Firing Teachers at a Catholic School

Firing Teachers at a Catholic School September 3, 2014

It seems to crop up in the news with regularity:  “Teacher fired from St. X Catholic school because….”  It could be because the teacher is openly gay, or has entered into a gay marriage, or had in vitro fertilization, or is an unmarried mother, or (in a particularly depressing case) was the victim of domestic violence.   There is an inevitable backlash in the media, and very often students and their parents rally in support of the fired teacher.  Irrespective of anything else, the Church comes off looking quite bad.

We have discussed this a few times in posts: see, for instance,  here and here. Reviewing the commentary it is clear that there are some serious conflicting views at stake here and that there is a need to elucidate the moral principles involved.  A couple of months ago, there was an article in America Magazine that attempted to do exactly that:  The Ethics of Exit by Daniel J. Daly, an associate professor and chair of the theology department at Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire.   I recommend reading the whole article, but I want to quote a few of his key points here.

First, like a good ethicist, he carefully frames the question to be considered:

Two points should be made at the outset. First, ethics is done well when it asks and answers the right questions. We begin, therefore, by setting aside a question that is often asked but that is irrelevant to this article: “Is the church’s official teaching correct regarding the morally illicit nature of gay marriage?” That is an important question that should be discussed and debated in Catholic households, parishes, colleges and universities. But it is a not a question to be asked by Catholic school administrators in their role as administrators…. Second, we need to expose an error in logic. It does not necessarily follow that because a teacher has violated church teaching, and his or her contract, that he or she should be terminated. Many teachers violate their contracts without being fired. The question is not simply: Did the teacher violate the contract? Instead it should be: Does the violation of the contract disqualify the teacher from educating students in a Catholic context?

Second, he focuses attention on the rights of the student and the duty of the school towards the students:

In Catholic schools, the moral priority rests with the good of the students. Schools exist for the students, not the faculty. The unique mission of Catholic schools is to educate and form the whole student—academically, spiritually and morally….Thus, while justice must be rendered to the faculty and staff, justice is primarily conditioned on what is best for students. The rights of faculty and staff are limited by the rights of students to receive a high quality Catholic education.

Third, he directly addresses the idea that underlies many (if not most terminations):  scandal:

[A]dministrators must discriminate between those imperfect people who can serve as witnesses for young people and those who should not. The dividing line may be found in the concept of scandal. Genuine scandal involves leading others to believe that immoral actions and ways of life are actually morally licit. Scandal is important because it has the potential to malform the conscience and character of young people. But not every immoral action or mistaken belief is scandalous. Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to discern what might “give scandal.” Does an unmarried pregnant teacher undermine the church’s teaching on premarital sex in the eyes of students, or does she provide a quiet witness to the value of bringing all children, even those conceived in less-than-ideal situations, into the world?

I do not (unfortunately) have the time to give his argument careful attention.  However, there are a few additional points I want to throw out:

First, the firing of teachers seems to be intimately connected with deep anxieties related to being Catholic in the modern world.  In other words, we fire teachers not simply because they violate Catholic teaching, but they do so in a way that is connected to the particular fears that are affecting us at the moment.

Second, the firing of teachers seems to be gendered:  many more women than men appear to be fired for this reason.  In my own experience I recently ran into a case where a male teacher was not fired for conduct in flagrant violation of Church teaching—he was allowed to teach until the end of his (multi-year) contract and then let go.  (I noting this I am mindful that the plural of anecdote is not data.)

Third, compassion and mercy always seem to take a backseat to justice in these matters.    In my earlier posts I framed the discussion as a matter of mercy and I was quite surprised by the pushback this generated.

The first and second points are perhaps debatable:  our perception of these matters is shaped by the secular media which finds that it gets more mileage from a story about the Church if it involves sex or gender issues.  And mercy and justice are difficult to balance and I do not claim to know where the golden mean lies.

So my  two questions for discussion are this:  what principles should guide the firing of teachers in Catholic schools? Does Professor Daly create a good foundation, or are there facets he has not considered?  Second, principles can exist in the abstract, so I think implementation is the key:  decisions must take into account the complex and sometimes hostile world we live in.   So how would these principles play out in the real world?  In particular, to what degree should our prudent response be shaped by the way our decisions are perceived by the larger world, or even by ordinary Catholics?


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