The Archdiocese of Detroit has recently become the object of significant media attention due to the reported firing of a local parish’s music minister due to her entry into a same-sex “marriage.” Such stories consistently provoke a wide variety of media distortions and social media “hot takes”.
The harmful effects of this misleading commentary have been amplified by the recent Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia decision of the United States Supreme Court, in which the Court ruled that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity are illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It would be impossible to answer all of these distortions in a single article. It may be helpful, however, to offer some principles that ought to guide Catholics in thinking about how these questions apply to employment in the Church. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are some of the most important considerations that inform discernment and decision-making about the employment of lay ministers and teachers in the Catholic Church:
1) To employ someone as a lay minister or teacher is an act of endorsement. “Tolerance” is not the pertinent issue is such cases as these. To employ a minister or teacher is to set that man or woman before God’s people as a role model, and not merely as a practitioner or teacher in some specific area of expertise. Accusations of “intolerance” are often hurled at Church authorities when the difficult decision is made to terminate (or not renew) the employment of a minister or teacher based on some public act against Church teaching. But what actually underlies this accusation and drives conflict is plain old disagreement with the Catholic Church’s teaching both on human sexuality, morally acceptable means of procreation, and family life.
This is not to accuse anyone of purposely using the word “tolerance” as a red herring, but such distraction from the real issues at stake is the actual, if unintended, result of using this word. Lay ministers and teachers rightly assert the vital importance they play in the Church and society, precisely because they do so much to shape the minds and hearts of our people. They do this by word and by the example of their lives.
To hire a minister or teacher is not simply to tolerate a person, but it is to endorse her or him, to say to your parishioners and students, “Look to this person as an instructor, leader, and guide as you grow in the Christian life.” Whatever side of this issue a person stands on, the stakes are much higher than the word “tolerance” would suggest.
2) It is not hypocritical to react more stringently to public words or behavior than to what is unknown, unclear, or is known but strictly private. The public nature of certain words or actions which are contrary to the teachings of Christ and His Church compounds the damage done by sin. Precisely because a minister’s or teacher’s views or actions become known by others, a form of witness against the faith of the Church is given, which can lead others to grow weaker in their own faith, or even to embrace positions contrary to the teachings of Christ’s Church. This form of counter-witness is known in our tradition as “scandal.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following about scandal:
Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. (pars 2284-86)
3) By “public” is meant that which is either public by nature or that which while usually private is nevertheless known by other members of an institution, organization, or community. Understanding the nature of scandal, it becomes clear that serious damage can be done to even one other person who receives this kind of counter-witness to the Gospel. Some acts are public by nature. Civil marriage is such an act.
Others may be public or private, depending on how widely known a person’s words or actions are. The kinds of employment cases that become the subject of contention among Catholics and in the media are almost always public, and are usually public both by their nature and by their notoriety.
4) Godliness does not mix well with worldliness. There is an extremely strong temptation among many people, including many Catholics, to think that if we could only take the Catholic faith and soften it a bit here and there, incorporating the values of contemporary society, all would be right with the world. To such a person, it really is not enough that we love all people, but any difference in the way we treat different people becomes an expression of “hate,” “intolerance,” etc. According to this way of thinking, we need to love not only every person but also their ways of thinking and acting in every aspect of their lives.
But our faith does not work like this. The very belief in God which tells us we must love every man, woman, and child is the same belief by which we know all the truths God has revealed to us. Jesus has revealed to us the God of love, and He has called us His friends, but He also told us, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (see John 14). The God of love calls us to believe in Him, love Him, and show our love by following His plan for us, including His plan for human sexuality. To pretend that this teaching is some kind of mistake calls into question not just one point of theology, but the whole concept of revelation—God revealing to us His identity and His plan for us.
5) Pope Francis said “who am I to judge,” so what gives? None of us is qualified to give a definitive interpretation of these famous words of the Holy Father, but at least two things are clear. First, the Pope neither has changed nor will change the Church’s essential teaching regarding marriage and human sexuality. Secondly, the most common error concerning the Christian duty to avoid judgment remains the failure to distinguish between judging the hearts of people, which is always forbidden, and judging both actions and the consequences of those actions (including the bad example given to others).
Judging actions and their consequences is not only permitted, but in fact is often a duty, though it is a duty that requires discernment and virtue.
The above certainly does not raise every point worth thinking about, nor does it answer every question a person might have about these kinds of situations. This has been a simple attempt to bring a few thoughts to bear on a difficult and emotionally-charged issue. We must love and pray for all the people involved in these situations, whenever and wherever they occur, and pray above all things that God’s will be done.
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