Canonical Resolution in LGBTQ Employment Dispute Could Have Major Implications

The Archdiocese of Indiana and a local Jesuit high school remain in a standoff in a canonical case after an Indiana court dismissed a civil suit against the archdiocese.

According to The Pillar, in June 2019, Indianapolis’ Archbishop Charles Thompson issued a decree which banned Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School from calling itself Catholic. This happened after Thompson ordered the school to not renew the contract of Layton Payne-Elliot, a teacher who is in a same-gender marriage. Brebeuf refused. Shortly after, his husband, Joshua Payne-Elliot, was fired from nearby Cathedral High School. Joshua filed a civil suit against the archdiocese, which was dismissed in May.

The Jesuits’ Midwest Province appealed the archbishop’s decision to remove the school’s Catholic designation to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education in 2019. As the case is considered, the decree remains suspended and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, the former Archbishop of Indianapolis, is reportedly mediating the standoff.

Thompson’s order to fire the teachers and his subsequent decree towards Brebeuf Jesuit centers around an archdiocesan policy that designates all teachers as “ministers.” Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor, many U.S. dioceses have introduced this policy as a way to ensure their Catholic schools can avoid non-discrimination laws. The canonical extent of this policy is at issue in the Brebeuf case.

According to canon law, a local bishop can provide “general regulation” of Catholic schools, but acknowledges the “autonomy regarding the internal direction” of schools like Brebeuf Jesuit that are administered by religious congregations.

Calling all diocesan teachers “ministers,” designates them, effectively, as teachers of religion. In civil courts, this has been found, according to The Pillar, “an acceptable expression of the religious character of Catholic schools.” The Pillar explained:

“While canon law gives the bishop the power to ‘appoint or approve teachers of religion and even to remove them or demand that they be removed if a reason of religion or morals requires it,’ stretching this canon to accommodate the archdiocesan policy’s designation of all teachers as teachers of religion is untested at the level of Rome.

“Were Rome to find in favor of the policy’s applicability in the case of Brebeuf, it would be seen by many as opening the door for local bishops to exercise a far greater level of authority over the internal workings of religiously-administered schools.

“On the other hand, should Rome effectively strike down the policy’s designation of all teachers in Catholic schools as teachers of religion, that could be used in a renewed challenge in U.S. courts to Catholic schools’ ability to hire and fire teachers in line with the moral requirements of the faith.

“Either of those results would likely be widely interpreted as a direct Vatican vote on the underlying issue of whether it is appropriate for a person in a same-sex civil union to teach in a Catholic school, something the Vatican is unlikely to want to be seen to do.”

By refusing to dismiss Layton Payne-Elliot despite archdiocesan demands, the leadership of Brebeuf Jesuit and the Jesuits’ Midwest Province have adhered to the Catholic teaching that centers the dignity of the human person. They defend not just their own employee, but LGBTQ employees at all Catholic institutions.

Beth Mueller Stewart, New Ways Ministry, June 30, 2021

1 reply
  1. Michelle Stone
    Michelle Stone says:

    As a lay person who worked in a parish for nearly ten years, it seems to me that the bishops are using the designation “minister” as a course of convenience. My job description was never “Youth Minister” or “Minister of Catechesis and Evangelization”. Rather, I was called a “Pastoral Associate” or “Coordinator” because the minister title belonged solely to the pastor. Development of the theology of lay ecclesial ministers has been needed for quite some time now. The lack of such a robust theology is allowing the bishops to use terminology as it suits their needs meanwhile taking advantage of those lay people who have put their professions and livelihoods in their hands.

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