Enforcement of teachings put Church in uneasy spot

Catholic organizations have the right and obligation to ensure moral and ethical standards for clergy, lay ministers and employees.

But several dioceses and parishes have found applying those standards to be a difficult challenge in light of a culture that elevates the individual and publicizes nearly every case of someone who is terminated from a Catholic institution on moral grounds.

Most of the recent cases have revolved around the issue of homosexuality. A lesbian gym teacher at a Catholic high school in Ohio was fired after her same-sex relationship came to light in her mother’s obituary, a move that prompted a petition, threats of lawsuits and a grievance for wrongful termination. A similar situation occurred on Long Island, N.Y., where a gay catechist and lay minister was relieved from his parish duties after he civilly married his same-sex partner.

‘Complicated’ issue

Critics and media commentators blast the Church for being insensitive, judgmental, even hypocritical, while bishops and other defenders of orthodoxy say they are being faithful to the Church’s mission to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel.

“It ought to go without saying that the Church not only can but should require fidelity to Catholic teaching of catechists and restrict ministries and, indeed, Communion, to those who are living lives of public scandal with respect to Catholic teaching,” said Jeffrey Mirus, a philosopher and president of Trinity Communications, the nonprofit that runs the website CatholicCulture.org.

“No organization with principles can long survive if it does not insist that its principles are followed by those who claim its name,” Mirus told Our Sunday Visitor.

Meanwhile, Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told OSV that the issue is “complicated.”

“On the one hand, if every sinner was fired from a Church job, we would have no Church employees, including priests,” Father Reese said. “On the other hand, the Christian community has a right to set standards for its employees. But one has to wonder why the only sins that get a person fired are sexual.”

“This is further complicated by the fact that the Church would be encouraging abortions if it fired pregnant women,” Father Reese argued. “Also, to be consistent, the Church would need to fire those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, and those who commit fornication and adultery. And what about those who leave the Church?”

Recent cases

The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, released a statement regarding Carla Hale, the gym teacher who was fired in March from her position at Bishop Watterson High School after her same-sex relationship publicly came to light. The diocese declined to comment specifically on Hale’s firing, saying that personnel matters are confidential, but noted that all Catholic school employees agree in their employment contract to abide by the rules, regulations and policies of the diocese, including respecting the moral values advanced by Christ.

The diocese said: “The Catholic Church respects the fundamental dignity of all persons, but also must insist that those in its employ must respect the tenets of the Church. Personnel who choose to publicly espouse relationships or principles that are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church cannot, ultimately, remain in the employ of the Church.”

Hale, a Methodist, told reporters that she filed a grievance to get her job back. During a news conference, she said that it was “baffling” that the diocese would take an obituary and use it “in such a mean-spirited manner.”

Her attorney, Thomas Tootle, told reporters that he was exploring legal options, including filing a grievance with the city of Columbus, and commented that the Church faced an “uphill battle.”

A similar situation occurred in Oceanside, N.Y., where Nicholas Coppola was released from his duties as a catechist and extraordinary minister of holy Communion at St. Anthony’s Church after he civilly married his same-sex partner. Coppola met with Rockville Centre Auxiliary Bishop Robert Brennan twice to ask for reinstatement, but those requests were denied, according to published reports.

Coppola presented three boxes to the Diocese of Rockville Centre that he said were filled with more than 18,000 signatures of people who signed a petition calling upon Bishop William Murphy to reinstate Coppola and to “make it clear that gay and lesbian Catholics are welcome to participate fully in parish life in your diocese.”

The diocese subsequently released a statement saying that two of the boxes were actually empty.

The statement also reaffirmed the Church’s teachings on marriage and its need to be faithful to its teaching and to the consistent and coherent living out of that teaching. The diocese added that Church institutions and teachers of the Faith are bound to support the teaching, particularly by their public action.

Fidelity to teachings

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights defended the Rockville Centre diocese during the Coppola affair, which Catholic League spokesman Patrick McNamara said was “all done for effect.”

“We all have a right to expect that those who work for us will abide by Church teachings,” said McNamara, who also told OSV that there has been an “aggressive movement” in the culture to undermine Church teachings. McNamara quoted Blessed John Paul II, who said that the Church “does not impose, but rather proposes.”

“The Church is not out to get anybody,” McNamara said, “But the Church has an obligation to hold up its teachings.”

Several dioceses have required employees, teachers and catechists to take what are commonly known as “fidelity oaths” to Church teachings, which Father Reese argued are a “stupid idea” and an acknowledgement of the bishops’ failure to persuade people on Church teachings.

Father Reese further argued that firing homosexuals on grounds of public scandal is “silly” because the Church’s teachings on sexuality are well-known.

“As a result, the public sees these firings as purely punitive, whether that is the purpose or not,” Father Reese said. “Perhaps a better response is to deal with these employees pastorally and quietly rather than make a big fuss.”

Mirus said he believed the matters in Ohio and New York were handled as prudently as possible.

“If you have to bar someone from ministry, you want to do that with as little damage to the person’s reputation as possible, which means you handle the matter as quietly as possible while still making the reasons clear to the person involved,” Mirus said. “If the individual then seeks publicity — as is very common when the fault is popular in the larger culture — then there is going to be a backlash.

“There would seem to be no way to avoid that,” Mirus added. “But it is far better for priests and bishops to have the courage to defend the Faith than to cower in fear of the press, as has been so common over the past 40 years or so.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.