A ways back I discussed a movement afoot in certain dioceses of the United States to change the status of Catholic school teachers to that of official “minister” status of the Church. This is a subject of particular interest if you are currently a Catholic school teacher, or, if you are an employee of the Catholic Church in any formative or ministerial situation. I note here that I personally am very much in favor of written term contracts for all Catholic formative employees, not just Catholic schoolteachers. Contracts are a basic legal protection for all parties, employer and employee, in the full spirit of Catholic Social Teaching as articulated so well by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891)
I am not an expert in Labor Relations Law, and were I a Catholic school teacher I would probably go to a better source for the precise implications of all of this, but essentially in certain dioceses in the United States a number of bishops have tightened the contracts and manuals of those with faculty/staff status. The goal is to explicate more clearly the obligation of Catholic school teachers to teach and live publicly the faith and morals of the Catholic Church. This stricter reading of a generally held expectation has been interpreted in a number of interesting ways already. I noted a few weeks ago the situation in Miami where the archbishop forbade any mention of issues in opposition to Catholic Church teaching to be posted on Facebook or other social media. I should add here that in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Lutheran Church’s designation of “called” teachers in their schools, the “called” designation exempting the employee from normal administrative process
The National Catholic Register, the EWTN news service, endorses the actions of Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco and about six other bishops across the U.S. who are undertaking this direction, and I have taken the liberty of quoting its editorial position at some length to highlight its logic and explore difficulties in implementation. The direct context is teachers unions’ criticisms that a change to “ministerial status” would give bishops and dioceses an unfair upper hand in collective bargaining:
The unions are right about the law, and it [is] one important reason why the “ministry” designation is essential. Our Catholic bishops have the rightful authority to defend Catholic teaching and protect the Catholic mission of Catholic schools, which includes ensuring that curriculum, employment policies, health benefits and other concerns remain consistent with Catholic teaching and that teachers are good role models for students. No union should be able to compromise that authority.
There is an old saying about fighting the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place. Obviously I think this is a worthy war, the Catholicity of our teaching institutions. Since I began attending NCEA Conventions in 2000 the agendas of workshops have numbered in the dozens each year on the very subject of Catholic identity. This year’s convention is no exception. So the matter of a school’s Catholicity is not a new crisis; wise commentators as far back as the 1970’s were wondering about the impact of the departure of Catholic religious sisters, brothers, and priests from the Catholic classrooms upon the identity of schools and the religious instruction provided. I have personally attended several seminars of doctoral theses on the subject. In 2014 I reviewed When the Sisters Said Farewell (2013). Catholic parents pay top tuition dollar; simple justice would dictate that the Catholic doctrinal and moral history be richly presented to their offspring (though I admit, it is not always this motivation that brings Catholic parents to our doors.)
So this is a protracted concern over many years. Why the sudden interest in a change in teachers’ status? Again, while I think there are multiple answers that we can discuss in days ahead, the urgency can probably be summarized in one phrase, “culture wars.” The last several years have featured a number of judicial, legislative, and executive rulings that in some way, shape, or form, have confronted Catholic moral teaching, but specifically, those issues that have historically troubled the relationship between U.S. Catholics and the Church as a whole. Among these I would note cohabitation, artificial birth control and same-sex marriage, the latter in particular because of the large number of states courts that now permit such unions. In a sense the line-in-the-sand has been drawn here, and this is where the pitched battle will be, precisely in institutions under the control of bishops.
I suspect that all of you may know or has heard of someone who has lost a job in a Catholic institution because of a public alleged violation of Church teaching (as opposed to a criminal situation of solicitation, DUI, etc.) These are never easy situations; a same-sex couple marrying in a different jurisdiction, a teacher using a grandparent’s address to cover cohabitation, or the discovery that a faculty member is not validly married in the Church. Philosophically, the thread that connects all such moral conflicts cited here is ultimately sexual in nature, which in turn raises the question: is this selective enforcement of Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters a form of discrimination that, at the very least, gives short shrift to the wider richness of Catholic moral teaching?
In a sense, what we have here is a noble battle with questionable tactics. The Inquisition itself was discontinued in part because at the end of the day it became too hard to tell who was really a Catholic. The present day elephant in the faculty lounge, for example, is Humanae Vitae, the 1968 teaching banning artificial birth control. There are a great many Catholic teachers and formation personnel, not to mention parents of students, who are parenting two or three children families. Do we enforce what appears to be a widespread disregard of this papal teaching, and if so, why disregard this one, which clearly affects the most people? As history has taught us, to the cost of billions of dollars, where there are loopholes, there are lawyers. Now there’s one for the Roberts Court.