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How about NOT Firing Her?

Over on the Deacon’s Bench, Greg Kandra develops a public relations strategy on how to fire a pregnant unwed teacher at a Catholic school in a kindler, gentler way, so as to avoid bad publicity for the Catholic church.

I have another suggestion: you could just NOT fire her.  The school has the option of not enforcing the contractual term in this particular case.  It should consider exercising that option.

Everyone knows that St. Thomas Aquinas says that an unjust law is no law at all, but rather an act of violence (actually, Aquinas’s reasoning  is much more subtle on this question, but that is for another day).  But he also says something that gets far less attention: a law that imposes a burden unequally upon members of the community is also an act of violence–even if it furthers the common good.

Contract law is private law, not public law, but I think that Thomas’s insights are applicable by analogy here.  The pregnant, unwed mother is no more guilty than the father–who cannot be as easily identified as she can. Nor is she more guilty than the more than 90 percent of people who have premarital sex, most of whom don’t get “caught” by getting pregnant, and many of whom might be members of that school community. In fact, if statistics are correct, we are in a situation in which there is massive disregard for the principle that all sexual intimacy outside of marriage is seriously wrong. She is also more vulnerable than other people, since getting another job while dealing with the stress of a pregnancy, much less an unplanned pregnancy, is significant. So the burden of the moral law against fornication is applied unequally.  Moreover, the Church should consider that it is arguably against the common good, since it will likely encourage people, not to refrain from premarital sex, but to obtain an abortion if they get pregnant.

My guess is that the contractual provision at issue is a general morals clause–saying that the teacher is obliged to conduct herself in accordance with Catholic moral teaching. Aquinas tells us that prudence is required in the interpretation and application of general laws.  It’s one thing to fire the Spanish and the French teacher, each married to other people, caught canoodling in the broom closet at school. It’s another thing entirely to fire a single teacher, who presumably did not behave inappropriately at school, and whose only evidence of sexual impropriety is her pregnancy–which in our culture, should also be seen as evidence of moral courage.  Rather than obtaining an abortion, which would have allowed her to keep her job by hiding evidence of sexual activity, she is going through with the pregnancy.

Some would say that the firing is necessary for pedagogical reasons: to “teach” the importance of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. But it would be good to ask a) is this the most effective way to communicate this message to young people; and b) is this line of action communicating other lessons that are inconsistent with other aspects of a Catholic worldview? My own view is this: in a world in which Catholic teaching on sexual matters is so widely dismissed, even by Catholics, this kind of necessarily selective enforcement is going to make Catholic teaching seem arbitrary and cruel.  I appreciate Kandra’s attempts to blunt the effects, but I still think they are there.

My second point is a bit more difficult to state. Catholic schools say they exist to support a total Catholic worldview.  Well, Catholicism is a religion of “being,” not a religion of “willing.” Membership in the community depends upon, in most cases, baptism as an infant. The sacramental framework talks about ontological changes.  You are part of the Catholic family–no matter what.  That is the most deeply countercultural message the Church can convey in American culture, which has a deeply voluntarist strain–you say something wrong, you do something wrong, you’re out of the club : we choose to exclude you or you choose to exclude yourself.  (That’s also why I’m so worried about the spread of evangelical Catholicism, which I think tends to turn Catholicism into one more American Christian sect.)

I think the message that firing this teacher conveys to the students is that they, too, are subject to being “fired” from the Catholic community if they misbehave in any way. After all, the little school is probably the main Catholic community they’ve known.  For all the talk of love and understanding and forgiveness, in the end, it is a hard and abstract contractual provision–a sign of willing, not being–that counts the most. For all the talk of a rich and humble inner life, it is a wholesome appearance that matters most. (And they all know–we all know–people who appear beautiful and holy who are in fact deeply corrupt–c.f. Legion of Christ.)

And I would think that many students, and even many parents, might exercise their own wills and walk away from all this--not necessarily the morality, but the perceived meanness.  Eduardo recently raised a similar issue, involving the firing of a vice principal of a Catholic school, who married another man. generating a firestorm of protest from the students.  

