Latest Church Worker Firing in Indianapolis Shows Need for Active Lay Leadership in Church

Kelly Fisher

As Bondings 2.0 has previously reported, Roncalli High School, Indianapolis, has fired its third employee over LGBTQ-related issues. Kelly Fisher, a social worker at Roncalli High School, says she was retaliated against, harassed, and ultimately fired after she made public statements in support of two of her colleagues—Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey—who were fired for being in same-gender marriages.

This new firing is a moment for Catholic laypeople to exercise their ecclesial and moral authority to denounce the unjust discrimination against LGBTQ church employees.

In an op-ed in the National Catholic Reporter, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said that in this latest firing, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis overstepped its administrative duties and betrayed its moral responsibilities. Duddy-Burke said that Fisher’s firing is a new low for the Church:

“Fisher’s story, however, takes us into frightening new territory. Fisher was censured, intimidated, and ultimately terminated, simply for expressing an opinion that diverged from that of her employer.”

As a social worker, Fisher saw it has her duty to stand up for her colleagues who were fired, believing their firings were an assault on social justice. Fisher had first appealed to the archdiocese and Roncalli officials on behalf of Fitzgerald, requesting a change in contract to better live out the Church’s gospel of inclusion.  When she took to Facebook to share that letter, administrators stepped in to silence Fisher. Duddy-Burke fears that this precedent will require employees at Catholic schools, healthcare providers, and social service agencies to choose between employment and their constitutionally-protected civil liberties.

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Beyond the obvious First Amendment issues at play in Fisher’s termination, Duddy-Burke calls attention to a deeper problem in the church:

“Officials at Roncalli High School and the Indianapolis Archdiocese used their religious and financial powers to coerce [Fisher] into silence.”

She explains that Fisher’s case sets the precedent that “those with economic might believe they can use their status to intimidate and oppress those whose livelihood they fund.” In a church that effectively excludes lay leadership from church decision-making, the un-checked combination of religious and financial powers amounts to oppression—both social, and in the case Fisher and others, economic.

In his book, The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church, theologian Paul Lakeland, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, suggests the laity liberate itself from this financial and religious oppression, by asserting their Vatican II-defined rights to leadership within the Church.

Vatican II clearly and definitively affirmed the necessary involvement of the laity in the life of the church. The laity, through the power of consent (or withholding consent), exercises its role within the church decision-making process. Fisher withheld her consent and made her dissent publicly known when she saw what she believed was an unjust decision. Far from being an offense worthy of punishment, Fisher’s courageous act was an expression of her Catholic identity and an executing of her authority as a Catholic layperson.

Paul Lakeland

Similarly, far from being just, as the archdiocese asserts, the decision to fire Fisher was an abdication of the church hierarchy’s ecclesial responsibility to listen to the voices of the laity.  Lakeland argues in Liberating the Laity that this responsibility requires accountability on the part of the hierarchy—accountability clearly absent in Fisher’s case:

“The community needs to have confidence in leadership’s willingness to listen to its voice and incorporate that voice into decision making. Contrariwise, leadership needs to be truly aware of its accountability to the people it serves.”

People like Fisher and her colleagues, the Roncalli High School community, and the faithful of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis should not be deterred by the wrongful trampling of their civil and ecclesial right to speak up against injustices within the church. The community of faithful who are appalled by the firing of their colleagues, teachers, and friends, must continue to speak out both privately and publicly, because, as Lakeland argues, “it is only through this kind of incremental [grassroots] transformation that the structures of the church at the higher levels will be forced to bend to pressure.”

The laity, at large, should join Fisher, the groups of students and parents protesting the firings and the 80+ other church employees who have been fired for LGBTQ related issues in making it clear to the hierarchy that we do not consent to discrimination, intimidation, and oppression of LGBTQ folks in the name of the church of Jesus, whose good news is a message of inclusion to those on margins.

Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, November 7, 2019

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