New Document on Catholic Schools Mixed On Question of LGBTQ Employment Disputes

The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education has released a new document on Catholic identity that could impact how LGBTQ issues, particularly those related to employment, are addressed.

The instruction, titled The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue, was issued on March 29th, signed by the congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi.

The instruction cites its genesis as coming from “cases of conflicts and appeals resulting from different interpretations” of Catholic identity, which observers believe may, in part, be related to the firing of LGBTQ church workers.

More specifically, this instruction may have arisen from the dispute involving Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The Jesuits who operate that school refused Archbishop Charles Thompson’s request that a teacher in a same-gender marriage be fired, after which the archbishop stripped the school of its Catholic affiliation. The Jesuits then appealed the case to Congregation for Catholic Education, which has not issued a ruling, but did suspend the archbishop’s sanction on the school.

The instruction, which roots Catholic education in the church’s evangelical mission while consistently advocating dialogue and collaboration has a number of worthy ideas. But Chapter III, “Some Critical Aspects,” has raised alarms from some LGBTQ advocates over what the implications might be going forward for LGBTQ church workers. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, issued a statement saying some bishops “are likely to use this Vatican document to further justify their discriminatory and punitive actions.” She added that rather than fostering dialogue, the instruction “will result in exactly the opposite happening.”

What are the causes of this concern? Paragraph 77 is a good example. In it, the Congregation calls on Catholic schools to “have either a mission statement or a code of conduct” that are “legally reinforced by means of employment contracts or other contractual declarations.” While acknowledging civil laws banning discrimination, including “on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and other aspects of private life,” the instruction justifies sanctioning employees for “lack of professional honesty in failing to comply with the terms set out in the related contracts and institutional guidelines.”

This excerpt, along with some other sections from the text, can be seen to endorse the more LGBTQ-negative interpretation of Catholic identity that has led to more than 120 church workers losing their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes since 2011. But that is not quite the full story. Elsewhere in the instruction, the principle of subsidiarity is referenced repeatedly and the entire spirit of the instruction centers on the need for dialogue, very much in line with Pope Francis’ synodal vision of the church.

For instance, in paragraph 80 relating to conflicts in the “disciplinary and/or doctrinal field,” the instruction calls for a careful handling of disputes because “these situations can bring discredit to the Catholic institution and scandal in the community.” The paragraph continues:

“Discernment must begin in the local church context, bearing in mind the canonical principles of graduality and proportionality of any remedial measures to be taken. Dismissal should be the last resort, legitimately taken after all other remedial attempts have failed.”

This paragraph can support the idea that summarily firing an LGBTQ church worker, as has often been done, is not the correct approach. Firing employees over their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is still an option, but the instruction rejects turning to sanctions immediately. The path of dialogue is to be pursued first.

The problem with the Congregation’s instruction is that it seems to be a compromise text, including at once calls for more stringent understandings of Catholic identity while seeking to be open to pluralistic societies. Is this an overlooked flaw in the text or a deliberate talking out of both sides of the mouth?  Perhaps it was designed to be a productive tension. Whatever the reason, this dissonance simply causes further confusion. A local bishop or religious superior can interpret the instruction in a variety of ways. A more affirming leader could find in the text foundations for just employment policies for LGBTQ church workers. But non-affirming leaders can likewise find what they need to discriminate.

If the Congregation for Catholic Education had hoped to avoid further disputes like Brebeuf Jesuit, it has missed its mark.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, April 6, 2022

2 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    The term Catholic identity is in itself misleading thus open to interpretation. The institution seems to understand Catholic identity to mean what the bishops say. However, as we all know, the word itself means universal, everywhere and open to everyone not regardless of their differences but because of differences the universal aspect of the church must hold its integrity. All are welcome. Just as we know God does not move away from us, but we move away from God so too the church in its purest sense must never move away from anyone.

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  2. Fr. Scott Hill, omi
    Fr. Scott Hill, omi says:

    I find much to agree with Robert Shine’s Op-Ed. Yes, the lack of a clear (a thumb’s up/down) response from the Congregation for Catholic Education would have been exceedingly helpful from my American perspective, setting to rest the unjust treatment of Queer employees. I agree that many US bishop’s will ignore, and cherry pick this document to justify their heavy handedness, justifying the firing of Queer employees. Prejudice and ignorance has not been eradicated from the church! Yet, I encourage readers to hold on to hope as new life stirs in the Body of Christ. The Synodal process, while resisted by many American bishop’s (basically doing navel gazing in their [Arch]dioceses), cannot stop the power of the Divine Spirit. As Mr. Shine’s points out, the Congregation’s Document is a mixed message. Perhaps intentionally! In my humble observation one cannot overlook in the Congregation’s document calling for “Discernment.” I find this an encouraging and an essential acknowledgement that captures the Synodal Spirit: dialogue, prayer, study, and the reading/pondering of Sacred Scripture. I would suggest in the discernment process a mutually agreed Spiritual Mediator, who has an ear for each side in the dispute and is a conduit for the wisdom of God. Yes, what I suggest demands time and patience, the essence of discernment. Yet, is this not a lesson we can draw from our Sacred Scriptures; the patience of Jesus with those who opposed him? Human lives, dignity, and livelihoods are at stake, whether one is queer or straight with their private lives; the lesson I draw from Scripture is that the law serves people not people subservient to the law. At least that is what my Canon Law professor taught when told us to make the law work for the people of God. The Congregation’s document appears to me, to call on mature parties to dialogue and discern a path that is, as humanly possible, in the best interest of the employee and the church. Underlying this document, I hear a message of “grow up!” Will our bishop’s heed the call and challenge?

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