A Catholic Relief Services (CRS) employee has resigned amid controversy over his same-gender marriage.
In early May, CRS Vice President Rick Estridge’s marriage license from the state of Maryland was publicly released by a right-wing organization to force this executive in charge of overseas finance out of his job. Advocates called on Catholic Relief Services to stand by Estridge at the time, noting his positive contributions to the organization’s mission for 16 years and the discriminatory message his job loss would send.
Instead, CRS, which is the U.S. bishops’ international aid organization, released a statement yesterday that announced Estridge’s resignation, while at the same time lauding his service. The statement, which had Estridge’s tacit approval, attempted an explanation for his departure.Catholic News Service stated:
“Rick Estridge…stepped down after 16 years with the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid and development agency, saying ‘it was the right decision for me.’
” ‘Because of the stress this situation has caused Mr. Estridge and his family, he has made the decision to leave CRS,’ the statement said.”
CRS also noted in the statement that Estridge is not a Catholic, and his job did not involve decisions which affected mission, so church affiliation and faith were not a requirement for his employment.
From the statement, Estridge’s resignation seems amicable though it is unknown if the decision was solely his or whether CRS requested it. Regardless, Estridge joins more than 50 church workers who have lost their jobs in public LGBT-related employment disputes since 2008.
This case is slightly different, however, because Estridge’s resignation comes as the result of a vicious witch hunt launched by an anti-LGBT Catholic individual. The release of Estridge’s marriage license, including personal information like his home address, was the intentional act of Michael Hichborn from the Lepanto Institute. Hichborn is the only member of this newly formed organization, and he admits he targeted Estridge because he believes only Catholics in conformity with a strict interpretation of the faith should be working for the church. Estridge was disqualifed in Hichborn’s logic because he is not a Catholic and because of his marriage to a male partner.
Because this case was resolved by a gay employee losing his job, this type of resolution may ultimately encourage right wing activists’ targeting of LGBT church workers — a dangerous precedent as marriage equality could very well become national law later this month because of the anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Positively, Catholic Relief Service officials acknowledged that Estridge “has done a tremendous job during his years at CRS,” called him a “valued employee,” and said he would be missed. They also criticized Hichborn’s actions, without identifying him, in the statement:
“CRS also want to express its strong objection to these types of attacks and tactics of the groups which launch them…The highly personal public critique broadcast Mr. Estridge’s home address and used derogatory terms that are now part of the online record. This has caused great pain for many people.”
“We detest hurtful campaigns that do not build up, but undermine, individuals and church agencies carrying out the mission of bringing the love of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering.”
Carolyn Woo, CEO of Catholic Relief Services, admitted there is a “new intersection” between civil law and church teaching happening as marriage equality becomes nationwide law in the United States. The weeks of deliberations were a hopeful sign that perhaps an organization so dedicated to social justice would itself act justly to its employees in their time of suffering. In May, I recalled the tremendous good done by CRS saying it is a bright light in the U.S. bishops’ otherwise tarnished activities, helping more than 100 million of the world’s poorest in 93 countries each year.
To allow outside pressure from an extremist group to force the resignation of a dedicated employee after sixteen years of service is an unjust act, deeply undermining Catholic Relief Services’ otherwise powerful Gospel witness. Why didn’t CRS mount a more robust defense of Estridge when he came under attack?
Catholic Relief Services’ response is a concession to those who wish to harm LGBT people and hurt the church’s mission of accompaniment. Niceties in the statement about the terminated employee and even stern criticism of Hichborn’s actions do not negate the reality that Rick Estridge joins the ranks of those victimized by anti-LGBT activists in the church.
This resignation is morally problematic on so many levels. Rick Estridge’s sixteen years of service came to an end because he chose to exercise his rights as a Maryland citizen — and legalize his commitment to and love for his husband. More broadly, the good of the many suffering people whom CRS faithfully serves around the world is deeply undermined because of the punitive act of one man whose world is far too confined.
Marriage equality will eventually be law across the U.S., whether because of a Supreme Court decision or continued state level actions. This reality will mean the Catholic Church here will have to make a choice: do we value LGBT church workers’ gifts and commitment to the church’s mission, which may mean defending them in moments of challenge, or will we allow extremist minorities — even when the minority is one person, as in Hichborn’s case — to undermine the Gospel work of our church because we are too afraid to love like Jesus.
My prayer is that we may we all listen to Scripture’s most repeated theme as our church confronts this new reality – “Be not afraid!”
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry