We are in the middle of Catholic Schools Week here in the U.S., a time to reflect on the importance of Catholic education in the life of the church and society. This year, the celebration of this week is particularly bittersweet because while we know that Catholic schools have done so much good in our history, we are painfully aware that over the past few years, some (not all, by any means) Catholic schools have committed grave injustices by firing gay and lesbian employees who have legally married their spouses. No response to such actions have been stronger than that of the students of Eastside Catholic Prep School, near Seattle, Washington, where students have been active for over a month in their protest efforts to have former vice principal Mark Zmuda re-instated to his job. Tomorrow, the students will be hosting #ZDay–a major demonstration of their support for Zmuda who was fired for marrying his husband. People are encouraged to wear orange as a sign of solidarity with the students and Zmuda.
A wealth of interesting commentary has developed around this case and around the growing trend of such firings. Rick Garnett, who contributes to Mirror of Justice, a blog about Catholic legal theory, has provided some important questions for reflection on the issues in this case. Garnett writes:
“As a legal, constitutional, and political-theory matter, I guess I am committed to the view that a Catholic high school is and ought to be able to decide (a) that teachers and administrators must teach and form students in accord with the Church’s proposals and teachings and (b) whether or not a particular teacher or administrator is failing to do so. That said, cases like these are . . . tricky for several reasons: Even those Catholic schools that are most committed to tethering hiring and firing decisions to their Catholic mission and character do not, generally speaking, investigate employees’ private lives to be sure they are entirely consistent with the Church’s moral and other teachings. (Phew!). What’s more, failures to live in accord with the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality are failures, but they are not necessarily, as a category, more ‘serious’ or ‘grave’ failings than the failure (of so many of us!) to live in accord with the Church’s teachings on charity and humility, and yet we don’t hear about many Catholic school teachers being fired for exhibiting insufficient joy. “
I disagree with Garnett’s claim that not living in accord with Church teachings are “failures.” After all, a person may have made this decision after serious conscience reflection, and, thus, are not “failing,” but actually “succeeding” in doing what they believe God has said is right. Despite that disagreement, I think he is right to point out that adhering to rules about sexuality should not be the litmus test for whether or not one is a good role model as a Catholic educator.
Eduardo Moisés Peñalver, a blogger at dotCommonweal, commented on Garnett’s post by offering an alternative course of action that the schools could have taken:
“Although I am inclined to agree with him [Garnett] that (at least for Catholic elementary and secondary schools who do not accept state funding) this is a choice for the Church to make, it seems to me that the Church has left itself the space to make a different choice in these situations. It could choose to view the injustice it sees in gay marriage as (in its view) one that is perpetrated by the state, and not by the participants in gay marriages. Consequently, as to actual gay couples, it could simply treat the marriages as a nullity and ignore them. On this view, the Church’s beef is with the state, not with the gay couple. If it is willing to hire someone who is gay, it should not fire him/her for taking advantage of a set of secular benefits that the state has chosen to exend to him/her.”
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, responded to Garnett’s blog post by teasing out many of the other moral issues at work in this case. For instance, he writes:
“As a matter of law, Garnett is undoubtedly correct that there is no real debate: Eastside Catholic has the right to terminate any school employees it wishes. Teachers are certainly within the compass of the ministerial exemption from anti-discrimination laws, and even other staff members could seriously disrupt a parochial school’s mission if they wished in ways that would extend the ministerial exemption to them as well. The Church is free to fire and hire free from government interference, which does not mean it is smart to do so, only that it is undoubtedly within its legal rights to do so. ”
I think this is an important distinction to make because it addresses the issue of what the school is teaching the students by its actions. Though they may have had a legal right to fire Zmuda, did they stop to think what lesson they would be sending to students with such an action? From the response of the students, they have learned a terrible lesson about Catholic institutional discrimination, what columnist Jamie Manson has termed “a vaccine against faith.” Who did more damage to the students’ lives as Catholics: Mark Zmuda for marrying his husband or school administrators for responding so harshly to such an action? Winters makes another important distinction relevant to this case: the difference between violating church teaching and undermining church teaching:
“Here is the rub for me. It is true that marriage is a public act. It entails official government recognition. You can look it up on a government register. But, most people do not spend their time sorting through government records to see who is, and is not, married. If Mr. Zmuda began bringing his husband to the school and introducing him as his husband, I do not see that as any different from a straight woman bringing in her live-in boyfriend or a straight man bringing in his mistress, and introducing them as such. In all three cases, I think the school would be within its moral as well as its legal rights to fire them. The offense, however, is not that they violated Church teaching, but that their announcement of their violation can be considered an effort to undermine Church teaching.”
Winters concludes with an appeal to the example of Pope Francis, whose style would be welcome in cases such as these:
“Blessings upon the gay rights leader who stands up for the constitutional right of a Catholic school to fire whom they wish. Blessings upon the Catholic prelate who admits that civil marriage for same-sex partners is not the threat it has been painted as. And, blessings upon everyone who helps to restore a greater appreciation for the idea that one’s private life is best kept private, that the personal is not necessarily the political, and that it is possible, at the same time, to both cling to the Church’s teachings and be generous and merciful with those who cannot or will not share them in their entirety. Isn’t that what Pope Francis has been trying to remind us these past few months?”
Ken Briggs, who also blogs for The National Catholic Reporter, has a more pessimistic view about Pope Francis’ influence on firings. Briggs feels that Catholic institutional leaders have their hands tied by church law, and that they can’t do anything until the law changes. He writes:
“Francis’ sentiments have become a mantra for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates as meaning gay and lesbian sexuality is within the bounds of moral approval. The anathema visited upon homosexual acts by the Vatican (‘intrinsically disordered’) is believed to have been superseded by the pope’s tolerance in the view of these hopeful thinkers. And who’s to blame them for the optimism in that ray of hope? “But in the real world of the Seattle archdiocese, decisions are supposed to be guided by official church teaching. The Catholic church’s opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t just advice. Practically speaking, it’s church law. What option do Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and the Eastside administration have but to follow the rule? “Nothing the pope has said gets to a particular case such as this and others that are cropping up. Perhaps that’s what the pope intends. He utters a personal vision of how things should be, even contrary to church teaching, hoping it will spark a grassroots debate that will eventually bring about change. Let a wholesale discussion work it out. He has endorsed a much more communal, conciliar church, so maybe he’s playing the role of catalyst.”
I disagree with this more pessimistic view. I think that church leaders have the right and responsibility to weigh all factors in any situation and that they have an obligation to do what they think is right, not just what they think an authority is telling them to do. People have a lot more freedom than they give themselves credit for. Of course, they also have to be willing to live with the consequences of their decisions, but that is what a life of faith is all about. Moving past the culture of blindly following authority is something that Catholic leaders and people need to do. We also need to move past a culture in which people courageously do what they think is right only up to the point where they may get in trouble. Robert McClory touches on this topic in a National Catholic Reporter analysis of the Zmuda case. McClory notes:
“Now that gays are marrying their longtime partners thanks to changes in federal and state laws, they are facing dismissal from their jobs. The alleged reason for dismissal is the fact that they are not following the church teaching on homosexuality. The real reason is that the word is out; the public knows they are gay — and the church is embarrassed. “But the affected employees weren’t following church teaching on this issue before, and somehow pastors and bishops were able to live with this less-than-perfect situation. Now, they feel, it’s time to impose a strict interpretation of the law. That’s where the hypocrisy, the double standard, is so obvious. Secrecy has been the chronic disease of Catholicism for a long time.”
There are many lessons to be learned from the Zmuda case about how church leaders can constructively respond to LGBT issues as they arise in Catholic institutions. Let’s hope that the next time such a situation arises, the leaders involved will be able to look at some of the broader issues involved, and not narrowly focus on just the sexual issues that may be involved.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
For an excellent timeline about the Zmuda case, visit QueeringtheChurch.com
For learning how to establish non-discrimination policies in Catholic institutions, click here.