Is an L.G.B.T.Q. ‘lifestyle’ compatible with working for Catholic schools? A Seattle task force finds no easy answer.
A task force commissioned by the Archdiocese of Seattle unanimously calls for a new L.G.B.T.Q. youth ministry in its final report, but has failed to reach a consensus on the “lifestyle clause” of the ministerial covenant signed by employees of Catholic institutions. The agreement that better accompaniment of young people is needed is cause for optimism, but the Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, chair of the task force, was correct when he sent me the report and commented, “My guess is that you will find it a mixed bag.”
The report draws on a survey of nearly 5,000 stakeholders in the archdiocese (including clergy, school staff members, parents, parishioners and alumni, but not current students), conducted in January and February. (I am not a member of the task force, but Father Nuzzi has discussed its work with me over the past year.) It makes laudable recommendations for formation practices, pastoral care ministries focused on gay Catholics and school leadership initiatives. These are the most action-oriented parts of the report, and should Archbishop Paul T. Etienne approve the recommendations, the concerns of L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics and their families will be heard in new programs “where the Spirit can dwell for young people to question, struggle, and be vulnerable without threat or coercion,” a place of “compassionate care” and “diversity as well as fidelity to the Church’s teaching.”
“Unsurprisingly, the members of the task force differ considerably on their views concerning what the ministerial covenant should outline and how its provisions should be applied.”
The road ahead is less clear regarding the employee covenant. “Unsurprisingly, the members of the task force differ considerably on their views concerning what the ministerial covenant should outline and how its provisions should be applied,” the report’s authors state.
That language currently states that a teacher may be fired if his or her “life-style is incompatible with Catholic moral values or if his/her conduct is at variance with Catholic teaching.” The desire for more nuanced, character-driven language in the covenant is what prompted the creation of the task force. My colleagues at Kennedy Catholic High School, for example, presented the archbishop with a list of signatories who strongly disagree with the current language. While last year’s Supreme Court ruling seems to give Catholic institutions wider latitude to claim exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, many of us believe there are dangers to the church using this latitude to “purge” employees.
The desire for more nuanced, character-driven language in the employee covenant is what prompted the creation of the task force.
Summarizing the views of those who would like to retain the lifestyle provision, the task force says they want a “review of the standards of what it means to be a Catholic” and a “re-setting” of the purpose of Catholic schools, or a “reclaiming of our Catholic values, morals, and beliefs in an age where they are often ignored and even attacked.” The report opens with a statement of church teaching that foreshadows this viewpoint: “While always respecting and honoring the dignity of all people, the Church continues to challenge gay Catholics to reflect on the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. In living out this challenge they are called to a life of chastity and fidelity to God’s moral law with the support of the church’s love and mercy.”
According to the task force, those who would like to discard the lifestyle provision say it is “discriminatory” and “reconciliation and healing should be sought.” They urge that “issues arising from the quality of an employee’s witness be evaluated moving forward with prudence on a case-by-case basis” because these issues often regard “highly personal life choices that…have [been] discerned in conscience.” One might ask: Why is Teacher X, who has citations for verbally or physically abusing students, still employed when Teacher Y, who lives with a significant other but leaves private life out of classroom talk and treats students with respect, has been fired?
It sounds familiar, right? The conflicting beliefs are indeed representative of the contemporary church, and it is not so surprising that the task force opted for contemplation over action here.
Many will accuse the report of not going far enough in recommending specific steps to Archbishop Etienne, but in a deeply Christian sense, its restraint is perhaps its greatest strength. In laying bare all their struggles and ideas, the task force is giving our own hand back to us to remove any beams blocking our vision. Its lesson is: We must learn—and relearn—how to hold tensions.
Many will accuse the report of not going far enough in recommending specific steps to Archbishop Etienne, but in a deeply Christian sense, its restraint is perhaps its greatest strength.
Its restraint could also be seen, in a Christian sense, as cowardice or sloth. It may communicate that task force members are reluctant to suggest ways forward because the church will do what it wants regardless. Or that members are too overwhelmed to channel what they have brainstormed into integrated, actionable steps.
Re-examining what many of us see as contradictory decisions on the part of the task force may help illuminate the path forward. First, it is disappointing that the task force could, in a unified way, recommend faith formation and pastoral care ministries for young adults dealing with L.G.B.T.Q. questions but could not similarly endorse a statement that is included in the list of reasons to discard the lifestyle provision—that “humility is the most appropriate posture in the light of growing scientific knowledge, accumulating lived experience, and ongoing theological reflection.” Doesn’t a pastoral ministry presuppose a posture of listening, of seeking to understand rather than to be understood? What would it look like to apply this posture to the adults who are scapegoated through the lifestyle provision—and who, not too long ago, were students themselves?
Second, it is disappointing that the task force included in the list of reasons to retain the lifestyle provision the statement that school staff should not teach “dissent” to their students, even as the task force affirms that students have questions about L.G.B.T.Q. concerns that arise on their own. Conscience, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, means student and teacher alike have the right to act “in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (No. 1782). In Catholic schools, students should not fear conflict with their peers or teachers. Rather, they should prayerfully share their critical thinking.
Archbishop Etienne, in a letter to the pastors and principals of the Archdiocese of Seattle released contemporaneous to the report, said, “I will now take these recommendations into prayer and begin my discernment process…. Please know that this will take time, and I ask for your patience. I pray the Holy Spirit guides me and gives me the grace to hear our Lord and respond to his wishes.” Let us pray for Archbishop Etienne and for all our bishops at this time, and let us pray for the Spirit to guide our students in Catholic schools.