As you may have heard, in recent weeks the Archdiocese of San Francisco has found itself embroiled in a conflict over new language being inserted into its schools’ employee handbook. (The full text of that new language can be found here.)
Among a number of significant issues in play, a main flashpoint has been the archdiocese’s expectations regarding the personal lives of its employees. The new text includes this paragraph:
“...Administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or of no faith, are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths. To that end, further, we all must refrain from public support of any cause or issue that is explicitly or implicitly contrary to that which the Catholic Church holds to be true, both those truths known from revelation and those from the natural law. Those of us who consider themselves to be Catholics but who are not in a state of full assent to the teachings of the Church, moreover, must refrain from participation in organizations that call themselves ‘Catholic’ but support or advocate issues or causes contrary to the teachings of the Church.”
What constitutes a life that “visibly contradicts, undermines or denies” the truths of the church? If a faculty or staff member were to be living with someone outside the context of marriage, would that constitute a fire-able offense? How about if someone signed a petition calling for a change in the Church’s moral teaching, such as regarding artificial means of reproduction?
In an 11-minute audio statement released in response to concerns (which can be found within this Los Angeles Times article on the changes), Archbishop Salvatore Cordelione has tried to reassure, saying “These are statements of the institution, that the school as an institution is committed to fostering these teachings. It is not a personal statement of the teachers as individuals. The teachers are entitled as we are to live their personal lives. Certainly there’s going to be no prying into teachers’ personal lives.” [emphasis added] He also notes employees are not being asked to sign a statement of faith (unlike other dioceses implementing similar policies).
Unfortunately ambiguity persists, in no small part because the new language enumerates specific doctrines that must be must be “affirmed and believed.” Affirmation could speak to one’s public position; but belief relates to one’s private convictions, the stances borne of one’s conscience. Certainly the church can ask its employees to have their consciences be informed by the teaching of the church, just as it asks every member of the faithful, and it can ask that in their classrooms faculty and staff represent that teaching to the fullest (though of course part of that teaching is also the importance of one’s own conscience). But to require belief in a given position is beyond the church’s purview.
Employees have reacted strongly on this point. A remarkable 80 percent of the 470 employees of the San Francisco Catholic school system have signed petitions demanding that the insert be removed. And the city of San Francisco has taken the extraordinary step of publicly requesting the same, saying the church must “recognize the informed conscience of each individual educator to make their own moral decisions and choices outside the workplace.”
Other choices in the inserted text are also puzzling. The list of items that school employees are expected to assent to includes the existence of Hell and Purgatory, and the infallibility of the papacy. But it makes no mention of the Creed. It does ask that all things in the Catechism be affirmed and believed. But one might things like the three persons of the Trinity or the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, for example, would merit mention.
Likewise, the new text includes moral issues like contraception, homosexuality, the value of life, even cloning; but nowhere does it talk about virtues like faith, hope and mercy, or the demands of justice. In his recent statement Archbishop Cordelione made a point of saying more than once that he feels that the archdiocese’s schools do a great job of “teaching compassion” and “accepting people.” But again, in a document meant to indicate expectations, one might expect such things to be included.
For me, though, the biggest question of the inserted language speaks to our faith in God. The entire emphasis of the new text is the faculty and staff’s responsibility as formators of our young people. That’s not a surprise; in fact I suspect most of them already embrace a similar point of view. Though undoubtedly the archdiocese did not intend this, many likely feel that this new text is implying that they don’t already take their schools’ mission very seriously. (As someone who has spent his whole life watching his aunt work in the Chicago Catholic school system, I feel confident in saying, you don’t do that work for very long if you’re not committed to the mission. Among other things, we don’t pay anywhere near enough for it to be worthwhile!)
But what about the role that God has to play in our educational system and in the formation of our young people? The archdiocese’s new text mentions God only in the sense of things that must be believed (and even then, not really). Yet we know that our work as Catholics occurs only within the broader context of the action of God. He is the source of our inspiration and wisdom.
And more than that, we believe that God is the one who enables all our effort to work for the good. You can’t be a teacher for very long without knowing just how flawed and in need of help you are, any more than you can a parent or a priest or anything else. And of course God asks us to pick ourselves back up and try again. But he never expects us to ever be perfect.
No, instead he calls upon us to have faith in Him, to believe that he can not only fix our mistakes at times, but that somehow he can build the Kingdom even in the midst of them. Scripture tells us that “all things work for the good for those who love God”; not “all things work for the good for those who love God perfectly.”
It’s very well to call the staff or our schools to their best selves. We all need that reminder from time to time (though as the saying goes, you often catch more flies with honey). But in not placing that conversation and set of expectations within the broader context of the movement (and love) of God, the archdiocese would seem to be forgetting not just an important piece of the equation, but the very foundation upon which everything else rests.
The archdiocese did not answer requests for comment.