When LGBT Church Workers Are Fired, What Are ‘The Ethics of Exit’ ?

The most troubling issue of the last few months has been the rash of people fired from Catholic institutions because of LGBT issues. The injustice of these decisions is made even more troubling by the fact that, based on what these institutions have stated publicly, these actions seem to be devoid of any ethical reflection of the complex issues involved.  Part of the reason for this exacerbation of the problem is that no ethical reflection has been done around such situations since they are very new on the church scene.

Donald Trump, on TV’s “The Apprentice” offers his famous line: “You’re fired!”

America magazine, a Jesuit publication, took a stab at beginning the process of ethical reflection on firing church employees, by publishing an essay entitled “The Ethics of Exit” by Daniel J. Daly, associate professor and chair of the theology department at St. Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire.  Daly’s scope in the article is not only LGBT issues, but various “infractions” that have caused people to be fired, such as becoming an unwed mother.  Yet, LGBT issues, particularly the question of what to do when a gay or lesbian teacher marries, are a main focus.

My reaction to this piece is mixed.

What I like about the essay is that it helps to enumerate some of the moral issues involved in such cases.  Daly recognizes that these are not “black and white” situations, but more gray.  For example, at the outset, he offers a re-framing of the issue:

“It does not necessarily follow that because a teacher has violated church teaching, and his or her contract, that he or she should be terminated. Many teachers violate their contracts without being fired. The question is not simply: Did the teacher violate the contract? Instead it should be: Does the violation of the contract disqualify the teacher from educating students in a Catholic context?”

Moreover, Daly sets up some good ideas for decision-making processes in such cases. For example, he recommends that administrators seek opinions and perspectives from a wide diversity of people before making a decision about employment termination, something we have not seen practiced much in the cases reported in the news.

He also recognizes that the impact a firing can have on the formation of students is an important factor that must be taken into consideration.  Similarly, he advocates for administrators to consider the practical effects that firing can have on the employee in question, and that all attempts should be made to mitigate harm.

What I don’t like about the essay is that it skirts a number of the hard questions.  For example, Daly’s discussion of the concept of “scandal” identifies questions, but doesn’t provide answers:

“Scandal is important because it has the potential to malform the conscience and character of young people. But not every immoral action or mistaken belief is scandalous. Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to discern what might “give scandal.” Does an unmarried pregnant teacher undermine the church’s teaching on premarital sex in the eyes of students, or does she provide a quiet witness to the value of bringing all children, even those conceived in less-than-ideal situations, into the world? Does the presence of a married gay man on the faculty undermine the church’s teaching on matters of sexual ethics, or is this outweighed by the man’s practices, for example, of love and mercy toward the suffering, the sick and the unborn?  These are some of the difficult but essential questions that administrators must ask and answer.”

In another passage, he advises that while students must be a school’s first priority, faculty and staff rights do have to be considered. Yet, he doesn’t provide enough analysis of  what that consideration should be:

“The rights of faculty and staff are limited by the rights of students to receive a high quality Catholic education. This is not to claim that the rights of faculty and staff are to be ignored but that these rights must be placed in their proper context.”

Daly never explains what the “proper context” is.  It is almost as if he assumes that all readers will know what he means.

Another problem is that Daly doesn’t want to question the bigger moral questions that have prompted these firings.  At the outset, he limits the scope of his article:.

“First, ethics is done well when it asks and answers the right questions. We begin, therefore, by setting aside a question that is often asked but that is irrelevant to this article: ‘Is the church’s official teaching correct regarding the morally illicit nature of gay marriage?’ That is an important question that should be discussed and debated in Catholic households, parishes, colleges and universities. But it is a not a question to be asked by Catholic school administrators in their role as administrators. While individuals within institutions have the right to dissent from church teaching as individuals, they do not have the right to unilaterally alter an institution’s values and conscience.”

This limitation, however, stunts the moral reflection which Daly seems to want to inspire.  If we can’t ask if the official Catholic teaching on gay marriage is right or not, then how can we evaluate whether or not a violation of that teaching is grounds for firing? How can we evaluate whether a violation of the teaching is scandalous or not?  The bigger questions have to be involved in the discussion because not all violations of church teaching are considered as grounds to fire someone.  Obviously, there is some hierarchizing of teachings involved in the decision-making, and it seems that violating sexual teachings are considered the most egregious.

Daly’s limitation of scope also works to support the influence that administrators have in defining what teachings are more important than others. For example, he defends the controversial new contract clauses that dioceses have instituted.  His defense is that the new clauses satisfy the condition of letting an employee know beforehand what restrictions might be:

“. . . [I]f certain offenses are worthy of termination they should be promulgated as such in the teacher’s contract or handbook. The Diocese of Cleveland recently released a revised teacher contract listing prohibited behaviors in detail, like procuring or supporting abortion, having sex outside of marriage and drug use. While one can debate the substance of the morality clause, schools owe teachers this level of disclosure so that they can make informed decisions regarding their employment.”

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it ignores the many good teachers who have made significant contributions to schools and who now find that new contract clauses violate their consciences and faith lives.  The story of Molly Shumate is perhaps the most poignant example of someone caught in this new dilemma because the clauses have been changed.   Shumate is the teacher who refused to sign the new contract because she has a gay son, and she felt that the new restrictions on publicly supporting gay equality would mean disrespecting her son.   A case like this shows that it is not enough for the employer to simply disclose new obligations.   The substance of  the new obligations defined by such morality clauses also must be examined and debated.

Daly and America magazine have done a service by getting the conversation started on the ethics of these employment decisions. Unfortunately, his examination is only a starting point, Many more questions and answers need to be raised. Catholic teaching on employment and human dignity, as well as a more complex analysis of the moral conundrums that firings and new restrictive polices cause, need to included in the discussion.  Daly’s analysis is a good first word, but it is certainly not, nor should it be, the last.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related posts:

June 10, 2014:  March in Local Pride Parades to Support LGBT & Ally Church Employees

May 27, 2014:  Exploring the What & Why of Church Worker Firings, and Asking ‘What’s Next?’

Resource Page:  Catholicism, Employment, & LGBT Issues

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