Last week’s firing of a first-grade Catholic school teacher who married her same-sex partner again raises the question of whether Catholic institutions are selectively enforcing the church’s sexual ethics in ways that unfairly target gays and lesbians. As these firings become increasingly common, Catholic leaders must acknowledge the deep wounds they are causing to people who love and serve the church. A more prudent, and ultimately, more Christian, response is needed in these complex cases.
Jocelyn Morffi worked at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Miami for seven years, and ran a volunteer organization that takes students around the city on weekends to distribute meals to the homeless. “They treated her like a criminal,” Cintia Cini, a parent, told the Miami Herald. “They didn’t even let her get her things out of her classroom." At least eighty people have been fired from Catholic institutions in similar cases, according to New Ways Ministry, an organization that works to build bridges between LGBT Catholics and the church.
The response from school officials in these cases is usually framed simply. Teachers know the church’s teaching on marriage, and as employees of a Catholic institution they are expected to live in adherence to doctrine. When a teacher or other school employee publicly defies that teaching, the action causes—in the language of moral theology—“scandal” to the faithful. Let’s pause for a brief moment to reflect on that word. In this context, perhaps it’s not the best vocabulary for an institution that created its own scandal through its handling of the sexual abuse crisis. Scandal is also a more complicated theological concept, as Christopher Vogt, a professor of theology and religious studies, explains in a chapter he contributed to a new book, The Bible and Catholic Theological Ethics.
Vogt points out that Thomas Aquinas “makes the important observation that scandal sometimes can be caused by the malice of the scandalized.” The Pharisees were scandalized by Jesus because, as Vogt writes, “their sense of certainty regarding the Law and what constituted holy living and sinfulness made it impossible for them to respond to God’s invitation in Christ.” The scandal of Jesus was not only that he offered a challenging message. “Jesus and his disciples engaged in behavior that many people regarded as morally offensive and wrong,” Vogt continues: “Jesus became an offense or scandal by challenging individuals’ most cherished beliefs and violating their assumptions about the way the world should be.” He sees parallels in the mistakes of the Pharisees and some responses to contemporary debates over same-sex relationships, including the firing of gay employees at Catholic institutions.
“An understanding of scandal more fully informed by the New Testament should lead us to ask whether the phenomenon of gay men and women promising loving, lifelong commitment to each other should be an occasion for Christians to be scandalized in a very different sense: of seeing long-held certainties unexpectedly overturned by the living God. This is not a call to retreat into moral relativism. It is a suggestion that punitive actions against gay men and women by principals, pastors, and bishops are inconsistent with Christian charity, are likely to cause “opposite scandal,” and do not reflect the fact that we are at a moment that requires prayerful discernment.”