The Ethics of Exit: What happens when a Catholic teacher violates church teaching?
Last year a male faculty member at a Catholic high school in Washington State was fired when administrators learned that he was married to a man. An unmarried woman was fired from a Catholic middle school in Montana when the principal discovered that she was pregnant. Two unmarried teachers were fired from a Catholic high school in Massachusetts after they revealed to the principal that they were in a relationship and that the woman was pregnant. They immediately lost their health insurance and were denied letters of recommendation from the principal.
These situations raise difficult questions for the administrators of Catholic schools, who are charged with promoting their institution’s Catholic identity. On the one hand, the four employees mentioned above were reported to be well qualified and good at their respective jobs. On the other, all four were publicly exposed as being in violation of Catholic teaching and in breach of the morality clause in their contracts.
Unlike situations regarding sexual contact with students or the nonperformance of duties, the situations described above are difficult to adjudicate because there are no clear-cut moral principles to guide right action. This is especially true regarding the treatment of married gay and lesbian teachers in Catholic schools. After all, it is only recently that most schools have this population in their ranks.
The modest goal of this essay is to elucidate principles that ought to guide discussion of these challenging issues. These cases are especially difficult because, unlike Catholic colleges and universities, Catholic elementary, middle and high schools teach children who may be encountering these moral questions for the first time. These teachers have a responsibility to create an environment in which students can learn how to live a virtuous life. This article focuses on the moral duties of school administrators. The moral responsibility of individual teachers is also a fertile area for inquiry, but that is a subject for another article.
Asking the Right Questions
Two points should be made at the outset. First, ethics is done well when it asks and answers the right questions. We begin, therefore, by setting aside a question that is often asked but that is irrelevant to this article: “Is the church’s official teaching correct regarding the morally illicit nature of gay marriage?” That is an important question that should be discussed and debated in Catholic households, parishes, colleges and universities. But it is a not a question to be asked by Catholic school administrators in their role as administrators. While individuals within institutions have the right to dissent from church teaching as individuals, they do not have the right to unilaterally alter an institution’s values and conscience. For instance, if a Catholic school principal believes that the church’s social teaching is wrong in its critique of liberal capitalism, this does not empower him or her to alter the curriculum so that students learn the economic philosophy of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek instead of reading Paul VI’s encyclical “The Development of Peoples” or the U.S. Catholic bishops’ letter “Economic Justice for All.”
Second, we need to expose an error in logic. It does not necessarily follow that because a teacher has violated church teaching, and his or her contract, that he or she should be terminated. Many teachers violate their contracts without being fired. The question is not simply: Did the teacher violate the contract? Instead it should be: Does the violation of the contract disqualify the teacher from educating students in a Catholic context?
In his words and writings Pope Francis has demonstrated the importance of returning to the foundations of the faith as one engages the moral details of a case. A central theme in Francis’ writings is that the disciples of Christ should see the world as it relates to God (see especially “The Light of Faith”). Francis applied this logic when responding to a question regarding homosexuality, and answered with a rhetorical question of his own.“Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” Francis rightly noted that Christians first are called to see the gay person or the unmarried pregnant woman as a person who is loved by God. This foundational pillar of the faith has moral implications, as St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully explained using an analogy in the Summa Theologiae: “When a man has friendship for a certain person, for his sake he loves all belonging to him, be they children, servants, or connected with him in any way.” The analogy is then extended to God. If one loves God, one also should love all of God’s friends. Who are God’s friends? Everyone: gays, lesbians, couples who conceive out of wedlock, children, the poor and so on. Therefore, in order to love God one also must love all people. (Of course, we have deeper and more substantial relationships of love with friends and family.)
Forming the Whole Student
In Catholic schools, the moral priority rests with the good of the students. Schools exist for the students, not the faculty. The unique mission of Catholic schools is to educate and form the whole student—academically, spiritually and morally. As a rule, Catholics give special priority to the needs of the vulnerable in a given community. At their meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, the Latin American bishops wrote that the option for the poor applies to the materially poor, but also to all children. Thus, while justice must be rendered to the faculty and staff, justice is primarily conditioned on what is best for students. The rights of faculty and staff are limited by the rights of students to receive a high quality Catholic education. This is not to claim that the rights of faculty and staff are to be ignored but that these rights must be placed in their proper context.
With the heart of the Catholic tradition in mind, we now can begin to discuss the moral resources that have proven to be helpful in the adjudication of difficult cases.
Counsel. The first and most important step that administrators, or anyone else for that matter, can take when discerning the right course of action in difficult situations is to “take counsel.” I use this word in a moral sense, not a legal one. Aquinas argued that the prudent agent should take “good counsel” in the determination of what ought to be done in cases in which there is reasonable doubt regarding the right course of action. Counsel is especially useful in new cases, where there is no codified moral wisdom upon which to draw.
By sitting together with others one can overcome one’s own limited perspective. Members of the group might attend to realities that may have escaped one’s own notice. Following Aquinas’s practice, when appropriate the principal should gather together a diverse group, made up mainly of other administrators. In cases in which scandal is a threat, one should also seek the counsel of the local diocesan bishop. Because of the newness and complexity of the situations facing Catholic school administrators, it would be wrong to fire a faculty member without first seeking counsel from various constituencies, including the school’s attorney. While the administration of a school is not democratic, the best of Catholic tradition supports decisions that are made in a manner that emphasizes dialogue and participation.
Casuistry. Once a group has been assembled, there are a number of tools they can employ to adjudicate difficult cases. The first is casuistry. While a distorted version of casuistry was lampooned and fell out of favor centuries ago, the essential approach of casuistry—the comparison of cases—remains a very useful method. It enables the agent to discover the moral solution to a quandary by comparing and contrasting the case in question to a paradigm case about which there is wide moral agreement regarding the right action.
How might casuistry aid in the adjudication of the scenarios presented at the outset of this essay? Administrators could, for instance, compare and contrast the case of the unwed pregnant couple to cases that have led to termination of employment, like sexual contact between a faculty member and a student. They could also look to cases in which an offending faculty member was retained, for example after an especially angry outburst. What were the common factors in the cases of termination? Were they incidents in which students, faculty or staff were directly abused somehow? Were they cases involving illegal actions on school grounds? Or were they cases in which the faculty member’s action could scandalize children? What were the common factors that led administrators to retain faculty members who had violated their contracts? Were their actions morally blameworthy but with little or no effect on students? Were faculty members retained if their offense consisted of a momentary lapse of judgment, as opposed to a habitual character trait? Finally, is the case of the unwed pregnant couple closer to cases involving termination or to those in which the faculty member was retained?
Virtue ethics. Perhaps the most useful and important tool is virtue ethics. The cases outlined above are quandaries precisely because administrators are concerned about the effects that the presence of married gay persons and unwed parents will have on the moral character of students. Thus, the overriding question that administrators must ask and answer is: What are the formational effects on students if the school dismisses or retains the faculty person under consideration? This question can be answered only by those who know today’s students well. As Pope Francis acknowledged in January in his remarks to leaders of religious orders of men, it is a challenge to “proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing” in its attitudes toward marriage. He also cautioned that the church should “be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith” to those who live in nonconforming relationships or hold views that conflict with church teaching.
The moral formation of students transpires more through the example set by teachers and administrators than by the students’ abstract knowledge of the moral doctrines of the church. This fact is clearly acknowledged in recent papal writings. Pope John Paul II underscored the importance of that effect in “The Mission of the Redeemer” (No. 42), when he noted that “people today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories.” The primacy of action does not undercut the importance of educators; rather it points to the need for educators to be witnesses as well, as Pope Francis argued in “The Joy of the Gospel”: “We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness” (No. 42). And who among us is a suitable witness for a faith that calls us to universal love, mercy and justice? Recall that even Pope Francis responded, “I am a sinner,” when asked who he was.
Still, administrators must discriminate between those imperfect people who can serve as witnesses for young people and those who should not. The dividing line may be found in the concept of scandal. Genuine scandal involves leading others to believe that immoral actions and ways of life are actually morally licit. Scandal is important because it has the potential to malform the conscience and character of young people. But not every immoral action or mistaken belief is scandalous. Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to discern what might “give scandal.” Does an unmarried pregnant teacher undermine the church’s teaching on premarital sex in the eyes of students, or does she provide a quiet witness to the value of bringing all children, even those conceived in less-than-ideal situations, into the world? Does the presence of a married gay man on the faculty undermine the church’s teaching on matters of sexual ethics, or is this outweighed by the man’s practices, for example, of love and mercy toward the suffering, the sick and the unborn? These are some of the difficult but essential questions that administrators must ask and answer.
Justice for Faculty and Staff
While most of this essay has focused on justice toward students, one cannot ignore the legitimate claims of faculty and staff. I highlight two here.
Promulgation. First, if certain offenses are worthy of termination they should be promulgated as such in the teacher’s contract or handbook. The Diocese of Cleveland recently released a revised teacher contract listing prohibited behaviors in detail, like procuring or supporting abortion, having sex outside of marriage and drug use. While one can debate the substance of the morality clause, schools owe teachers this level of disclosure so that they can make informed decisions regarding their employment.
Harm mitigation. While in some instances administrators may find it necessary to terminate a faculty member’s contract, they should attempt to mitigate the harm this causes. Recently, the just war tradition has added the category of jus post bellum or “justice after war” toward those who have been defeated. Administrators ought to exercise jus post terminationem, which normally would include such support as an extension of health insurance benefits, severance pay and a letter of recommendation to future employers regarding the faculty member’s teaching ability and character.
Catholic schools should be institutions of love and mercy, and the temporary support of terminated faculty members and staff is one way the school can witness to its mission. Many of these cases involve innocent third parties who are harmed when the offending faculty or staff person is fired. The expecting couple in Massachusetts were fired and lost health insurance precisely when it was most necessary. In “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 213), Pope Francis lamented that “it is also true that we [the church] have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish.”
The lack of accompaniment of unmarried pregnant women by Catholic schools is scandalous and may create situations in which abortion presents itself as an option. This does not require administrators to retain persons who have violated their contracts. It does require schools to avoid abandoning those who were once a part of the academic community. Because of their Catholic identity, schools have responsibilities not only for their students, but also for the lives and well-being of the children, born and unborn, of their faculty and staff. This concern for innocent third parties clearly extends to the children of gays and lesbians.
How do we teach and model the Gospel to a generation that is changing? And how can Catholic school administrators balance all the competing interests in a just way? Therein lies the quandary for those who administer schools that have been built in the name of Jesus Christ.