Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.
By this author
A couple of points:
1. Professor George made an authoritative pronouncement about how a hypothetical Muslim school should decide an internal personnel matter. But making those sorts of pronouncements really does require the extensive knowledge and training of a mullah—a common term for a Muslim scholar who is an expert in Islamic law and theology, just as making an authoritative pronouncement about an internal personnel matter in a Jewish day school really requires the extensive knowledge and training of a rabbi. My point was that a Catholic really can't be a mullah—or a rabbi—and shouldn't act as though he or she is. One has to wonder why George would automatically conclude that the term “mullah” is itself an insult.
2. Is there a difference between questioning Professor George and attacking him? But let’s push through the fulminations and focus on the answer to my question. He writes:
If [the teacher] were repentant, then I, as her fellow sinner, would support keeping her on. I’d even host the baby shower. The example being set for the school children in that case would be one of repentance and forgiveness—loving the sinner, even while rejecting the sin. Of course, if her intention is to flout the Church’s teachings, then it’s a different story. That’s what is going on when a teacher, say, moves in with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or enters into a civil marriage with a person of his or her own sex—or goes into the strip club business.
So...the baby shower sounds good. (Don’t forget the gift.) But let’s think about this analysis. How would we know she’s repentant? Would she have to publicly repent? (If so, we’re getting a little too close to the Scarlet Letter here for my taste.) How would you communicate to the kids that she had sinned? Wouldn’t that disclose too much information, at least at the elementary-school level?
George writes: “If her intention is to flout...” But "flouting" generally connotes some form of open and public contempt. Can one disagree with a particular communal norm, not follow it in one’s own life, and yet still not be guilty of "flouting" that norm? Looking at the polling data on these matters, we may have a situation where a) the unmarried woman doesn't think the norm about premarital sex holds in her particular case and relationship, but b) has no intention of publicizing her view in any way at work. But she gets pregnant. She's not flouting the norm—but her body is definitely revealing a violation of it. You might say the baby is flouting the norms!
When it comes to Catholic moral teaching, I just don’t see “moves in with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or enters into a civil marriage with a person of his or her own sex” as comparable with “goes into the strip-club business.”
In the end, I think there are four points to be considered in this controversy.
Robbie George is defending the right, nay, even proclaiming the duty, of a hypothetical Muslim school to fire a hypothetical Muslim teacher who is caught drinking, carousing, and publicly flouting Muslim norms, both on campus and off. God bless Robbie. The Muslim community in the United States must be so grateful for his attention and advice.
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.
Last week was "Catholic Schools Week" in the United States; a program dedicated to celebrating and promoting the vast amount of good that Catholic schools have done in this country.
I think that's all to the good--Catholic schools should be celebrated and promoted. They are a wonderful gift. I do get a little worried, however, when the celebration and promotion takes the form of generalized contempt and pity for students who attend public school. I am not disinterested: my father was a public school principal, I attended public school, and got a good education at public school. And I know lots of fine, upstanding Catholics who also attended public school, and either Catholic or public or private colleges.
I think most parents try to make the best decision for their child, given their resources. I think the decision about where to send a particular to child to school is always highly specific, looking at the child, the schools, the options, and the needs of other kids.
The life of a scholar can be lonely at times. In working on a big writing project, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own head and your own questions, and to lose the sense that you’re part of a wider community and a broader discussion. That sense of isolation can make it hard to do your work.
But the field of moral theology/Christian ethics is blessed to have in its midst a person who has consistently modeled the life of the mind as lived within an intense, communal conversation: James Keenan, S.J. , the Founders Professor of Theology at Boston College.
Each January, after putting the Christmas decorations away and before putting final touches on the spring term syllabi, Christian ethicists across the country gather at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics. It is a major professional meeting for people interested in the study of morality within the context of a Christian framework. I went to my first SCE as an undergaduate at Princeton; I am honored to serve now as its vice-president.
On November 29, 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Tamesha Means in the Eastern District of Michigan. The lawsuit demanded compensatory and punitive damages for medically negligent treatment she allegedly received in the course of her pregnancy and miscarriage at Mercy Health Partners (MHP), a Catholic health facility in Muskegan. The plaintiff suffered from a decreased volume of amniotic fluid caused by the rupture of her amniotic sac.
I saw the movie Philomena last weekend: It is a movie about an Irish woman who had a baby out of wedlock, and was coereced into giving up her little son nearly half a century ago by the nuns who took her in. She ends up collaborating with a posh English journalist to find out what happened to him: As it turns out, he was adopted by a well-to-do American family, grew up to be handsome and smart, and became a lawyer. Actually, he became a key legal strategist for the Republican party, eventually rising to the position of Chief Legal Counsel for the Republican Naitonal Committee. Yet Philomena does not get the resolution she hoped for: it turns out her son died several years ago, his meteoric career cut short by AIDS--he was not only a Republican, but a closeted gay Republican. His ashes were buried on the grounds of the convent where he and his biological mother lived together during the first few years of his life.
I thought the movie was good. In fact, Judi Dench was brilliant--she acts with her entire body, not merely by emoting her lines. IMHO, they made a huge mistake in killing her off in the Bond movies--she was wonderful as M, too.
But it wasn't great. I do not agree with this reviewer, who lavishly praised the movie's storyline. You may say that the plot I recounted above is too incredible to make a plausible movie; but in fact, all that stuff actually did happen. Philomena's son Anthony became Michael Hess--"a man of two countries and many talents." Truth is stranger than fiction, and it's no crime for a storyteller to take advantage of strange truths.
At the same time, I did have three basic problems with the film's framing of the story.
First proposed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in a lecture at Fordham University thirty years ago, “the consistent ethic of life” challenged American Catholics involved in the pro-life movement to broaden their focus beyond abortion. Bernardin asked them to engage other issues where human life and dignity were threatened, such as the ominous possibility of nuclear conflagration, the routinization of capital punishment, and the specter of legalized euthanasia.