The Supreme Court decision last year legalizing same-sex marriage has opened a Pandora’s box of challenges for Catholic organizations that seek to terminate employees who are not publicly living in accord with Church teaching. Add to that cases involving terminations of those divorced and remarried outside the Church and those who may use such technologies as in vitro fertilization, as well as the HHS mandate challenges, and Church institutions find themselves increasingly in uncomfortable legal territory.
Not every incident leads to a lawsuit, but these are still early days. The number of cases against the Church is growing, as is the pushback when an institution, diocese or leader seeks to define and clarify acceptable behavior as defined by Church teaching. More troubling is that Catholics themselves often do not always understand or sympathize with the Church’s position, creating tensions within a parish or diocese among Catholics. The most recent public case is that of a cantor in the Archdiocese of Washington who was fired by his pastor after another parishioner informed the pastor that the cantor was in a same-sex marriage. The firing has been followed by a now-familiar pattern of protests against, and hostility toward, the Church.
So how does the Church effectively respond? First and foremost, it must evangelize its own, communicating clearly and effectively with church-going Catholics who may disagree with doctrine about its teachings and why these issues are so important. Back-to-basics catechesis, especially on divisive issues, is desperately needed at the parish level. Second, the Church must not be afraid to stand its ground, while always communicating its message in love. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington effectively struck this balance in a Dec. 31 blog post responding to the firing of the cantor. First acknowledging that we are all sinners, the cardinal then described the difference between one who struggles to live in accordance with Church teaching versus one who openly “insists that they are right and the Church is wrong.” Defending the right of the pastor to terminate its employee, he wrote: “In the face of such irreconcilable differences, it is not discrimination or punishment to say that continued ministerial service is not possible.”
On a broader level, two different national strategies are needed: one that assists pastors with how to communicate and catechize their flocks on hotly contested issues, and a second that leads to legal success in cases that threaten Catholic identity or religious liberty, such as the current contraceptive mandate legislation. Effective strategies on both fronts are critical to maintaining the Church’s identity and impact in contemporary U.S. society.
But one piece remains. Should the Church lose such judicial review, what then? For now, most courts are retaining their traditional deference to the “ministerial exemption” and the Church’s argument that it alone can determine who is a minister and what is an irreconcilable difference. But change is in the air. Should this summer’s Supreme Court decision on the HHS mandate favor the government, how will the Church respond? Will each institution — including those not owned by the Church, such as Our Sunday Visitor — be left to decide for themselves whether to comply or face bankrupting fines?
The answers are not easy, nor is there necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to these various challenges. But the need for a national strategy, and a discussion that involves not just lawyers but theologians, bishops and lay leaders, is growing more urgent with every passing day.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor