Reply All

The Role of Conscience

Editor’s note: Lisa Fullam, an associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., a graduate school of Santa Clara University, responds to “The Ethics of Exit,” by Daniel J. Daly (6/9). Her letter expresses concerns raised by many readers.

Thank you for a thoughtful essay on a hard topic. I agree wholeheartedly with much of what the author recommends, especially his second point at the outset, that a violation of Catholic teaching does not necessarily constitute a reason for firing a person. His focus on formation, virtue and justice is a welcome addition to a debate too often framed in terms of legalisms.


But I want to ask about the first point made at the outset, that it is not the task of school administrators as administrators to assess magisterial teaching. I disagree. In Catholic tradition, the conscience is bound by a just law, while a law that is unjust may (or must) be violated in the name of the common good.

It was Augustine who declared an unjust law to be “no law at all,” a stance endorsed by Thomas Aquinas, and which was the foundation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Indeed, it is only because the particular magisterial teachings you cite are in question that people are troubled by teachers being fired for violating them. No one would seriously question whether a teacher who was convicted of murder or who publicly advocated white supremacy should be fired from a position in a Catholic school. The administrator’s task begins with asking which teachings are unequivocally just, and which are amenable to reasonable dissent.

Even here there are two levels of discussion. There are teachings that might be argued to be unjust in application, e.g., firing women pregnant out of wedlock when no such penalty is applied to the men involved. This is an exercise of epikeia, of discerning that enforcing a usually just rule would result in injustice. (This inequity, as well as the inducement to abortion, is scandalous.)

But the question of married L.G.B.T. faculty members is different, it seems to me. Here the challenge raised to magisterial teaching is more fundamental: many question whether the teaching itself is just. If civil marriage equality fits under the church’s teaching of non-discrimination against L.G.B.T. people (the magisterium says no, while most Catholics say yes on this one), then it is not just a matter of the administration tolerating bad behavior in light of other good qualities the faculty member may bring, but of calling out a teaching that is unjust from the start.

If administrators believe in their own consciences that the teaching itself is unjust, then they have a responsibility to stand unequivocally with those teachers, against a law which is “no law at all,” in the name of all the goods that great teachers bring to Catholic schools, which are mentioned by Professor Daly. If they agree with magisterial teaching that civil marriage equality is “a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society,” as the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in 2009, only then can they evaluate whether teachers engaged in such behavior may continue to be on their faculty. Given what the bishops wrote, it would seem like a high bar. Administrators, even precisely as administrators, are still answerable to conscience.

Lisa Fullam
Oakland, Calif.

Not Difficult

Professor Daly writes that the situation of married gay and lesbian teachers in Catholic schools is especially “difficult to adjudicate because there are no clear-cut moral principles to guide right action.”

I disagree that this is the case. The situation is comparable to any other in which an employee willingly persists in a situation of grave sin. An employee who divorced his wife to marry another without benefit of an annulment would be an example; it is an invalid and sinful state of life that willingly provides a contrary witness to the Gospel and the faith.

As for the advice to administrators to seek “counsel” about how to proceed, what about the counsel needed by the teacher? In that regard I’m reminded not of Aquinas but of Jesus, who told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” I don’t hear that message in this article, only a message to weigh a grave betrayal against positive contributions (that many others in a school might also be making) and other factors, and consider possibly overlooking it.

Colin Donovan 
Online comment

Bureaucracy Free?

Administrative Overload” (Editorial, 6/9) probably could not have been published at a more inopportune time. At least a secondary thrust of the editorial was the perceived advantage of going to a single-payer option for universal health care—single payer being a code for a federally operated health system. The advantage of this would be the reduction in the costs of administering health insurers and providers by reducing the costs of an “expensive and exasperating bureaucracy.”

At about the same time, the nation found itself contending with a federal health care system for veterans that was failing and, I would venture to say, included at least a few less than perfect bureaucrats whose gross costs are not insignificant. Common perception does not view governmental bodies as bureaucracy-free but quite the opposite.

Willis Jensen
Carefree, Ariz.

No Shortage of Vocations

Shared Sacrifice,” by Msgr. Michael Heintz (4/28), got me to thinking back to those years of discernment when I chose between the call to the priesthood and the call to marriage. It was an agonizing time. At 68 years of age and after 45 years of a blessed marriage, I now know that the choice I made was correct. The thought does come to mind, however, that I was truly called to the priesthood but was denied that calling by the rule of mandatory celibacy.

I understand the devotion of celibacy. I understand that celibacy is a higher call to the imitation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What I do not understand is that it is used to exclude others, such as myself, from the ministry of the priesthood.

I have no doubt that but for the rule of celibacy, I would have spent the last half-century as a priest. My life has been a joy; I have lived close to the Lord. How much more powerful and beautiful my life would have been if I had also been a priest.

I believe there is no shortage of vocations. There are literally thousands upon thousands of people called to the priesthood and married life. It makes one tremble to think what a powerful force in the world the church would be if they were all allowed to follow the Lord’s call.

Brian G. Gilmartin
Cloverdale, Ind.

Help Oil Companies

Getting Out Of Oil,” by Doug Demeo (4/21), reads like a one-sided, moralistic editorial or lecture. It deserves a rebuttal, especially by people in the industry (not me). I accept the need to be as “green” as possible, but I do not see an investment in oil as a threat to one’s Catholicity. Society and the economy still need petroleum. Let’s be constructive about its role.

The article surmises that socially responsible investing and the fossil fuel industry are likely at odds, at a moral crossroads, because fossil fuel companies must drill for oil to be profitable, and this generates more climate change. The author’s solution therefore is to use “avoidance screens” and to divest.

Well-written though it is, the article makes the issue and choices too simplistic. Interestingly, major oil companies are now calling themselves energy companies. Why not stay invested and help them deal with major scientific and social challenges? These companies deserve the best and brightest to solve the issues. They also deserve our economic support to do so.

David Kelly
Orinda, Calif.

Status Update

Readers respond to “The Ethics of Exit,” by Daniel J. Daly (6/9):

In the back of my mind I can’t help but wonder what kind of mixed messages we are sending to the children if we fire a pregnant unwed teacher, yet open a home for unwed mothers in the parish as a pro-life activity. Wouldn’t this cause even greater confusion to the youth?

Margaret Daigle

I respectfully disagree that “there are no clear-cut moral principles to guide right action.” Teachers in Catholic schools are rightly expected to be living examples of the Catholic faith. It’s only as the culture has drifted further away from the church’s norms that school contracts and administrative decisions need to spell out such things in unfortunate and legalistic terms.

Paul McAvoy


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The Most Rev Bishop Michael Curry, primate of the Episcopal Church, speaks during the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle in Windsor, near London, England, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Owen Humphreys/pool photo via AP)
Fabricated and impersonal, too many Catholic preachers hide themselves, forgetting that personality matters in preaching,
In this image made from video, Archbishop Philip Wilson, center, heads to Newcastle Local Court, north of Sydney, Australia Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)
Philip Wilson was found guilty of failing to inform police about allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by a priest in the 1970s.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 22, 2018
The Holy Spirit might be the forgotten person of the Holy Trinity.
James Martin, S.J.May 21, 2018
Pope Francis walks past cardinals as he leaves a consistory in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican June 28, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis is trying to ensure that those who elect his successor are humble men committed to “a church of the poor and for the poor.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 21, 2018