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Analysis: Does a Vatican decision on Brebeuf Jesuit undermine Archbishop Thompson?

By JD Flynn

Brebeuf Jesuit Prep (Image: CNA)

Indianapolis, Ind., Sep 24, 2019 / 04:24 pm (CNA).- Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis announced this week that the Vatican has suspended a decree prohibiting the school from calling itself Catholic. The announcement has led to speculation and debate about the likely outcome in an appeal filed against the decree. But the canonical realities of the case don’t support most of the conjecture.

The decree was issued by Archbishop Charles Thompson, after a disagreement between the Indianapolis archdiocese and the school over the employment of a teacher in a same-sex civil marriage. It was appealed by the Jesuit province that oversees the school.

To some Catholics, the Vatican’s decision to suspend the decree, and its eventual decision on the Jesuit’s appeal, seems to be a referendum on whether the Church’s hierarchy will defend its teaching on homosexuality. But the case is more complicated than that, and commentators reducing it to a battle over doctrine could lead Catholics into serious confusion.

In June, Archbishop Thompson announced that Brebeuf could no longer call itself Catholic after two years of talks between the school and the archdiocese broke down. The issue began when the archdiocese became aware that a teacher had entered into a same-sex civil marriage, and requested that the school not renew the teacher’s contract.

Archdiocesan officials were clear about their position.

“All those who minister in Catholic educational institutions carry out an important ministry in communicating the fullness of Catholic teaching to students both by word and action inside and outside the classroom,” the archdiocese said in a June statement.

To reflect its position, the archdiocese has instructed all Catholic schools within its boundaries to ensure that contracts and job descriptions classify teachers as “ministers,” because of their duty to teach and witness the faith, and instruction should stipulate “that all ministers must convey and be supportive of all teachings of the Catholic Church.”

“To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching,” the archdiocese said in June.

The archdiocesan position is not uncommon among U.S. dioceses, and its language, especially the idea of classifying teachers and other school personnel as “ministers,” seems to be informed, at least in part, by the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC.

That decision established that religious institutions are free to require those it recognizes as ministers to uphold religious teachings as a condition of employment. After the decision was handed down, it has become more common for Catholic institutions to delineate explicitly that school personnel are counted as “ministers,” because of their responsibility to witness to the Gospel, and that living in accord with the Church’s teaching is a condition of ongoing ministerial employment.

In Indiana, leaders at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School seemed said that accommodating the archdiocesan request would “violate our informed conscience on this particular matter,” and “set a concerning precedent for future interference in the school’s operations and other governance matters that Brebeuf Jesuit leadership has historically had the sole right and privilege to address and decide.”

That Catholic school teachers should be expected to live according to the teachings of the faith has been taught repeatedly in the educational documents of the Church’s magisterium. Any effort on the part of Brebeuf leaders to suggest that the Church should take no issue with teachers in public relationships that defy Catholic doctrine is unlikely to be successful.

But defenders of the school, and canon lawyers who have followed the case closely, tell CNA there are other issues at play in Brebeuf’s appeal to the Vatican.

Canon 805 of the Church’s Code of Canon law establishes that within his diocese, the diocesan bishop “has the right to appoint or approve teachers of religion and even to remove them or demand that they be removed if a reason of religion or morals requires it.” The canon does not give the bishop the same oversight over other teachers.

While canon 806 recognizes that the bishop can issue norms pertaining to the “general regulation” of schools overseen by religious orders, like Brebeuf, the law also recognizes that religious orders have “autonomy regarding the internal direction” of such schools.

The norms established by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis pertain to all teachers, not just those who teach religion. In fact, the archdiocesan policy seems to define all school teachers as teachers of religion, at least in a broad and abstract way.

It is not clear to canonists whether the Congregation for Catholic Education will decide that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ policy pertains to the “general regulation” of Brebeuf, or whether, in light of canon 805, it will determine that its policy reaches into a matter of “internal direction,” over which the school has canonical autonomy.

Even if the Congregation decreed the latter, it could also decide that because the archbishop’s intention was in the right place, the best response is to suggest to him a general policy that could be understood to pertain to the school’s “general regulation.”

What the Congregation decides on this legal point will have bearing on the canonical relationship between local bishops and religious orders with schools around the world. The Congregation will likely take its time coming to a conclusion.

Apart from this question, there are also canonists, even among those supportive of the archdiocesan initiative, who ask whether a bishop can legally declare a school which s Catholic because it is overseen by a religious institute will no longer be “recognized”  as a Catholic institution.

While many canonists agree that the archbishop can prohibit the school from calling itself a Catholic school, as indicated in canon 803, there are questions in play about the wording and form of Archbishop Thompson’s decree.

There are, in short, a number of technical issues of canon law at play in the dispute between Brebuef and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and those issues have to do with the scope and exercise of a bishop’s authority, not with broad questions about homosexuality and Catholic identity.

This means that it is entirely possible that the Congregation for Catholic Education could end with a decision that supports Archbishop Thompson in principle, while concluding that the way he went about handling the issue was canonically problematic.

In such a case, the Congregation would likely spend time trying to see whether the matter could be meted out in a more technically precise way.

But because the case is complex, and it’s not clear how the Congregation will decide on each of a set of interlocking legal questions, resolving the situation is likely to take a long time. And, most likely in recognition of that fact, the Congregation decided to suspend the archbishop’s decree until the matter has been resolved.

Among American commentators, the suspension of the decree has been characterized as a reproach to Archbishop Thompson or an indication that the Vatican plans to decide the case in the Jesuits’s favor. But considered in light of the common praxis of the Roman Curia, and the rules that govern it, those characterizations seem unfounded, at best.

Reading the tea leaves on exactly why the Congregation suspended the decree is near impossible. But there are a few points worth noting.

The first is that in canonical praxis, it is common to suspend the effects of a decree while a recourse, or appeal, is being considered. In many cases, the law establishes an automatic suspension. In fact, sources told CNA this week that at least some Vatican officials initially thought suspension would be automatic in this case, as it is in many others. So among the likely reasons the Vatican suspended the decree is a practical canonical reflex to do so as a matter of course.

The Congregation will want to give every indication of having been fair to both sides in this dispute, and because suspension of a decree is an ordinary canonical practice, it is also an indication of fairness.

The second point worth noting is that Thompson’s decree, because it decrees that Brebuef will no longer be listed in the “Official Catholic Directory,” could have considerable tax consequences for the school and its Jesuit teachers, because the IRS recognizes that directory as demonstration that an entity is a tax-exempt Catholic ministry. Suspending the decree prevents the headache of resolving those tax issues while the Congregation considers the appeal.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Thompson’s decree has practical and spiritual effect on the students at Brebeuf and their families. That the Congregation is considering the appeal indicates that it thinks the legal questions in play are at least worth treating seriously. But the Church’s practice is to err on the side of the sacraments in a matter capable of question, and so it will seem to Vatican officials the most pastoral decision to allow Mass to continue at the school, for the sake of its students, as the issues are worked out.

Canonical recourses involving complex legal issues unfold at a snail’s pace. As the recourse of Brebeuf Jesuit unfolds, most of the punditry will fall along predictable partisan lines, or use each development to support preconceived conclusions. It’s worth remembering that such speculation likely indicates more about its sources than about the facts and circumstances of the case.


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21 Comments

  1. And the bottom line is that the board of Brebeuf and the Jesuit superiors manifestly don’t have “informed consciences,” and are a disgrace ot the Church for corrupting the education of the students for whom they are supposed to care.

  2. Pope Frank, please make your mind, once for all, if homosexuality is a moral sin or not. If not, when and who has changed. I am so confused.

