Catholic Schools and Gay Teachers: Can We Compromise Without Compromising?

Catholic Schools and Gay Teachers: Can We Compromise Without Compromising? July 21, 2015

Since firing religious education department head Margie Winters for being married to another woman, Waldron Mercy Academy has been buried under a mudslide of bad press and consumer ill will.

Some parents have withdrawn their children altogether; others are withholding tuition. At $13,500 per year for kindergarten through eighth grade, this tuition represents a sum no school would willingly forego. Nor are parents who can afford to pay it the sort of people any school would willingly tangle with.

Waldron Mercy Principal Nell Stetser has been reduced to e-mailing the parents, confiding that she, too, feels “deep pain at the situation,” and pleading for them to join her “in the process of healing.”

The letter is a show of naked desperation, as well it might be. Waldron Mercy is now in a lose-lose situation. Whatever happens will cost the school money, face, or both. If Stetser were an official in the Ottoman Empire, the sultan would long ago have ordered her strangled with a silken cord.

None of it had to happen. Winters could have been kept on board with no appearance of hypocrisy or cowardice on the school’s part. The only magic required would have been a re-statement of Catholic social teaching, along with a clear statement of school priority.

The Church has never made any secret of regarding work as essential to human dignity. Mankind must work – in deference to God’s wishes, to help other people, especially family members, and to contribute to society as a whole. In his apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI elucidated just how much of man’s humanity depends on his being gainfully employed.

“All people,” states the pope, “have the right to work, to a chance to develop their qualities and their personalities in the exercise of their professions, to equitable remuneration which will enable them and their families ‘to lead a worthy life on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level’ and to assistance in case of need arising from sickness or age.”

In view of work’s vital importance to all aspects of the human condition, the Church is proudly biased in favor of any factor that makes it easy to get or keep. With Marx to tilt against, St. John Paul II was a regular maven on the subject, praising labor unions in his encyclical, Laborem Exercens. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI went a step further, proclaiming that the economic sphere “is human” and for that reason must be “structured and governed in an ethical manner.”

In short, the weight of the Church’s teaching would appear to come down hard on the side of a retentive HR policy.

True enough, when prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future Pope Benedict did oppose laws that would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and hiring. But even given the most charitable reading, his reasoning — that the easier it became to lead an openly gay life, the more people would do it — is obsolete.

With that ship having sailed (into heavy weather), the Church loses nothing by acknowledging that sexually active gays and lesbians possess the dignity common to all people and stand to benefit, in the same ways as anyone else, from secure, fulfilling, and well-rewarded work.

Some Catholic schools dangle the sword over all teachers who break Church rules in their personal lives. But Church authorities don’t always enforce these “morals clauses” in ways consistent enough to suit the courts. In 2011, the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend fired a teacher for becoming pregnant through In Vitro Fertilization. The teacher sued, and it emerged during trial that the diocese had been content to reprimand three male teachers who’d harassed a dancer during a visit to a strip club. Ruling that the diocese had discriminated against the teacher on the basis of her sex, a federal jury awarded the plaintiff $1.9 million.

That sum accounted for 7% of diocesan assets. The diocese plans to appeal the court’s decision, which should cost it even more. On the bottom line, enforcing morality can start looking pretty luxurious.

To avoid appearing arbitrary, Catholic dioceses could impose a “no tolerance” policy on teachers, where any manifest sin would get them tossed out on their ears with no questions asked. But no-tolerance policies tend not to work wonders on employee morale. Plus, such a policy would drain the pool of potential teachers down to a sand pit. Margie Winters, for one, had held her job since 2007, and was beloved enough by fussy parents that her dismissal incited them to mutiny. These facts alone suggest she’s a commodity worth hanging onto.

If schools want to play it smart, they should announce, first of all, that they regard work to be so important, for all the reasons named by the various popes, that they’re making a policy of extending indulgence to all manifest sinners (excepting those sinners whose sins violate the law). Second, they should have all teachers sign, not a morals clause, but a non-disparagement clause. Even if they be polyamorists who get themselves off with electric shocks (and refer to the practice, archly, as “Merton play”), teachers wouldn’t get to say the Church is wrong about anything.

This is of course far from a perfect solution. But it would at least throw a very positive light on at least one aspect of Catholic social teaching, and it would preserve the appearance of the Church as a collection of imperfect pilgrims. If having reprobate teachers around would tend to give scandal, well, constant litigation and negative publicity can be stumbling blocks in their own right. Sometimes we have to pick our battles.

At least where gay and lesbian teachers are concerned, a generous, doctrine-based HR policy would have one more positive effect: it would make them complicit with the Church. The next time their comrades started getting frisky, filing lawsuits or demanding that tax exemptions be removed, teachers at diocesan schools might not be so quick to applaud. After all, in a financial crunch, their jobs might be the first ones cut.

Recognize dignity. Save money. Stay out of the headlines. It all comes under being wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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