the word scandal. The latter is especially important because the word has been used in the sense of an embarrassing exposure in so many reports on the Church, and leaving that uncorrected would have skewed the article into showing the Church as engaging in merely another cover-up. I don’t think there are many reporters who would think to look beyond the more common meaning and ask what the Church means by scandal.

  • Julia

    What Joel said.