    • Fr Kuligowski, Peter if I may yes homosexuality is a disorder, “A willed privation of direction to a due end” (Aquinas ST 1a 49, 1) as taught by the Church and as taught perennially serious sin when acted out. The Pope’s ambiguity, suggestions do not obviate that. On the topic of this article I repeat: Suspension of Archbishop Thompson’s sanction v an active homosexual teacher at Jean de Brebeuf by the Vatican undermines the Archbishop’s authority and reflects on the Pontiff. It coincides with apparent policy to normalize adult homosexual relations. Cardinal Raymond Burke Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently announced criticism of error is fidelity to the Roman Pontiff. Nonetheless that criticism is certainly of benefit to the occupant Pope Francis insofar as truth benefits all. For which good intention all priests pray when offering Mass. At least we have Cardinal Burke, Bishop Schneider speaking out faithfully in defense of Christ’s message willing to accept the calumny of defenders of error. That is their Apostolic Commission as defenders of the faith, which many bishops worldwide unlike Archbishop Thompson fear to exercise as reported by NCR Editor Pentin in a recent article on writer Messori, “Bishops pulling their hair in frustration but shutting up”. Our hope is a growing turn of faithful bishops to join them. Fear in this instance when the salvation of the Laity and their own is at stake is cowardice. The Prince of the Air seems to hold sway among clergy. Error unprecedented in Church history reaches the pinnacle of authority affecting the entire spectrum of moral doctrine. Their weapons are appeal to “sentimentality” the false notion of Mercy absent of repentance and refutation of Reason. Aquinas was correct to inseparably associate Faith with Reason. It’s not possible to repudiate the essence of Apostolic Tradition and make the illogical claim that the New Paradigm emanating from the Vatican is consistent with that Tradition. The Pope’s appointment of abortionist population control advocate Jeffrey Sachs, Korean advocate Moon to the Amazon Synod is consistent with the repudiation of Christ’s teaching. If Bishops and ordinary priests like myself remain silent, support by their silence skirting the real issues, which is the deceptive deviation from the truth of Christ our salvation is in jeopardy. And typical of the warnings of Ezekiel who Augustine so well repeats repudiating false shepherds who feed off the sheep ignoring their needs. For my own sake and that of the faithful I join Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider as I pray other ordinary priests like myself will do.

      • Bullseye, Father. You always pull it off. God reward you. The readings this week and last from the prophet Ezekiel and Saint Augustine are at once a consolation and chilling. One wonders if those required to recite the office daily are fulfilling their duty. How could one take them to heart each morning and not enter into self-examination? Remain silent? The very stones are shouting but the episcopate and the clergy class remain hidden behind them only with some rare notable exceptions.
        God preserve you.

    • Hopefully not. If the bishop’s decision is ultimately upheld (at least in principle), then this will have been a very positive development… and might well strengthen the skeletal structure of other prelates…

  3. We can just follow the German lead. Everyone can just hold binding synods and re-decide the settled teaching of the Church from Christ. Then we can just get rid of sin. Then no one has to feel bad; they can indulge any vice they chose because “tada” there are no vices! Then there is also magically no schism as well. Well actually if you try and remain faithful to the true teaching of Christ’s Church then that would technically make you rigid and therefore schismatic but that is just a pastoral detail. Why should the Church worry about anything transcendental when we have the socialist/masonic revolution to push forward.

    Lord have Mercy on us all. May the bent be converted and the confused saved. Lord look up on me a sinner with mercy.

  4. I have had a confusion with some of CWR’s articles. MANY of the articles I find very well written and support the unity of Catholicism. I do question some that seem to me to have a “negativity” toward the Pope and the Vatican.
    I also feel that some of the articles trigger negativity and disunity in peoples’ comments. I believe it is more important to present positive and loyal backing of the Pope and the Vatican. We do not know the full story behind many Papal and Vatican decisions. If one disagrees, I think it is better to keep one’s “opinion” private and pray…more for what one does not fully understand. Any article that provokes disunity is fostering “human opinions”. The Church is not a “human” organization. It is God’s church.
    Negativity in a Catholic resource for Catholics should not be centered on what and why an opinion could foster disunity with the Pope. you do not have to print this because it is long but I would appreciate an email addressing this situation in some of the articles and a study of why some articles conjure up negativity instead of loyalty to the Pope and the Vatican.

    • “I also feel that some of the articles trigger negativity and disunity in peoples’ comments. I believe it is more important to present positive and loyal backing of the Pope and the Vatican. We do not know the full story behind many Papal and Vatican decisions.”

