News Analysis

Same-sex marriage and Catholic schools: the battle is just beginning

(CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

Imagine being ritually flayed alive, scalded with boiling water, and having your blood drunk by a band of Iroquois for the sake of the Catholic faith, only to have the school named after you, more than 350 years later, disobey the local archbishop with the support of your order and lose the right to call itself Catholic.

Poor St Jean de Brébeuf.

That was what happened to Brebeuf Academy two weeks ago, when the Archbishop of Indianapolis put out a decree stating that the school was no longer to be recognised as a Catholic institution within the diocese.

The decree, issued on June 21, was the culmination of a two-year dispute that arose when it became public that a teacher had entered a same-sex civil marriage. The archdiocese demanded that they let his contract expire, and the school refused.

Media outlets pounced on the story as an example of the Church’s homophobia, casting the rigid archdiocese, with its decrees and stubborn adherence to dogma, on one side, and the conscience-driven Jesuits on the other.

A statement from the school’s leadership said: “The decree follows a sincere and significant disagreement between the archdiocese, on the one hand, and Brébeuf Jesuit and the USA Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus, on the other, regarding whether the archdiocese or our school’s leaders should make final governance decisions related to internal administrative matters at Brebeuf Jesuit and, in particular, the employment status of our faculty and staff.”

The provincial of the Midwest Jesuits put out a statement standing by the school’s decision.

“Our disagreement is over what we believe is the proper governance autonomy regarding employment decisions which should be afforded a school sponsored by a religious order,” Fr Brian Paulson SJ wrote. “In this particular case, we disagree regarding the prudential decision about how the marital status of a valued employee should affect this teacher’s ongoing employment at Brebeuf Jesuit.”

In contrast, about a week later, Cathedral High School, also in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, complied with a request by the archbishop to terminate the employment of a teacher in a same-sex marriage.

A statement by Cathedral made it clear that this was a decision made by the archbishop, and that they took the consequences of losing their status as an institution with the diocese seriously. “If this were to happen,” its statement read, “Cathedral would lose the ability to celebrate the sacraments as we have in the past 100 years with our students and community. Additionally, we would lose the privilege of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel’s tabernacle, we could no longer refer to Cathedral as a Catholic school, our diocesan priests would no longer be permitted to serve on our board of directors, and we would lose our affiliation with the Brothers of Holy Cross.”

The statement also expressed concern that the school could lose its 501c3 status as a non-profit, a situation that Brebeuf may end up facing. The situations of the two schools are, however, somewhat different. Cathedral was an archdiocesan school that the Brothers of the Holy Cross were invited to help run, while Brebeuf was founded by the Jesuits, who govern it.

Some of Brebeuf’s current and recent praised the school for opposing the archbishop’s decision. Xandra Button, who is about to become vice president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club, told Teen Vogue that the dispute came down to Brebeuf’s motto that students should be “men and women for others”. Button remarked: “Being a man or woman or any gender for others means that you fight for those who are less fortunate than you … those who are different than you.” She added: “I’ve been hearing ‘God loves everyone’ the whole time I’ve gone to Brebeuf, especially in my religion classes.”

Archbishop Charles Thompson has insisted that his dispute with Brebeuf “is not a witch hunt”.

“We don’t go looking for these situations,” he told the Associated Press. “When they are brought to my attention … it is my responsibility, my duty, to oversee the living of the faith, especially for our ministerial witnesses.”

Archbishop Thompson was also quoted as saying that a teacher cohabiting with a person they weren’t married to would be treated in the same way.

That being said, questions around marriage have a particular element of public counter-witness which means that bishops may feel compelled to act.

It is unclear whether the Equality Act, which was backed by all House Democrats and is endorsed by every Democratic presidential candidate, would expose the archdiocese to civil penalties or a loss of public funding for its actions in these cases.

For now, such disputes remain largely within the Church. But there may soon come a time when they enter the political arena.