Bishop enforces Catholic doctrine; press goes, ‘Wha …?’

Bishop enforces Catholic doctrine; press goes, ‘Wha …?’ March 1, 2013

A regular reader who is an active Catholic recently sent us a URL to an interesting mainstream news report about religion and, this is the unusual part, even suggested a headline that ALMOST nailed the GetReligion angle in the piece.

So I used the reader’s headline.

However, I think the reader is slightly off and, perhaps, a bit too kind in that headline. I believe the actual journalistic reaction, in most newsrooms, would best — in Internet terms — be described as “WTF.” I could be wrong about that, of course.

So, the big shocking news in this piece from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is that the local bishop has decided to get on board with the Vatican’s attempts to put the “Catholic” back in Catholic education. Thus, the opening of the story (which should be read while listening, oh, to something like this) offers a gripping account of the current crisis:

The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese is requiring its 200 schoolteachers to sign an agreement affirming that “modern errors” such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage and euthanasia are “matters that gravely offend human dignity.”

The move is an effort by Bishop Robert Vasa to delineate specifically what it means for a Catholic-school teacher — whether Catholic or not — to be a “model of Catholic living” and to adhere to Catholic teaching. That means means abiding by the Ten Commandments, going to church every Sunday and heeding God’s words in thought, deed and intentions, according to a private church document that is an “addendum” to language in the current teachers’ contract.

In his two years as Santa Rosa’s bishop, Vasa has attempted to bring his strict interpretation of church doctrine to a diocese that historically has had a more tolerant approach. But some teachers fear the addendum is an invasion of their private lives and a move toward imposing more rigid Catholic doctrine.

Now, none of this is the least bit shocking for any journalist who has followed events in the American Catholic Church over the past few decades.

Here is the key: This story is not shocking for two well-established reasons.

First, anyone who has ever covered events on the Catholic left (think, oh, a WomenPriests ordination rite or any kind of event linked to the Catholic gay-rights group Dignity) knows that a high percentage of faculty members in many, critics would say most, Catholic schools tend to lean to the cultural and doctrinal left and, as a rule, this includes many non-Catholics who do not respect the ancient teachings of the church.

Second, during the era defined by the work of the Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, key Vatican offices have taken steps to put some degree of orthodoxy back into Catholic schools, including making them safe working environments for pro-Vatican Catholics. At the level of colleges and universities, this trend is perfectly summed up in the controversial, for many Catholic educators, document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”).

In other words, it is totally missing the point for this Press Democrat story to say that the local bishop is attempting to “bring HIS (emphasis added) strict interpretation of church doctrine” to the diocese, when Vasa is acting in a way consistent with a Vatican-supported effort to defend church teachings. Also, the subjects included in this covenant are all very high-profile issues in the church, rather than obscure points of doctrine. Note, also, that the teachers are protesting an action that is consistent with the right of all private schools — on the cultural left, as well as the right — to define the boundaries of their own voluntary associations.

The bottom line?

Here it is: Religious educational institutions are allowed, if they declare these covenants openly to potential employees and students, to defend their own teachings. Following the lead of Rome, more Catholic schools are doing this (while others, of course, are not). Vasa, in other words, is not a Lone Ranger.

The issue here is whether the teachers are willing to openly state their views on issues where Catholic doctrine intersect public life. Does the covenant also mention other doctrinal issues, perhaps Creedal issues? That would be good to know.

So who will be honest?

“Personally, it’s probably something that I can’t sign,” said a teacher at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa. … The teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said he has not made a final decision whether or not to sign the document.

“On my high moral days, I feel I absolutely won’t sign,” the teacher said. “And on my days that I think about my job, I think who will it affect if I don’t sign it.”

The teacher said he objects to the “whole idea that they want me to live their morals when it’s my personal life what I do outside of work.”

But Vasa said that very response is why he felt compelled to write the addendum. He questioned whether someone “can teach what the Catholic Church teaches with zeal and enthusiasm while holding, as they say, ‘in the privacy of their heart’ ” views that are contrary to Catholic doctrine. He strongly rejected the notion that the letter was a move toward greater religious dogma. “That’s fear mongering, which does not in my view have a foundation in fact,” Vasa said. …

The contract addendum has been distributed to the 200 educators at 11 Catholic schools who are formally employed by the bishop. These schools, which include Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, have about 3,100 students. And additional four Catholic schools in the diocese are not under the direct authority of the bishop.

Greater religious dogma? That’s a strange quote. Clearly what the bishop is doing is supporting Vatican efforts to teach the doctrine that the church already has. Also note that, under Catholic law, these schools are under the direct authority of the bishop. That’s important in a hierarchical church that, to be blunt, is not a democracy. Journalists struggle to grasp that fact.

So this bishop wants his teachers to agree to defend or, I would imagine, to stop attacking the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Yes, that’s a news story. Yes, that is a controversial story and there will be essential voices on both sides. However, this is more than a local story. What happened here is part of a national and a global story and the bishop’s actions cannot be understood without looking at the larger picture.

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