When the Obama administration tried to mandate that employers provide contraceptives as part of their health benefits package, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, declared that this would leave Catholics with only two choices: either to drop health coverage, or to violate their consciences. And the latter was unthinkable: “We cannot – we will not – comply with this unjust law.” His message was clear: an institution that doesn’t conform to Catholic doctrine isn’t Catholic.
Obamacare was eventuallly modified, but similar challenges to Catholic institutions continue. On March 8, St Ann Catholic School sparked outrage after refusing to admit the child of a same-sex couple. Fr Craig Maxim, the pastor of St Ann Parish, said he was only complying with the policies of the Archdiocese of Kansas City.
“Our schools exist to pass on the Catholic faith. Incorporated into our academic instruction and spiritual formation, at every grade level, are the teachings of the Catholic Church,” the archdiocese explained in a statement. “It is important for children to experience consistency between what they are taught in school and what they see lived at home. Therefore, we ask that parents understand and be willing to support those teachings in their homes.”
Fr James Martin, a Jesuit priest and advocate for LGBT Catholics, tweeted that this was “baloney”. After all, “There are all sorts of parents who do not conform to Catholic teaching and whose children are enrolled in Catholic schools: divorced and remarried parents, divorced parents, parents who use birth control, parents who use IVF, etc.”
He believes that Kansas City’s ordinances “are being applied selectively and used to target LGBT people specifically, as well as punishing the child. They are an example of what the Catechism calls ‘unjust discrimination’ against LGBT people.”
It’s not the first time schools have faced this question. Sts Peter and Paul in Miami also made national headlines last year when it fired a female teacher for marrying another woman. The school didn’t explicitly say that was the reason, the archdiocese said that she “broke the contract she signed when she began teaching at a Catholic school”, which includes a clause saying that faculty must “conduct themselves in a moral and ethical manner consistent with Catholic principles”.
Fr Martin criticised that decision, too, but the priest-blogger Fr Dwight Longenecker defended the school by making an important distinction. Fr Longenecker conceded that “there are plenty of Catholic employees who fail in their attempts to live by Church teachings”. The key point, he posited, is that “when a person marries outside the Church they have publicly and permanently, formally and legally repudiated the teachings of the Catholic faith … This means they have also publicly, formally and legally broken their employment contract.”
Fr Longenecker said this could apply to straight couples as well as same-sex ones. He had worked in a Catholic school where two employees – a man and a woman – became romantically involved and one of their marriages broke down. When the two employees said they wanted to get married, they were told they would be breaking their contract.
Critics of St Ann’s argue that the school is inconsistent because, they say, it is happy to admit the children of divorced and remarried couples.
More broadly, the Church’s freedom faces an uncertain future. Do Catholic institutions have a right to expect employees and families to adhere to the Church’s moral teachings, or at least to not publicly contradict them?
It’s possible – maybe even probable – that a few anti-discrimination suits will determine that the answer is “no”. That would establish an alarming precedent.
If teachers who enter into same-sex unions can’t be fired, then nor, perhaps, could someone who apostatised from the Catholic faith. A convert to Islam, say, would be considered a suitable person to instruct young Catholics in the same faith.
Many Catholic parents want to form their children in an environment where Catholic morality is the exclusive norm. Yet a court may decide that Catholic schools have a superseding duty to educate children whose parents neither accept nor adhere to the teaching authority of the Church.
Another precedent to consider is the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges, which overruled several state laws and instituted same-sex marriage across the country. If Obergefell is a reliable indicator, it may suggest that American jurisprudence is unsure how to separate institutions’ faith-based nature from the invaluable public services they render.
Likewise, there are nearly two million students enrolled in parochial schools, and one in six patients is now treated in a Catholic hospital. It’s precisely the Church’s outstanding work as healer and teacher has brought this scrutiny upon her. Catholic institutions are, perhaps, victims of their own success.