A few thoughts on the recent debates about gay married people being fired from Catholic institutions…
As with most controversies that are sensationalized by the press, it’s always helpful to take a step back and look at the different factors at hand. Most Catholic institutions (specifically schools) do not require that all of their staff be baptized, practicing, and orthodox Catholics. Such expectations would leave them with slim pickings for hiring…unless they want to play it like Steubenville, of course. That being said, it is expected that staff members don’t publicly challenge the teachings of Catholicism. To do so would be contrary to the school’s mission to witness to the truth of Christ and His Church.
So if I’m a teacher at a Catholic school and am not Catholic, or am a dissenting Catholic, what do I do when my personal beliefs or lifestyle choices contradict what the Church teaches?
At some point, everyone’s lifestyle choices will contradict the Church’s teachings–we are all sinners. To fire people for sinning would be utterly laughable, and cruel. Those who argue, “how are you going to fire gay teachers when you don’t fire teachers for fornicating or contraception?” are totally right to point out the contradiction.
Then there’s the matter of people’s beliefs. A fair majority of Catholics disagree with the Church’s teachings on contraception, and plenty also disagree with the teaching on fornication. Should we fire people for their dissent with the Church? Again, good luck staffing your schools. The real question is whether they publicly denigrate Church teaching on chastity, and, even more importantly, does their private dissenting inhibit their capacity to witness to Christ’s love to their students in the particular subject they teach. For example, a dissenting Catholic (or non-Catholic) may have a hard time witnessing to Christ in teaching religion, but probably won’t in teaching English or Math.
This is how gay marriage is different. Getting married to someone of the same sex makes a statement that sex between people of the same sex is a valid way to express love for the other. There’s a difference between personally believing that and practicing that, and affirming that belief through a public institution like a legal marriage.
Now what’s a Catholic institution to do? Should they ask the teacher to keep their marriage private? As most Catholic schools have been doing, it’s easier to turn a blind eye and say “hey, Mr. so and so is a good teacher and a good person, who cares what he does in his private life?” or to fire him for promoting values that “contradict our faith and moral values.”
In order to respond in a more nuanced and sensitive way, we need to take a step back. Let’s look at the drastic changes in what philosopher Charles Taylor would call our “social imaginaries.”
A few centuries ago, it was common for someone to assent to the doctrines of a religion while personally not following them in his or her personal life. Being a “bad Catholic” was not exactly a big scandal. It was more of the norm than anything. Someone could recognize that sexuality is ordered toward unity and procreation, and that fornicating, contraception, and engaging in same sex relations is not what God wills for us, and still do it anyway…with the option to go to confession when they see fit.
This is largely how homosexual sex was construed. Some people have the inclination to be intimate with people of the same sex. They could either channel that desire through deep friendships or a religious vocation, perhaps struggling with sinful behavior along the way, but with the awareness that such behavior constituted a sin, and be truly repentant for it. Then there was the alternative option of “deviancy.” One could give up on trying to be chaste and go all out in negating God’s design. But even still, said “deviants” understood that they were choosing to go against Natural Law, and thus were living a life of sin. Take the Marquis de Sade, one of the first apologists for deviancy. The main reason he advocated for living such a lifestyle was precisely because it was sinful…that’s what made it so much fun.
We live in a different world now, to say the least.
First we have what Taylor calls the “spirit of reform,” which emerged around the 14th century. Religions used to have a “two tiered system” in which the spiritual “elites” (clerics, consecrated people) would adhere strictly to their beliefs and attend to more “spiritual matters,” while the lay people would adhere less strictly and attend to more worldly matters (thus the acceptability of being a bad Catholic). As more active religious orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans came on the scene, there was a new drive to encourage piety and holiness for all people. Taylor claims that this same spirit is what inspired the Protestant Reformation, and several centuries later went on to inspire Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness.”
Taylor is skeptical that such an expectation is sustainable. A new social imaginary grows from this: you are either a good, orthodox Catholic who believes everything the Church says and tries really hard to follow all of it, or you become a “cafeteria Catholic” who follows the teachings that make the most sense to you (or that are easiest to follow), or you just leave the Church altogether. Out goes the possibility of being a bad Catholic.
Then we have the rise of relativism and expressive individualism. Reality is no longer understood to be created by God and ordered toward particular ends (the basis of Natural Law). And so happiness is not about living in accord with the design of the Creator and imitating Christ’s sacrificial love, rather, it’s about expressing oneself–without harming others, of course. Thus the claims that homosexual sex is a sin, and same sex marriage is not a “real” marriage, no longer hold any ground. Gay people are not “deviants” who relish transgressing the laws of Nature. Homosexual sex, as long as it is consensual, is a way of expressing one’s feelings…of being “true to oneself.”
Surely, this narrative does not align with a Catholic worldview (and ideally the mission of a Catholic institution). But firing people helps little in reconciling the rifts in our social imaginaries. I highly doubt firing someone who gets married to another woman out of the belief that she is being “true to herself” is going to help her to think more deeply about what constitutes the nature of selfhood and the truth of her sexual desires.
Thus, it may be more effective for Catholic institutions to take less of a defensive, “political” stance, but instead take an educative and pastoral stance, asking how they can accompany their staff members to grow in deeper understanding of the truth of their calling within the institution, the truth of their identity, and the truth of the created world. This position then would not only be helpful to people who “publicly defy” Church teaching, but would ideally help everyone to grow to understand how living with Christ deepens and fulfills our desire to live happy and meaningful lives.