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Another Gay Teacher Fired by a Catholic School

A petition is making the rounds to protest the firing of another gay high school teacher, this time in Los Angeles.  From the Change.org press release:

Current and former students of St. Lucy’s Priory High School will deliver more than 45,000 petition signatures from a popular Change.org campaign asking the Los Angeles-area Catholic school to reinstate ousted gay teacher Ken Bencomo. Supporters say he was fired after photos from his marriage to longtime partner Christopher Persky appeared on the front page of a local newspaper.

I want to separate the question whether Catholic institutions have the right to do this sort of thing from the question whether they should, on either moral or prudential grounds.  I am not aware of divorced and remarried teachers getting fired.  The axe always seems to fall on those who are somewhat more easily marginalized:  unmarried pregnant teachers, gay teachers, etc.  Am I wrong about that?  Feel free to post examples to the contrary in the comments.

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Aquinas has also said (and it has been mention here before: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=21898#more-21898 )

 

“[H]uman laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”     

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I IIae, q. 96.2c 

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For the sake of precision, it would also help to make a distinction between the sacrament of marriage, and marriage in the civil realm.

 

Ok, good plan. Go ahead."

 

Methinks a gadfly deacon would be eminently more qualified to do that than little old me, methinks Deacon Jim Pauwels (or the Catholic Schools which make decisions about who to hire/fire, or the hierarchs who rail against gay marriage in the secular realm far more than they do against divorce/remarriage in the secular realm) should in fact do that so that the parameters they choose to argue over (or, in some instances fire/hire over) are clear to all lay observers.

The statement that "The school also states that, by entering into a gay marriage, he violated his employment contract" could surely quite easily be interpolated to statements such as "by entering into any marriage which the church considers "irregular", the teacher violates his/her employment contract". But it begs the question as to which marriages (that are not in the first instance canonically valid sacramental marriages) the church considers to be irregular. The onus appears to be on the "official church" to provide these parameters ... and I would dearly like to see them spelt out by a competent authority.

Clearly, Eduardo didn't have canonically valid sacramental marriages in mind when he wrote "I am not aware of divorced and remarried teachers getting fired." The church doesn't permit divorce for canonically valid marriages, which are considered indissoluble. To raise the question of annulment is a red herring, as already pointed out.

Eduardo's observation and question stand, and have yet to be compellingly answered:  "I am not aware of divorced and remarried teachers getting fired.  The axe always seems to fall on those who are somewhat more easily marginalized:  unmarried pregnant teachers, gay teachers, etc.  Am I wrong about that?  Feel free to post examples to the contrary in the comments."

If straight teachers in Catholic schools can divorce and remarry and retain their jobs (which I presume to be the case until proffered empirical evidence to the contrary), then why was this gay teacher fired for entering into a civil marriage with his life partner? This appears to be a whopping double standard and a grave injustice.

 

Vincent Couling-I agree with you about the injustice part, but I don't think I would assume that straight teachers cohabiting or divorced/remarried Catholic teachers could keep their jobs.  

In the Catholic schools I attended myself and in those my childen attend,  there are no teachers known to be in those circumstances.  A lot of the students' parents are, but  not the teachers.  

I'm certainly not saying there aren't Catholic schoolteachers living those lifestyles, but I think if it were public knowledge and indisputable that a teacher were living with her boyfriend outside of marriage, she might have a problem.  

Do other people here whose  children attended Catholic schools have a different experience?

 

I truly share people's distress at these kind of firings, but I think we're focusing on the wrong target for our distress when we object to Catholic schools insisting that their teachers reflect Catholic values in word and deed. We can certainly object when a school does something which we think is counter to Catholic values, and we can argue that maybe there is something wrong with our values, but I don't think we can blame a school for trying to adhere to them.

I think when we're talking about educating children, Catholic or public schools, like it or not, things that  would be no one's business in another kind of job, are relevant to employment in a school.

If my 9 year old's 3rd grade teacher was unmarried and pregnant, I wouldn't be calling for her dismissal. (But I'd be in a quandary  trying to explain it to my 9 year old).  If I were the principal of that school, though, I would want to have a frank conversation with that teacher about  what she thinks of Catholic teaching on sex outside of marriage and how she proposes to model our values to our students. And I could also understand others'  viewpoint that maybe a Catholic elementary school is not  perhaps the best fit for a teacher whose views or lifestyle is not in keeping with Church teaching. 

When my daughter was in 5th grade, she was kind of pestering her teacher about why there weren't women priests. (Fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, I guess) The teacher kicked it up to the pastor, and no one was giving my daughter the answer she wanted to hear.  A religious sister who my daughter is friendly with pointed out to her that she was putting the teacher in an awkward situation; the only response he could give her is the official position that women can't be priests. Any other response could get the teacher in trouble.  

I told my daughter I completely shared her view, but there is a time and a place for certain conversations and Catholic elementary school isn't the place for that one, but she could talk about it with lots of other people in her life and, hopefully, in Catholic venues when she's older.  

I don't agree with the Church's teaching on women priests, or on artificial contraception, or on condoms to prevent disease, and I'll be teaching my daughter what I believe myself on these things. But I don't expect her school to contradict Church teaching on these issues; I can live with that, and if I couldn't I would take her out of the school, not expect the school to change. 

 

"For the sake of precision, it would also help to make a distinction between the sacrament of marriage, and marriage in the civil realm."

 

For the sake of precision, if the distinction is made to the civil realm - please also clarify the geographic State the union of two same sex persons took place and if the union of two same sex persons is legally protected by the geographic State as a marriage.

 

Tom Peters once quipped, "If your not confused, you not paying attention."

 

If straight teachers in Catholic schools can divorce and remarry and retain their jobs (which I presume to be the case until proffered empirical evidence to the contrary), then why was this gay teacher fired for entering into a civil marriage with his life partner? This appears to be a whopping double standard and a grave injustice.

Right.  Irene replied to your comment, and covered some of the same ground I had covered in a previous comment: I'd think that most Catholic schools, like most employers in general, don't know the canonical details of their employees' marriages, but if somehow it became known to the school, the school would be obligated to do something.  (I'd add that the "something" might not be to fire a teacher in that situation).

That is why I raised the question in a previous comment: what was the teacher in question hoping would transpire: that he could marry his partner, and also keep the marriage secret from the school?  I'm not trying to ask that in some sort of crusading-district-attorney-cross-examination-gotcha way, but I am curious what the teacher intended.  The heroically honorable thing might have been for him to save the school this trouble by tendering his resignation prior to his wedding, but perhaps he didn't see it that way, and I'm not one to demand honorable heroism as a baseline of conduct from anyone (as I know that I don't always meet that standard myself).  For all we know, he might view marriage as a strictly private arrangement that is none of the school's business.  Pretty clearly, that would not accord with the Catholic view of marriage, but I think it is aligned with a certain view of marriage that is abroad in our society.

Having been around the block a few times, I'm inclined to agree with what I think is the basis for your presumption of injustice: that divorce is not uncommon, and neither is a divorced Catholic remarrying without getting an annulment of the previous marriage, and there are a lot of Catholic school teachers, so surely somewhere there is a Catholic school teacher in this situation.  I would add this for your consideration, though: different dioceses, and different schools within the same diocese, might have different standards for how to handle these things with their employees.  Thus School A in Diocese X might find it an unsupportable moral affront to employ a teacher who remarried without an annulment, whereas School B in Diocese Y might decide that it is something it can live with, whereas School C in Diocese Z might see it as a problem but one with a remedy, and would want to work with the teacher to pursue that remedy.  

So I'd suggest that we haven't seen enough facts for you to declare this situation to be unjust.  To show injustice, you need to find an instance of a specific school, or at least a specific diocese or religious order, simultaneously forbidding employment to someone in a same sex marriage, while permitting employment for someone who is divorced from a still-living former spouse and remarried without an annulment.  Just speaking for myself: I don't know of any school teachers who are divorced and remarried in a problematic way, so I can't point to any potential schools who would be candidates for this injustice.  So while not disagreeing that the double standard you describe could exist, I don't know of any place where it is known to exist.

As for the relationship between civil and religiouis marriage that prompted my previous comment, and to which you've now replied (but without diving more deeply into the topic): I wasn't sure (still am not sure) what you think the importance or relevance of the distinction is.  

 

 

Irene Baldwin- Being pregnant and unmarried is different from cohabiting with a romantic partner or being married in violation of Church teaching.  The difference is that cohabitation and marriage require a consistent, ongoing, intent, whereas getting pregnant can result from a single mistake.  (In fact, among women I have been personally close to, all but one of those who got pregnant out of wedlock were those who were trying to follow church teaching- they had sex without protection precisely because they were not planning on having sex and/or they were trying to follow Church teaching about contraceptives.)  It's literally impossible to hire Catholic school teachers who never, ever, sin.  Why is this one sin so much worse than all the other sins that  we all confess to on a regular basis?

I'm also wondering- suppose your daughter's teacher had been raped, and had heroically decided to carry the rapist's baby to term.  Would she still be a bad example?  Do you think the Catholic school principals who fire unmarried pregnant women would make an exception for a woman who had been raped?

Although I'd be OK with transferring a pregnant unmarried teacher to another job for the duration of the pregnancy, I think that if the school was really smart they might consider literally using her as a role model.  A role model for the idea that sometimes people make mistakes and get pregnant when they didn'tmean to, buy here's someone who was too good, too compassionate to abort the baby. 

Although I'd be OK with transferring a pregnant unmarried teacher to another job for the duration of the pregnancy, I think that if the school was really smart they might consider literally using her as a role model.  A role model for the idea that sometimes people make mistakes and get pregnant when they didn'tmean to, buy here's someone who was too good, too compassionate to abort the baby.

Anne - I agree.  I would want to respect the teacher's wishes regarding whether or not she would want to stay in the classroom.  

There is this to consider, too - a large percentage of those in need in our community, and more generally in the US, are single moms and their children*.  In my view, in many cases these women really are trapped by their circumstances: typically they get inadequate support (or no support) from the kids' dad, and the fact that they are rearing children, and with no help from a spouse or partner, really limits their work and school opportunities.  And yet they chose life.  Really, there are quite a few reasons that a Catholic community should rally around a teacher in this situation.

* Given the reality of Catholic school teacher wages, it shouldn't surprise us if a single mom who teaches Catholic school is not able to be financially self-sufficient.  Many of the poor in the US are working poor.

 

Anne Evans- If I were a school administrator, and assuming my hands weren't tied, I would address all of these cases individually, based on the specific circumstances.  Non-profits needs to have a culture of integrity, which includes treating the employees fairly. We can't do good if we aren't good.

I was actually thinking of the single teacher who was fired after purposefully becoming pregnant through in vitro fertilization; she had infomed her school she was taking a leave of absence for the in vitro treatments. I'm not trying to make the case that she should be fired, but I think it would matter somewhat whether she knowingly violated Church teaching or did so unknowingly when she received the treatments. 

Speaking not of what Catholic schools can do, but what they should do (the question posed)  I would expect them to  focus first and foremost on the mission and would expect everyone who worked there to share that same focus on the mission, which I imagine is some dual mission of providing a good secular education and a good grounding in our faith.

If an issue arose regarding a teacher's conduct, or a student's conduct, my question would be, as with any other decision, how does the conduct impact our mission and what response is best aligned with our mission?

In the case of the gay teacher who just got married, the firing itself must be disrupting the mission if it generated 50,000 signatures in protest.  That would make me consider whether there is a better alternative which would let the school return to its focus  of teaching girls. 

But I'm not a school administrator.

The problem with much of this discussion is that it is (incorrectly) based on the presumption that the Roman church considers that the schools it sponsors are engaged in education.  They are not, because the common understanding of education, at least in North America today, is that it fundamentally includes installation and encouragement of the capacity for critical thinking.  Rather, the Roman church fosters these institutions in order to provide indoctrination.  What, exactly, is being indoctrinated has always been ambiguous and a matter of debate, and more so recently (after all, papal infalliability and The Assumption, for example, are relatively new doctrines).  In all cases, these schools fear the reactions of the heirarchy and the laity, which are also lately rendered both more varied and less definitive (modern secular governments do not permit the church's traditional responses to differences of opinion: torture and mass murder).  Avoiding "scandal" is all that is left as a reliable working criterion and that reliability derives not from certainty of what is meant by it, but rather it's endless flexibility to allow school administrators, and boards, and donors, and bishops, and the Vatican, to insist that it means whatever they say it means, with no avenue for disagreement.  No one can predict how this will be applied, or if such an application will survive scrutiny, which factors change with time and place, and allow for wonderful, wonderful disputation.  Very Roman, very destructive, very foolish.  Keep up the good work!

Nothing like a healthy dose of anti-Catholic bigotry to lighten up the blog.  

I would like to respond to the initial question that started this discussion.  I have spent my entire career in Catholic higher education, where (in my experience) there is definitely no consideration of a faculty member's marital status (divorced and remarried, married to a same-sex partner, etc.).  My parents, however, were Catholic high school teachers from the mid-1960s until 2005 (when my mom retired).  I know that the archdiocese (Office of Catholic Schools) had as a condition of employment that teachers could not divorce and remarry.  There were no rules about cohabitation, pregnancy outside of marriage, and so on, but divorce and remarriage (without an annulment) was considered a public act, so it was not allowed.  As far as I know, that rule is still in place in the archdiocese. Interestingly, approximately 30 years ago, a group of 5 or 6 teachers was fired because they had divorced and remarried.  One of these teachers was non-Catholic, and following this incident, after extensive negotiations with the union, a caveat was included in the employment contract that the divorce and remarriage ban only applied to Catholic employees.

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About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the John P. Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.