It's probably not lost on the students or parents that sexual issues are the only issues that are enforced under the morals clause.  Now, I'm not saying that you should fire a teacher for driving a Mercedes.  But part of the message that the firings may be communicating is that sexual morality is important (a firing offense) and everything else, well, not so much. Is that really the message that these dioceses wish to convey?

I don't think the future of Catholic schools in the U.S. can be considered apart from these questions, at least in this era and context.


Commenting Guidelines

We don't need Aquinas when we have the gospels. Let those without sin fill out the pink slip.

Jim McCrea: speaking of hypocrisy, what I wouldn't give to be the teacher's attorney if she sues and the bishop can be forced to give a deposition:  

Q.  Bishop X, is it your position that a teacher in a Catholic school functions as a minister of the church?

A.  It is.  (Isn't that how he'd answer?)

Q.  Then, Bishop X, if a woman is fit to be a minister of the church by virtue of holding the position of schoolteacher, why is she not fit to be a minister by ordination? 

My parish church runs a home for unwed mothers.  It was an extraordinary challenge to see them to self-sufficiency -- the maximum period in the house was supposed to be 21 months.  It was almost always extended because of overwhelming difficulty of finding a job that would accommodate housing and daycare costs.  Presumably, someone was expected to hire these women -- during or after their pregnancies.  

I don't have so much zeal to get to heaven that I would be willing to trample other sinners underneath my feet.  If the issue here is being pregnant in front of a class, then provide her with paid leave, or put her in a non-teaching administrative post until she is ready to come back. But if firing her is considered to be not just appropriate but the MOST appropriate or even NECESSARY step, then we might as well disband all that unwed mother outreach because it's just a lie about what we truly value, and we aren't worthy witnesses. 

John Borst - in the US, bishops do not support catholic teachers in a union in most dioceses.  Bishops have taken teachers to the courts to stop unionizing and have won given the precedents such as Hosanna Tabor.

Another reason why court decisions such as Hosanna Tabor ignore human dignity and the rights of workers whether they teach religion or not; are ministers or not.  The bishops want it both ways - they proclaim pro-life but then deny that unions have any part to play in comprehensive pro-life campaigns.

It really is insidious.

Jim McC. --

I just meant to contrast the Church's official positions -- which are 1) he should not be fired, but 2) [ironically] she should.  In other words, although both have done wrong, the official positions are that the bishop should not being held responsible while the lay person should. 

I didn't mean that she should lose her job but the bishop shouldn't.  I think exactly the opposite.  And, yes, there are many (complex) reasons why the bishop is getting away with his misbehavior.

And, yes, there are many (complex) reasons why the bishop is getting away with his misbehavior.

A few complex reasons why a bishop skates:

  1. He's a powerful male in an organization run entirely by and largely for powerful males. (Compare the US Gum Mint, in which no one above the rank of sergeant has been brought to account for years of torture.)
  2. It's easier to shuffle papers, whisper instructions, and move Father Predator from Sacred Heart to St. Lucy's than it is to conceal a pregnancy.
  3. As a "successor to the Apostles," he has an aura of wisdom and holiness attached to him, however little it may have been earned. Cf. "The Most Reverend...," "Your Excellency...," and the canonization-in-life of "Your Holiness."
  4. And the complexest of 'em all: Let's not ruin a man's reputation and cause a scandal over a little "horseplay."

With complexity like that, who needs simplicity?

Bill deHass, thanks for inspiring me to look up the Hosanna Tabor case. I have stopped following education issues over the past year until this topic came forward.

All I can say is "Oh my god!  Since it was unanimous, my only conclusion is your constitution is flawed and needs to be revised. It doesn't recognize the large volume of employment law which has occurred since the constitution was written, when it comes to denominational employers. 

Why would anyone work for Church based organization (hospital, dioceses, school etc.), especially a teacher. They have no rights what so ever. They not only can be fired for behavior not in accord with Church doctrine or incompetence but simply at the whim of their superior because the state employment laws can't intervene.

That is appalling. Anyone of faith working for a faith based institution are all second class citizens; they are vassals of their faith. 

But aren't most employees "at will" employees? That is, if they have no contract with the employer, they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, except that they cannot be fired for being a member of a group protected by anti-discrimination laws. So if a school employee did not have a contract which the school alleges the employee violated, the school would not have to offer the "pregnant in violation of Church teachings and values" reason. It could just say, "Poof! You're fired!" It's a close call, but I think I might prefer to be fired for a bad reason than for no reason.

John Prior, there is a federal law against firing a person simply because she is pregnant:

the question is whether Hosanna-Tabor will override that.

but those are all legal issues.

the real issue is should the school fire her even if they can

John Hayes - thanks for that reply to my most recent comment.  I'm sorry I misunderstood your comment to which I replied.


John Hayes develops this line of thought further:

There was a case in Ohio last year in which a catholic school fired a teacher (religion teacher) based upon a morals clause because she was pregnant.

Her defense tawyer argued that she has a constitutional right to get pregnant and thus firing her for that *right* was unconstitutional.  The catholic school lost and paid her damages to the tune of a quarter million dollars.

Legal folks are waging that this will be ths same avenue that this teacher can use in Butte, Montana.

It seems to me that there is a difference between the child's right to life and a mother's right to remain pregnant -- there are two different rights involved though they're closely related.

It also seems to me that one does not have a right to get pregnant in the first place if one has no means of supporting a child.  Having a child one cannot support unfairly makes others do what the parents out to be doing.  And that is part of why the government has an interest in such matters.

True, once a child is conceived it's a different moral ball game, and  the child's right to life is more important than the parents' prior irresponsibility, so unlike what happens in China, there should not be an abortion.

So I think this is my last comment here for a long time, because it just drives me too crazy.  Ann and others, your discussion makes it seem as if the pregnant female is the ball in a game of ping pong -- getting batted back and forth while you consider the various properties that make it an interesting exercise.  Why should she care what any of us thinks?  If the Catholic Church wants to draw a line in the sand that makes the continuation of every pregnancy under whatever baleful circumstances it was  conceived a nonnegotiable moral imperative then it has to come up with a "third way" to treat unmarried pregnant women -- neither saints nor pariahs -- and if it can't, it will have lost any moral authority on the subject.  Sure, it seems easy to start some outreach for unmarried women who aren't part of your community, but the real challenge is how you treat the members of your own family.  A church school that washes its hands of such a woman hiding variously behind a contract and setting an example of how to get to heaven just lost its moral grounding, lock stock and barrel.   Its words on this subject are henceforth, as the good man said, no more than clanging cymbals and all the PR tricks in the book won't change that. 

Ann, I have no idea how what you said applies to the situation in Montana. More than that, though, I'm not sure that I even have any idea what you're saying at all: do you think fertility should be policed? Because if you don't, then it's pointless to talk about who does and doesn't "have a right to get pregnant in the first place." The implications of that line of thinking are terrifying.

Why would anyone work for Church based organization (hospital, dioceses, school etc.), especially a teacher.

Not to be snarky, but now that corporations are persons -- soon to have their religious rights affirmed by the Little Sisters of the Poor and/or Hobby Lobby -- why would anyone work for anyone in the United States of America? And the justices of the Roberts court are still young and just getting started.

To paraphrase the great Justice Taney, ther American has no rights which employers are obliged to recognize.

Barbara - bravo!!!

 Especially for this ".....but the real challenge is how you treat the members of your own family.  A church school that washes its hands of such a woman hiding variously behind a contract and setting an example of how to get to heaven just lost its moral grounding, lock stock and barrel.   Its words on this subject are henceforth, as the good man said, no more than clanging cymbals and all the PR tricks in the book won't change that. 

Too many in the Catholic church treat too many real life challenges as though they are simply theological/philosophic academic head games. It's the one of the biggest problems afflicting the church and it too often causes harm to many, both directly and indirectly. 

I think Pope Francis got it right at his morning Mass on 25th May 2013 at

The report stated:

"The Pope gave another example. A single mother goes to the parish to ask for Baptism for her child and hears “a Christian” say: “no, you can't have it, you’re not married”. “Look at this girl who had had the courage to carry her pregnancy to term” and not to have an abortion. “What does she find? A closed door”, as do so many. “This is not good pastoral zeal, it distances people from the Lord and does not open doors. So when we take this path... we are not doing good to people, the People of God”. Jesus “instituted seven sacraments, and with this approach we institute the eighth, the sacrament of the pastoral customs office”.

Finally Pope Francis explained that Jesus wants everyone to be close to him. “Let us think of all Christians of good will who err and shut the door instead of opening it”. Let us ask the Lord to grant that “all who approach the Church find doors open to encounter Jesus' love”."


In Montana they would appear to have thrown the unfortunate lady out of the door and slammed it hard shut behind her and then locked and bolted it for good measure



Ann Oliver:  I would agree that a person should not intentionally bring a child into a bad situation -for example, a woman married to a violent man who abuses the children they already have should not voluntarily start another pregnancy.   Andrea Yates, who knew that after each birth she went into a psychotic state in which she was tempted to kill her children, should not have intentionally gotten pregnant again.  (When I say "should" I'm speaking morally, not legally- I would never trust the government with that kind of power.)

But poverty is an entirely different matter!  According to Catholic social teaching it is not unjust- it is a priviledge to have enough money to pay the taxes that support programs that assist the less fortunate.  It's a priviledge to donate to charity to assist the poor.  If we have more than we need- and most Americans do- it's a serious sin to keep it all for ourselves.

Also, another enthusiastic "Bravo!" for Barbara's posts.

Anne C. --


Yes, if a girl or woman gets pregnant we ought to offer her kindly support, but out of charity, not out of justice.  This discussion reminds me of an old TV show (I forget the name) about an admirable black single mother who was raising several children without a father at great sacrifice to herself.  Her daughter gets pregnant out-of-wedlock.  What is her initial reaction?  Fury.  Was that so unfair?  Sure she forgives the daughter, but was the daughter fair to her own child?


Having a right does not imply that it's always just to exercise that right.  I have a right to drive my car, but not into my neighbor's garage, nor, more obviously, not fast in a school zone. 


In sum, it is unfair to injure others just for the sake of our own fun and games.


Ann O. -- I doubt if these parents are worried about whether this pregnancy arose as a "right" or whether they should react with charity or with justice.  What they worry about is that she is setting an example they don't want their kids to follow.  I get that.  My daughter's kindergarten teacher was single and pregnant during the school year and I felt that ambivalence -- because it was a public school there was no "discussion" at all about what to do and I would not have had it any differently.  But I can hear the thought process: "It's hard enough to raise a kid even when teachers and parents are on the right track, why does she have to make my job as a parent harder by espousing a lifestyle I really don't want my kids to follow?  Why should I have to put up with that?"  Well, for one thing, if it isn't the teacher it will be some other adult she knows and likes.  It's no longer an oddity, as it was when my aunt gave birth as a single woman more than 60 years ago (and was treated very well by her own family, by the way).

And this is the irony of the pro-life stance.  Maybe 40 years ago when it started hardening into its current form it was lost on people that the result would be a real rise in the number of single mothers choosing to bear and raise children.  But there you have it and it's no longer good enough to huff and puff about how women don't have "the right" to get pregnant.  From the perspective of the Catholic Church, it doesn't matter whether she is pregnant by right or otherwise, only that she is pregnant.  The social fallout that has resulted is attributable in no small part to that ethos, which can be summed up as "anything is better than abortion."  So this teacher is one manifestation of that "anything" and it's no small task to respond ethically.  Firing her just should not even be on the table. 

This situation would present a "teachable moment" for parents. The greatest lesson children can be taught is compassion.

As a traditional Catholic who lives in this world alongside people of all stripes, I don't find it necessary to retreat from the world to raise a family. The example my wife and I give to our kids will pay off in the future when the effects of the broken families and fatherless homes are more acutely felt, compared to the love, security and trust my kids have received from their mother and me. The world is not better off today than it was half a century ago. Pope Paul VI was prophetic when he spoke against the evil of sex, divorced from procreation.

The hoped for question to the Bishop would no doubt be answered in the negative. So much for that weak scenario.