Religious educators asked to sign fidelity oaths

For an hour or so on most Sundays, parishes entrust catechists to teach the Catholic faith to young children and teenagers. 

The catechist is often the only adult who will inform young Catholics of the Church’s traditions and teachings on faith and morals. 

Profession of faith

In recent years, several bishops have asked these religious educators to declare their fidelity to the Church’s teachings, and to lead lives consistent with Christian values. 

However, the topic of “fidelity oaths” for catechists and religious education teachers is a recent hot topic for debate in Catholic circles. 

The issue made for a lengthy news story July 11 in the Washington Post about five catechists — out of around 5,000 — in the Archdiocese of Arlington, Va., who resigned their positions after refusing to sign an oath of fidelity to Church teachings. 

One profiled catechist was Rosemarie Zagarri, who is also a history professor at George Mason University.  

Zagarri wrote a letter to Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde saying that she found the archdiocese’s fidelity oath, called the Profession of Faith, “troubling” and vague in asking people to accept “everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” 

“For a Catholic who takes the profession seriously, who wishes to understand it fully, and who wishes to be true to her conscience, it is impossible to take such an oath,” Zagarri wrote. 

The Archdiocese of Arlington’s Profession of Faith asks its catechists to believe in the Nicene Creed, “everything contained in the Word of God,” whether written or handed down in Sacred Tradition, which the Church sets forth to be believed as divinely inspired, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal magisterium. 

The profession also demands its signatories to give their “religious submission of will and intellect” to the teachings that the pope and bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic magisterium, “even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” 

That last clause in the profession is what gave Zagarri and others like-minded reason to be wary. Zagarri suggested it was not possible to specify all the teachings that would qualify under the profession. She added that the profession also showed the bishop was expressing mistrust in catechists’ sincerity or capacity to authentically convey the tenets of the faith. 

Too much significance

Some Catholic commentators have expressed similar misgivings. Joe Paprocki, a catechist in Illinois and a published author of several catechetical books, wrote on his Catechist’s Journey blog that he would feel reluctant to sign a fidelity oath because of the atmosphere it creates. 

“It is heavy handed and creates a climate of fear. The Sacrament of Baptism is the only solemn oath necessary,” Paprocki said, who noted that Catholics already renew their profession of faith whenever they proclaim the Nicene Creed at Mass, and when they renew their baptismal promises, especially during the Easter Vigil. 

Catholic identity

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not suggested or mandated individual dioceses to implement fidelity oaths. Many archdioceses, including Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Boston and Los Angeles, among others, do not require catechists to sign fidelity oaths. 

However, James Cavanagh, the metro area director of evangelization and catechesis for the Archdiocese of Denver, told Our Sunday Visitor that he is intrigued by the idea, and added that he plans to discuss the subject with the new Archbishop Samuel Aquila. 

“If it was up to me, I’d ask for it, at least of our [directors of religious education], but it’s the bishop’s call,” said Cavanagh, who noted that he was offering his personal opinion. 

Meanwhile, some dioceses have already had similar policies in place for several years. The Archdiocese of Baltimore requires religious education teachers in Catholic schools to sign a Code of Conduct for Church Personnel, pledging to represent the Church in “faithful, authentic and loving ways.” 

In 2004, Bishop Robert Vasa, the former head of the Diocese of Baker, Ore., asked that all lay ministers, including catechists, sign an Affirmation of Personal Faith affirming Church teachings on the sinfulness of abortion, contraception, premarital sex and cohabitation and homosexual relationships. 

For at least the past 15 years, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has required its religious education teachers and catechists to sign a “Christian Witness Statement” affirming their belief in Church teachings, said Msgr. John Unger, the archdiocese’s deputy superintendent for catechesis and evangelization. 

Teaching a generation

The majority of catechists and religious education teachers in the Archdiocese of Arlington have also expressed support for Bishop Loverde’s policy, which is set to begin next month in order to coincide with the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, said Michael J. Donohue, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Arlington. 

“This was meant to be a positive measure, to celebrate the important mission of catechists in the Church and to single out the important role they play and the work they do,” said Donohue. 

Donahue also told OSV that the complaining catechists contacted the Washington Post before they wrote their letter to the archdiocese. 

Donohue said the archdiocese is planning to send another letter more fully explaining the Profession of Faith. 

“This is a positive gesture of community,” said Donohue, who added that the profession is not intended to eliminate catechists who have ever struggled with particular Church teachings. 

Donohue also said some parishes in the archdiocese already had their own “fidelity oaths,” but that Bishop Loverde decided to adopt it on a diocesan level. 

“It’s really about giving confidence to parents that their children will be fully catechized,” Donohue told OSV. “Catechists pass on the faith to the next generation of Catholics. There are probably fewer roles of such importance to the Church.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.