Firing LGBT Educators Can Be a Teaching Moment — For What NOT To Do

Employment GraphicThe outcry against terminating employees of Catholic institutions because they are not considered to be  in accordance with the bishops’ sexual ethics continues to grow.  An unmarried, pregnant woman was recently fired from a Catholic school in Montana, indicating that while LGBT issues predominate in these cases, they are not the only factors.  Bondings 2.0 has reported on more than a dozen educators, musicians, and ministers fired for being gay or transgender, getting married, or even just supporting equal marriage rights. Below are the insightful reflections from many quarters in and outside of the Church on these firings.

Responding to the firing of Brian Panetta, a music educator at St. Mary Central Catholic High School in Ohio, The Toledo Blade echoed Panetta in calling this firing a ‘teachable moment’ for students and the wider community, all the while highlighting the impact of those who have learned the message of God’s inclusive love and are no acting out:

“Change in an old, venerable institution occurs under many guises — incrementally, slowly, officially — or sometimes unofficially and quickly, pushed ahead by its members…

“Nationwide last year, 10 employees were fired from Catholic institutions under similar circumstances, reports Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which says it represents gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning Catholics.

“Near Seattle last month, students chanting ‘change the church’ walked out of Eastside Catholic High School to protest the firing of vice principal and swim coach Mark Zmuda, who married his same-sex partner….

“But as more dissenting Catholics such as Mr. Panetta take a stand, what other Catholics believe may change. Whether that influences church doctrine remains to be seen.”

What lessons can we learn from these firings, and, perhaps more importantly, how can we  stop them? Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter questions whether schools should emphasize judgement or mercy.

“…our Church tends to highlight violations of sexual norms more than other violations of the moral law, and that even a cursory reading of the Gospels does not warrant such highlighting. The Master is quick to forgive sins of the flesh. He rails against the proud and, specifically, the religiously proud…

“But, when the effort to defend that teaching [on marriage] turns us away from the yet more foundational teaching that God’s mercy is vouchsafed to us already and always, and that the Church exists to bring that mercy to the world, then we may win the culture war, we may lose the culture war, but we have lost our way along the pathways of discipleship.”

The utterly wrong approach was laid out by a deacon from Brooklyn, New York who wrote a blog post about how to fire the pregnant teacher, and others, in a more ‘media-friendly’ fashion. Cathleen Keaveney responds to this deacon’s tactic on dotCommonweal and offers an alternative suggestion for the Montana case, which is applicable for LGBT church workers as well: how about not firing them?  She writes:

“Some would say that the firing is necessary for pedagogical reasons: to “teach” the importance of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. But it would be good to ask a) is this the most effective way to communicate this message to young people; and b) is this line of action communicating other lessons that are inconsistent with other aspects of a Catholic worldview? My own view is this: in a world in which Catholic teaching on sexual matters is so widely dismissed, even by Catholics, this kind of necessarily selective enforcement is going to make Catholic teaching seem arbitrary and cruel…

“I think the message that firing this teacher conveys to the students is that they, too, are subject to being “fired” from the Catholic community if they misbehave in any way. After all, the little school is probably the main Catholic community they’ve known.  For all the talk of love and understanding and forgiveness, in the end, it is a hard and abstract contractual provision–a sign of willing, not being–that counts the most. For all the talk of a rich and humble inner life, it is a wholesome appearance that matters most.”

The fundamental thread running through these commentaries is that firing those who transgress the Vatican’s sexual issues provides not only a teaching moment for the church to live up to its best social justice ideals, but these situations can also be an impetus for Catholics to speak out against them. Turning to Seattle-area high school students’ example may be the first step in responding to firings, as well as implementing non-discrimination policies in Catholic institutions inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status. You can read about the former here and the latter here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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  1. […] Yet, there are signs of hope. Several outlets, including Tikkun, The Atlantic, and Talking Points Memo, have published articles claiming this wave of anti-gay discrimination laws is merely the final breaths of a dying extreme right based in religion. Elsewhere, Pope Francis has laid out his vision for more pastoral bishops. Catholic leaders and organizations condemned Uganda’s harsh anti-gay law passed last week, while in the US there is rapidly strengthening resistance to the firing of LGBT church workers. […]

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