I first wrote about Carie Charlesworth’s story here. Carie’s teaching contract at Holy Trinity Catholic School was not renewed for the 2013-2014 academic year because Carie is the victim of domestic abuse. I find this to be a terrible injustice. But Carie is not alone. Here are the stories of other people fired from their jobs at Catholic institutions:
Emily Herx’s teaching contract was not renewed because diocesan officials learned she had undergone in vitro fertilization.
Christa Dias was dismissed from her job after she requested maternity leave. Because Dias was not married, the archdiocese said that her dismissal was justified because she violated her contract by having a child out of wedlock and by becoming pregnant through artificial insemination. Interestingly, Dias is not Catholic.
Carla Hale was fired from her job as a teacher after someone notified the diocese that she had included the name of her female domestic partner among survivors in her mother’s local newspaper obituary. The bishop said that she was let go because of her “quasi-spousal relationship,” which violates church teachings. Carla Hale is Methodist.
Al Fischer was fired from his job as a music teacher and music director after a representative of the Archdiocese of St. Louis learned that he married his partner in a civil ceremony in New York City.
There may very well be many more people impacted who have not been able to share their story with a wider audience. There are a few reasons why I find these stories so troubling.
Privileging of Sexual Morality
Four of the five people named above were fired from their positions because their actions violated Church teachings on sexual morality (use of artificial reproductive technology, childbearing out of wedlock, and same-sex relationships). I have not found a documented case of a woman fired for use of artificial birth control or a man fired for having a vasectomy, but these would be plausible reasons for termination of employment if we were to use the logic of the diocesan statements in the above cases. The “Pre-Application Statement” for the Diocese of San Diego Office for Schools explains the policy in this way:
The Church needs the service of dedicated lay persons who have a clear knowledge and proper understanding of the teachings of the Church with a firm adherence to those teachings, and whose words and deeds are in conformity with the Gospel. Those employed by the Church in our parishes, Catholic schools and other institutions, as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord, are rightly expected to be practicing Catholics whose faith is an essential part of their daily lives, and who participate fully in the communal worship and life of the Church.
To be employed by the Church, persons of good faith who are not Catholic must have an understanding of the Catholic Church and her teachings and respect the Catholic vision on important social, moral, and ethical issues.
So, if you are employed by a Catholic institution, not only must you do your job to the best of your ability, you must also follow the Church’s teachings and participate in Church life. Does this mean I could be fired if I skip Mass on Sunday? If I do not tithe? If I vote according to my conscience, even if I vote for a pro-choice political candidate? I could be fired if I have an abortion, if I am unfaithful to my spouse, or if I use pornography (Once? Repeatedly? No distinction is made).
The policy above, which is one example of a diocesan statement, is so broad that any violation of Church teaching could be named as justification for termination of employment. In practice, it seems to have been applied more narrowly to cases involving artificial reproduction and same-sex relationships. So there seems to be a double standard here. If all Catholic institutions were to abide by this policy, how many more people would be fired? In the case of Nicholas Coppola, who was prohibited from working as a catechist and minister to the homebound for his Catholic parish after the bishop found out he was in a same-sex relationship, Bishop Bob Brennan said that it was not a “witch hunt” but nevertheless Coppola could no longer participate in any ministries for the parish. But was this standard fairly applied to all ministers in the diocese? Has this standard been applied to priests accused of sexual misconduct and bishops accused of covering up this misconduct?
If you work for a Catholic institution, your “words and deeds” must be “in conformity with the Gospel.” This is a high standard indeed. But how is it interpreted? One could ask the same about the Code of Ethical Standards for Church Ministers for the Diocese of San Diego, which claims:
Church ministers are expected to be persons of integrity who conduct themselves in a manner that is open, honest, and above board. This requires that they be conscientious in their ministry and morally upright in their personal lives.