      If there is a question of whether the Vatican handled a sex abuse offender properly, we should not be silent.

      “The Church is not a “human” organization. It is God’s church.”

      It is God’s church, to which He calls sinners, and some of those sinners are clerics who may need to be held to account by us for erroneous teaching or bad decision-making.

      Unity is in Christ, the Divine Life, not with error and sin, and the Christian faithful have the duty to respond when their leaders are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

    • Where does it say that this or any private website reporting Catholic news must be loyal to the pope?
      The jesuit bishop of Rome will side with the jesuit HS in Indiana. Bet on it.
      The rules are different for the gay lifestyle supporters within the jesuit church and at the Vatican.

  5. Who would’ve thought that the day would come when PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP, not a catholic, would be more solicitous to safeguard RELIGIOUS FREEDOM than POPE FRANCIS, S.J.?

    Yet, that is the strange and exceedingly sad case.

    Just wondering WHO the REAL TYRANT is?

  6. Of course it undermines the Archbishop. Only those who cling to the self-deception termed “Bergoglianism” are not undermined. Those who adhere unreservedly to the perennial Magisterium have targets on their backs. We all know what is happening now. The horse has bucked the barn and is running loose. All the double talk in the world will not provide Bergoglio with any Catholic credence any longer. He and his sycophants are seen for what they are. Only the fearful and deranged pretend that what is before their very eyes is not there.
    God be with us.

  7. This is a mealy-mouthed “analysis” by the CNA.

    The truth is NOT complicated.

    But…silent apostasy is VERY, VERY complicated. There’s all kinds of money and influence involved. And apostate careers and theatrical REAL ESTATE that has to be maintained. Just ask “His Forgetfulness of Argentina.”

  8. Leave it to the “Catholic” News Agency to produce this huge word salad to explain away what neither needs nor permits any such explanation. It is painfully simple: Pope Francis supports homosexuality… at Brebeuf, at the JPII Institute, EVERYWHERE. Piously wishing that we were not in this historic crisis in the Church is futile, dishonest, and cowardly.

  9. As for the tax exempt question, it seems to me that the threat of financial consequences is an important aspect of declaring a school no longer Catholic, because these Jesuits and many others seem more moved by the pocket book than by moral principles.

  10. Lin Versino – I have some sympathy with what you have written, not so much in relation to the CWR articles (which are excellent) but perhaps sometimes in relation to some of the comments made.
    I would always distinguish between attacking an idea and attacking the person who promotes it. Truth must always be spoken and error attacked. CWR articles do this. But no matter how serious the error we should not attack the perpetrator. St Thomas was a great example of this approach – it is merely another aspect of Christ’s call to love our enemies.
    I am not sure if this answers you comments. I do not agree with you that we should be silent – it is the manner of our responses which may sometimes be questionable.

  11. We may grow old waiting for a curial decision on the merits of the Jesuits’ appeal, but that would suit them just fine. How long have the dubia Cardinals been waiting for an answer? We have seen little that would give hope for a decision to be rendered on the merits of a question of this sort during the present pontificate, for at least the duration of which it remains unlikely that the school will be prevented from continuing to deceive parents and the public by labeling itself Catholic. This is a matter so serious and the correct answer so obvious that the 265 previous occupants of the Chair of Peter, to a man, knowing that the whole world is paying attention and what is at stake in any delay, would not stand by and wait for curial wheels to grind; they would jump in and in no uncertain terms uphold the Archbishop of Indianapolis. The answer to the question posed by the title of this article is, “Of course it does.”

  12. We Catholics are really getting sick of the legalism that has permeated and overtaken our Church. It is the same disease that allowed the Bishops and Rome to rationalize reaction to the abuse scandal and then perpetuated it for many decades. I for one feel surrounded by Catholic Pharisees in the Magisterium. And it has reached all the way to Rome. Sin is sin. We are to love the sinner, but it is wrong to allow the sinner to teach and influence the youth of our church. There is something in Sacred Scripture that mentions something about a millstone.

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