Morality clause debate heats up on West Coast

Update: On Feb. 24, Archbishop Cordileone met with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, which published a story claiming the archbishop is "re-examining strict guidelines he proposed for teachers." However, in response to that article, the archdiocese released a statement saying: "The Archbishop has not repealed anything. He is adding explanations, clarifications, and material on Catholic social teaching, via a committee of religion teachers he is establishing. The committee is to expand some areas of the material to be included in the faculty handbook, and clarify other areas by adding material.  Nothing already planned to go in is being removed or retracted or withdrawn."

The archdiocesan statement went on to say that the word "'ministers' is no longer being considered" to define teachers in the archdiocese. "The word currently being used is 'ministry,' according to the news release.

Also on Feb. 24, San Francisco Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper, published a letter written by Archbishop Cordileone to teachers at the four archdiocesan high schools in which he explained "reflections and clarifications" regarding the new language in the faculty handbook. Full text of the letter can be found on the website of Catholic San Francisco.

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Original story, as it appears in the issue of March 8:

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone is experiencing significant pushback for introducing so-called morality clauses and seeking to define teachers as ministers in their new collective bargaining agreement.

Not only are teachers, students and their supporters in the archdiocese protesting and signing petitions, but now elected officials in the Bay Area are getting involved, sending letters and threatening to apply political pressure to get the archbishop to back down.

Archbishop Cordileone, an outspoken defender of the Church’s moral teachings who also chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, has defended his actions as necessary to clarify obligations that teachers in the archdiocese’s four Catholic high schools have to conform their public and professional lives to Catholic teaching.

“Confusion about the Church’s stance is prevalent in areas of sexual morality and religious discipline,” the archbishop wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to Catholic high school teachers. On Feb. 19, the archbishop also responded to eight state lawmakers who had written him that morality clauses send “an alarming message of intolerance to youth.”

In his letter, the archbishop asked the lawmakers if they would hire campaign managers who undermined their political party. “My point is: I respect your right to employ or not employ whomever you wish to advance your mission. I simply ask the same respect from you,” Archbishop Cordileone wrote.

‘Right to know the truth’

While some question the prudence of the policies, other observers say the archbishop has a right to set moral standards in Catholic schools. Catholics such as William B. May, founder and president of the California-based Catholics for the Common Good, are sounding the alarm about elected officials trying to exert influence on the situation.

“This is a precursor of things to come across the country,” May told Our Sunday Visitor. “The real agenda here is the legislators cannot tolerate the Church teaching children about love, sexuality and marriage because the Church is the only institution in the world that is standing in the way of redefining sexuality, love, marriage and family. Children have a fundamental right to know the truth, and the archbishop is defending that right.”

Robert Destro, a law professor at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, also told OSV that the San Francisco situation is not the first, nor will it be the last time, that politicians “have tried to intervene in internal church matters. ... This is, quite frankly, none of the state’s business,” Destro said.

Met with protests

Morality clauses have been controversial in other dioceses that have sought to introduce them into teacher contracts, so pushback was no surprise when the archdiocese in early February announced that it was seeking to add detailed statements of Catholic teaching on sexual morality and religious practice into the faculty and staff handbooks at four archdiocesan high schools. The statements, taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, say that the schools affirm Catholic positions on chastity, contraception, homosexuality, human cloning and the definition of marriage as one man and one woman. The handbooks do not require staff members and teachers to assent to each stated item of Catholic doctrine.

In His Own Words
“The times we live in pose very drastic challenges to us for teaching all of the virtues properly. The temptation we all feel is to soft-pedal these issues — better not to go there, or at least don’t insist upon it, lest we be judged adversely by others and not ‘fit in.’ But this is a time more than ever that our Catholic schools have to step up to the plate, and be true to what they are called to be — for the good of our young people in this life and in the next.”

“That is because the archdiocese recognizes that some Catholic teachers and other non-Catholic teachers may not agree with all that the Catholic Church teaches,” Archbishop Cordileone said in his letter to teachers. “The aim of the handbook additions is to specify for all what the Church teaches and require that high school staff and teachers not contradict Catholic teachings in a school environment or in public actions.”

However, the archbishop’s stance angered many students and teachers in the liberal Bay Area. Students took to social media, using the hasthtag #teachacceptance on Twitter to voice their disapproval. Protests and candlelight vigils were held, including one event outside St. Mary’s Cathedral on Ash Wednesday.

The reaction does not surprise Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a moral theology professor at Boston College who taught in San Francisco for 14 years. Father Bretzke told OSV that the archbishop has the authority to implement his initiatives, though he questions whether it is a good idea.

“Personally, I would suspect that the desired positive outcomes of clearer understanding of Catholic identity, etc., will ultimately not be well-served by these particular initiatives,” Father Bretzke said. “In other words, I believe this approach will be counterproductive, and indeed I believe the pushback to date would support this view.”

While adding that any number of cultural and moral issues need to be “better addressed,” Father Bretzke said, “the manner in which one does this, I believe, needs to be carefully thought out.”

Union’s concern

The archbishop’s effort to define teachers as ministers, which could make it easier for the archdiocese to fire teachers who publicly flout Church teachings, is a source of concern for Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers Local 2240, the union that represents the teachers. A member of the union’s negotiating team told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, that teachers are concerned that being classified as ministers will hurt their negotiated bargaining rights. The archdiocese has said the teachers’ contract, including its grievance procedure, will remain in place.

Jeffrey Mirus, a philosopher who is president of Trinity Communications, which publishes CatholicCulture.org, wrote that the ministerial exception is the best way to prevent unwarranted government interference in the Church’s efforts to educate according to its principles. “The designation may be artificial, and it may not work in this case, but it arises as a defense against governmental meddling in religion and denial of the natural law,” he wrote.

William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told OSV that Archbishop Cordileone’s proposal was “common sense” in requiring teachers and staff to uphold Catholic principles in their professional and public lives without mandating their individual assent to Church teachings. “He’s not saying, ‘We’re starting an inquisition,’” said Donohue.

Lawmakers take stand

In a Feb. 17 letter to the archbishop, eight California state lawmakers said the statements of faith in the school employee handbooks “foment a discriminatory environment,” send “an alarming message of intolerance” and strike a “divisive tone” that stand “in stark contrast to the values that define the Bay Area and its history.”

California Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, who signed the letter, also told the San Francisco Chronicle that “any novel legal maneuvers to impose injustice must be stopped.” The Chronicle also reported that city officials are considering legal options to block what they consider to be “discriminatory employment practices.”

Destro said the lawmakers’ real objection to the teacher handbooks’ affirmations of faith is the underlying Catholic theology.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means that Catholics are free to believe — and to act — on views about the freedom to choose who to love and marry, how to plan a family and what causes or beliefs to support through freedom of speech and association that are diametrically opposed to the values of these politicians — and, for that matter, that are opposed to whatever the ‘values’ of the entire Bay Area might be,” Destro said. “That opposition is the essence of evangelization.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.