A Jesuit high school in Indiana has been barred from calling itself “Catholic” after refusing the local archbishop’s demand to fire an employee in a same-gender marriage.
Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory, Indianapolis, may no longer identify itself as a “Catholic” institution decreed Archbishop Charles Thompson, the local Ordinary. But ahead of this canonical ruling being issued yesterday, the Brebeuf Jesuit Board of Trustees released a statement about their “sincere and significant disagreement with the Archdiocese” on Thursday evening. That statement read, in part:
“. . .Brebeuf Jesuit has respectfully declined the Archdiocese’s insistence and directive that we dismiss a highly capable and qualified teacher due to the teacher being a spouse within a civilly-recognized same-sex marriage.
“To our knowledge, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ direct insertion into an employment matter of a school governed by a religious order is unprecedented; this is a unique action among the more than 80 Jesuit secondary/pre-secondary schools which operate in dioceses throughout North America, along with the countless Catholic schools operated by other religious orders such as the Christian Brothers, Dominicans, and Xaverian Brothers.
“After long and prayerful consideration, we determined that following the Archdiocese’s directive would not only violate our informed conscience on this particular matter, but also 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.”
The Board’s statement confirmed that “our identity as a Catholic Jesuit institution remains unchanged” even if formal ties with the Indianapolis archdiocese are broken after a 57-year relationship, which has now occurred.
The Archdiocese responded to the Board’s letter by confirming the decree’s enactment and claiming further that all staff persons in Catholic institutions are considered ministers and must “convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching,” reported RTV6.
The decree this week comes after a two-year dispute about which Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, provincial of the Jesuit’s USA Midwest Province, shared in his own letter about the decision. He described the situation as a “disappointing development” concerning the autonomy of the Jesuits regarding employment. Paulson wrote:
“In the summer of 2017, Brebeuf Jesuit became aware that one of its teachers entered into a civil marriage with a person of the same sex. This fact became publicly known via social media.
“The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, through the Superintendent of Catholic Education, requested verbally two years ago that Brebeuf Jesuit not renew this teacher’s contract because this teacher’s marital status does not conform to church doctrine. The teacher in question does not teach religion and is a longtime valued employee of the school. Brebeuf has declined to honor the Archdiocese’s expectation that the school dismiss this teacher. I recognize this request by Archbishop Charles Thompson to be his prudential judgment of the application of canon law recognizing his responsibility for oversight of faith and morals as well as Catholic education in his archdiocese. I disagree with the necessity and prudence of this decision. This is a disagreement between two church leaders of goodwill with related, but distinct responsibilities.”
Paulson was clear that Thompson’s decree will be appealed under canon law up to and including the Vatican. In the meantime, the Archdiocese will not prohibit Jesuit priests from serving at Brebeuf and celebration of Mass on campus will still be allowed.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry said in a statement, the the Brebeuf leaders “knew that they would not be following their consciences if they acquiesced to the archdiocese’s demands.” He continued:
“In Catholic teaching, violation of conscience is one of the most serious errors one can commit, certainly more serious than any violation of sexual ethics.
“They were faced with a choice: lose the name ‘Catholic’ or lose what it really means to be Catholic. They chose the path of conscience, integrity, and justice.”
Fr. James Martin, SJ, an advocate for LGBTQ equality, commented on Facebook:
“I stand with my brother Jesuits who stand with our LGBT colleagues, and who stand against the relentless targeting of LGBT people. Many other church employees, including faculty and staff in Catholic schools, do not conform to, or agree with, aspects of church teaching. . .Yet they are not targeted. The targeting of LGBT employees must cease, and Brebeuf and the Midwest Province are here standing with the marginalized. Despite what the Archdiocese says, this is the most Catholic thing that Brebeuf could do.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, agreed in a statement that Brebeuf and Jesuit leaders did “exactly what our Catholic faith teaches,” adding:
“For too long, bishops have acted as if they own the term ‘Catholic.’ The reality is that every baptized member of the Church has the right to claim that identity and membership in the larger Catholic community. By definition ‘Catholic’ means universal, and is experienced in multiple expressions across the world. That identity and experience cannot be governed or denied by any bishop. Brebeuf leaders are modeling this truth.”
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been an epicenter of recent LGBTQ-related church employment disputes. Roncalli High School, which unlike Brebeuf is directly controlled by the Archdiocese, has already fired two lesbian guidance counselors for being in same-gender marriages. They also barred one of the terminated employee’s fathers from volunteering at the school which he has done for decades. The two employees, Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey, have both filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, paving the way for lawsuits. Nearly 100 church workers worldwide have lost their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes since 2008.
Officials with Brebeuf Jesuit and the USA Midwest Province are being rightly applauded for standing up to Archbishop Thompson’s threats. Their emphasis on conscience and their assertions under church law are solid foundations on which to resist. They offer a lesson to other Jesuit institutions like St. Ignatius High School in Chicago and St. Francis Xavier in Kansas City who have fired LGBTQ church workers previously.
But the Jesuits’ lesson extends further, too, and should be inspiration for further solidarity actions. Like the Sisters of Mercy’s decision two years ago to retain a teacher who came out as transgender, this act of defiance proves that Catholic identity is far more about how church institutions act to uplift and defend people, particularly in their communities, rather than being a titled to be coveted.
In the last decade, nearly 100 church workers have gone public about losing their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes. You can find a full listing of these incidents here, as well as New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBT issues here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 22, 2019