An archdiocesan commission set up to examine LGBTQ issues in Catholic education, especially regarding employment policies, has issued its “mixed bag” findings.
The Archdiocesan Ministerial Covenant Task Force for the Archdiocese of Seattle published a final report recently after having been established in the wake of LGBTQ-related employment disputes in 2020. The task force’s chair, Fr. Ronald Nuzzi, called the report a “mixed bag,” according to America.
Drawing on a survey of nearly 5,000 non-students involved with Catholic education, the report makes recommendations in four areas: formation, pastoral care ministries, school leadership initiatives, and the ministerial covenant.
The task force came about because of the last area’s relationship to church-related employment. In 2020, Kennedy Catholic High School forced teachers Michelle Beattie and Paul Danforth to resign over their respective same-gender relationships and protests ensued. Fr. Nuzzi, a Notre Dame University professor emeritus of education, was chosen by Seattle’s Archbishop Paul Etienne to chair the Task Force.
In the report’s section on the ministerial covenant, the idea that employees be considered ministers is affirmed, as well as the idea that “a commitment to such ministry is most accurately articulated in the form of a ministerial covenant rather than a contract.” Several reasons are given, such as preserving “discretion in evaluating the suitability of all employees” and “current tensions in the application of constitutional law.” The report also recommends church employers offer a period of professional development and discernment so employees sign “with full knowledge, complete transparency, and a clear and informed conscience.”
The task force was divided on the “lifestyle provision” of the covenantal relationship. Some members wanted to retain a provision which says that an employee’s lifestyle must conform with church teaching, and some who wanted to discard such a provision.
Those arguing for retaining the provisions claim that “it is not discriminatory” to base employment on church teachings. All lifestyles deemed inconsistent with church teaching, including, but not exclusively, same-gender marriages, must be considered a violation of the covenant. They added that “no one is fired or non-renewed from employment due to their orientation, identity, desires, or ideas,” but only for “breaking of the covenant through actions, public witness, and lifestyle choices.”
For the side that wishes to jettison the lifestyle provision, reasons given appeal to accompaniment in the model of Jesus and Pope Francis. Other reasons given include:
“4. It is fundamentally discriminatory to single out certain behaviors for summative employment decisions while ignoring other behaviors. The current ministerial covenant has been inequitably enforced, resulting in grave injustices. The archdiocesan employment benefits policy is an example of this inequity, defining those qualifying for coverage as a dependent as ‘an opposite sex legal spouse who is not legally separated,’ while being silent about all other lifestyle issues. . .
“7. The pain and heartbreak of current students weighs heavily on us. Dozens of unsolicited letters to the task force detailed harassment, ridicule, bullying, and discrimination in Catholic schools, leading to the conclusion that for some students, Catholic schools are not safe places.
“8. The pain of the adult church is also clear, many of whom find the Church tone deaf to their concerns, a situation that retaining the lifestyle provision will only exacerbate.”
Luke Janicki, a former teacher at Kennedy Catholic who authored America’s analysis, provided some commentary:
“Many will accuse the report of not going far enough in recommending specific steps to Archbishop Etienne, but in a deeply Christian sense, its restraint is perhaps its greatest strength. In laying bare all their struggles and ideas, the task force is giving our own hand back to us to remove any beams blocking our vision. Its lesson is: We must learn—and relearn—how to hold tensions.
“Its restraint could also be seen, in a Christian sense, as cowardice or sloth. It may communicate that task force members are reluctant to suggest ways forward because the church will do what it wants regardless. Or that members are too overwhelmed to channel what they have brainstormed into integrated, actionable steps.”
Janicki calls the report “disappointing.” I would agree: to call for greater pastoral care without an accompanying demand for church worker justice misses the mark.
I would go further in suggesting Janicki’s reading is overly optimistic. He is correct that there is a time for Catholics to “learn–and relearn–how to hold tensions” on complex matters. But incidents of discrimination are not that time. Indeed, the way to address LGBTQ church workers is fairly simple: implement non-discrimination policies inclusive of LGBTQ people and then follow them, even if civil law does not mandate doing so.
Going forward, Archbishop Paul Etienne has said in a letter that he will enter a “discernment process” with the report, leaving it unclear what, if anything might come of the task force’s work. Hopefully, the archbishop will break from his fellow U.S. bishops and choose justice for church workers instead of more discrimination.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 15, 2021