At stake here are two issues. One is the assumption that a standard of moral perfection is possible and desireable, when in fact even our theological tradition assumes that human beings are wounded by sin and agents of sin in need of God’s grace. We cannot simply add to all future job postings the statement: “Sinners need not apply.” All of us, by virtue of our common humanity, are sinners in need of God’s grace. Our hiring strategy as a Church cannot simply be to hire all the non-sinners. The second issue is the contested claim that a person whose life is not in conformity to the Church’s teachings is thereby not “morally upright.” Imagine a hospital chaplain who is a good listener, sensitive to the needs of grieving family members, with a compassionate bedside manner and honesty in his conversations with his supervisor, whose job is at risk after he confides that he and his wife use condoms to prevent the possibility of having another child at this point in their marriage. Some might argue that the chaplain’s decision, while not in conformity to the church’s teachings, is nevertheless not grounds for his termination of employment on the basis of moral failing, especially if he and his wife have made this decision after prayerful discernment. One could imagine many different kinds of scenarios here, but my point is simply that there may be many people striving to live moral lives in their complex circumstances who find that they cannot live in conformity to the church’s official teachings. The church policies that have been cited in press reports do not cite examples of grave harm caused by those who have lost their jobs; for Emily, Christa, Carla, and Al, no evidence was given that any of them had a record of misconduct in a job performance review. We aren’t talking about someone being fired because s/he verbally abused a student, stole money from the institution, or harassed a fellow employee.
A Climate of Silence, Fear, and Shame
An implication of these policies is that one cannot assume that a Catholic workplace will be a safe place to speak honestly about any contested moral issues. If you could lose your job for honestly admitting that you struggle with an official church teaching, why would you speak up? But without this honest discourse, the church itself suffers. For many people, these stories serve as a warning to keep their mouths closed if they want to keep their jobs. Don’t discuss your personal life, don’t discuss politics, don’t tell your co-worker what you did on vacation, don’t talk about reading this blog post! If you depend on your job for financial security and family stability (who doesn’t?), be prudent. Be silent. Don’t make waves.
Brain Drain in Catholic Institutions?
A further implication is that some good people will leave. Not because they aren’t the best math teachers or music directors or day care workers or chaplains or guidance counselors, but because the best math teacher is gay, and the best music director is on the pill, and the best day care worker has a daughter who is lesbian and she is sick and tired of feeling ashamed when she talks about her grandchildren at work and her employer tells her that her grandchildren will be damaged by growing up with two mommies. Meanwhile, nothing happens to the bishop who gets a DUI.
By saying that jobs at Catholic parishes, schools, and other institutions are only open to people who live in conformity to the Church’s official teachings, we limit the pool of candidates. There may be some jobs where this trade-off makes sense. But to make the case that every teacher in a Catholic school must agree with and abide by all official Church teachings, even when that teacher is not Catholic and not responsible for teaching that material, is problematic. It takes the focus away from the worker’s skills and the overall mission of the institution to which that worker contributes by being the best worker one can be.
The Dignity of the Worker in Catholic Social Thought
The Catholic Church has a long tradition of upholding the value of work and especially the dignity of the worker. In his summary of Catholic social teaching on the human significance of work, theologian William E. May writes that the chief concerns of the popes have been:
To stress the dignity of the worker and of work as a free activity of human persons; to secure the rights of workers, particularly to a living and, indeed, to a family wage; to instill in all a love for the common good not only of individual nations but of the whole human race; and to help everyone recognize that the material goods of the universe are intended to serve the needs of all human persons, in particular the weak and the poor. In addition, there was a clear recognition of the dignity of all human work, including the “labor of our bodies,” precisely because of the priceless dignity of the human persons who are the subject of work. –“Theology of Work,” 998.
With previous popes John Paul II recognizes that human persons can be exploited and degraded because of the conditions under which they are at times made to work. But he teaches that the principal factor contributing to the degradation of human workers is caused when all personal satisfaction and incentives to creativity and responsibility are denied to workers and, above all, when they are made unable to recognize that they are, in a true sense, working for themselves as free and responsible persons (citing Laborem Exercens, no. 5), May, “Theology of Work,” 999.
If the Catholic Church is to fulfill its mission in the world, it should take its own advice and be sure that the Church is itself a good employer. If the Church’s own employment practices are unjust and degrading to workers, and if these policies create a climate of fear and shame, the Church suffers and the people to whom the Church ministers will suffer. If you want to attract and keep the best co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord, treat them with justice and dignity.