While Philadelphia becomes a new focal point in the continuing story of lesbian and gay employees in Catholic schools being fired for marrying, a Catholic university in New York City has shown that it is very possible for Catholic institutions to accept, and even celebrate, that a gay employee who recently tied the knot.
The latest development in the case of Margie Winters, a married lesbian teacher fired from Waldron Mercy Academy in suburban Philadelphia, is that the local leader of the Catholic Church there, Archbishop Charles Chaput, has made a statement praising the school’s leaders for firing the teacher.
In a statement released Monday, and quoted on Philly.com, Chaput said:
“Schools describing themselves as Catholic take on the responsibility of teaching and witnessing the Catholic faith in a manner true to Catholic belief. There’s nothing complicated or controversial in this. It’s a simple matter of honesty. I’m very grateful to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and to the principal and board members of Waldron Mercy for taking the steps to ensure that the Catholic faith is presented in a way fully in accord with the teaching of the Church. They’ve shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon.”
Yet, in New York City, another Catholic educational institution, Fordham University, was recently faced with a similar situation. The chair of the theology department, J. Patrick Hornbeck, recently married Patrick Berquist, in an Episcopal ceremony. The marriage was announced in The New York Times, and several conservative Catholic bloggers jumped on this item, criticizing Fordham for not taking action against Hornbeck or making a statement about the wedding.
This week, Fordham did make a statement:
“While Catholic teachings do not support same-sex marriage, we wish Professor Hornbeck and his spouse a rich life filled with many blessings on the occasion of their wedding in the Episcopal Church. Professor Hornbeck is a member of the Fordham community, and like all University employees, students and alumni, is entitled to human dignity without regard to race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation. Finally, same-sex unions are now the law of the land, and Professor Hornbeck has the same constitutional right to marriage as all Americans.”
What a contrast to the statement made by Philadelphia’s archbishop or even the regional head of the Sisters of Mercy, who operate the school from which Margie Winters was fired. NBC Philadelphia quoted from a statement by Sister Patricia Vetrano, president of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Mercy Sisters:
” ‘When a school is called to make a decision such as this, it challenges us as a faith community at the deepest levels. . . . The leadership of Waldron Mercy has acted in accord with the school’s fundamental Catholic identity.’
“Vetrano called the decision to let go of Winters ‘final, although very painful’ and said the Sisters respect that not everyone agrees with the firing.”
The Fordham statement, while clearly not sanctioning same-gender marriage, is gracious and life-affirming. It is not based on laws and rules. It is a statement that is confident of the institution’s Catholic identity. It is one that affirms the people involved in the situation and doesn’t shame them.
The statements by Archbishop Chaput and Sister Vetrano are statements based on the logic that the Church’s teaching on marriage is fundamental to an institution’s identity–which it is not. The teaching on marriage is not at the same level of teaching as the basic principles of faith such as the nature of God, salvation, the Incarnation, the Resurrection.
On the other hand, Fordham’s statement grounds itself in Catholic identity based on respecting “human dignity without regard to race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation.” It is one that recognizes that Hornbeck’s and Berquist’s marriage has a civil dimension to it that is separate from religious identity, that they have exercised “the same constitutional right to marriage as all Americans.”
While it is true that Fordham is a nationally recognized university and Waldron Mercy is a small, local elementary school, both institutions value their Catholic identity. Fordham seems to have done it in a way that does not see that Catholic identity threatened by the changing world, whereas Waldron Mercy seems to think that their school’s Catholic identity is a fragile house of cards that can crumble easily.
In truth, Catholic identity is a big term that encompasses so many facets of an institution’s life. Narrowing it to accordance with the Church’s teaching on marriage significantly demeans such an identity. In trying to save their religious identity, the leaders of Waldron Mercy have actually significantly harmed it.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry