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Of Scandal and Catholic Schools

This past year saw a number of media conflagrations over Catholic schools that terminated teachers discovered to have been either pregnant out of wedlock or gay. I will not be commenting on any of these particular cases.

Indeed the problem with most commentary on such cases is that we usually lack knowledge of the relevant details to make a wise judgment. Just as hard cases make bad law, so does lack of sufficient knowledge of details hamper attempts to say something helpful. Prudent judgments usually require a greater sense of the relevant context than we get from the news.

So, for example, we would need to know (which we usually don’t) whether the pregnant, unmarried teacher in question was openly defiant of Church teachings. An unwed pregnant woman (teacher or student) might end up being the source of good lessons to the community, depending upon the situation. And judgments must be made in such cases, for example, whether Catholic schools that exile unwed mothers may be helping forces of evil that pressure women into having abortions.

I have known far too many cases of young girls from conservative, pious Catholic families, for example, who have opted for abortion simply because their shame was too great to reveal the truth to their parents. In several situations, moreover, ostensibly “good” Catholic parents or siblings have looked the other way while they suspected an abortion was taking place. “Problem” solved. Scandal avoided. No need to go before the Church community as one of those parents: someone who raised a pregnant, unwed daughter.

As for the Catholic parents of boys who impregnated girls, well, that tended to be no problem at all. The answer was simple: have him stay in school, act as though nothing has happened, and disavow any responsibility.

For these reasons, among others, kicking pregnant women out of school, whether they are teachers or students, seems to me generally a bad idea.

And yet, if I were a poor father trying to help my children out of poverty to a better future, I imagine that I wouldn’t be all that comfortable sending my daughter to a school where dozens of girls had gotten premaritally pregnant and in which, for various reasons, unwed pregnancy had become socially “acceptable” – sort of a “rite of passage.” Like your first kiss, your first date, or your first prom, now you have your first baby out of wedlock. That’s a problem. But so too is a school that exiles young girls, when they become pregnant, but makes no effort to hold the young man involved accountable. The context in which such judgments are made is crucial.

"Youth" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1893)
“Youth” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1893)

In a similar vein, it’s one thing to have a person living chastely with his or her same-sex desires teaching at a Catholic school; it’s another thing entirely for a person to be openly disobeying Church teachings.

But then again, that goes for everyone at a Catholic school. A Catholic school that would fire a chaste gay man, faithful to the Church’s teachings, or an unwed pregnant woman, but would never consider firing a nun who repeatedly bad-mouths the Magisterium, is guilty of bad faith. Is premarital pregnancy or an admission that one has homosexual desires the only reasons for which a Catholic teacher can be fired? If so, we have a problem.

It would be no more inappropriate for a person with same-sex attractions who is honestly living with the struggle of authentic fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium to be teaching at a Catholic school than it would be for a person struggling to be faithful to the Church’s moral teaching when it comes to pornography or lust or consumerism or greed or anger or, well, a host of other vices and sins. If Catholic schools could only hire people without sin, the schools would be empty, and I wouldn’t have a job.

I know several men and women who have been very open about their same-sex attractions and have written eloquently about how they live faithfully in accord with the teachings of the Church. One of them is married with a wife and three beautiful children. I would be proud to have any one of them as a colleague in my Catholic university. Indeed, any one of them would be preferable to colleagues who check the box “Catholic,” but hate the teachings of the Magisterium with the sort of deep-seated passion that only an angry child can show to despised parents. Why such people settle on a job at a Catholic university remains a mystery to me.

Schools should pay less attention to who checks the box “Catholic” and a lot more attention to what is called “mission fit”: those who honestly and earnestly supports the mission of the school. As for terminating people simply because they might “cause scandal” (a sure road to hypocrisy), let’s remember, these days simply being Catholic is scandalous enough. In this culture, an authentically “Catholic” school simply is a school for scandal. It has often been thus in history.

In most of these disputes, there is a judgment call to be made. There are different “goods” to be sought and “evils” to be avoided. When such cases become sideshow acts in the great media circus, there is too often a rush to judgment, one side condemning school officials as though they were hate-filled bigots, the other rushing to vindicate the school as though they were defending Mother Church Herself.

St. Paul warns about “keeping busy, not becoming busybodies.” He condemns “idlers, going about from house to house. . .gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.”

The media make their money peddling polemic. We owe our fellow Catholics patience and prudence. We need to protect the sheep without joining the ranks of the barking wolves outside the gate.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.