By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Daniel J. Daly, associate professor and chair of the theology department at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, wrote an article for the Jesuits’ America magazine on June 9 that deserves the attention of everyone — parents, teachers, and administrators — with an interest in our Catholic schools. He asks how we should deal with successful and dedicated teachers who violate the teachings of the Church in their private lives.
Daly offers as examples a Catholic high school teacher in Washington state who was fired after it was discovered that he was married to a man; an unmarried woman who was fired from a Catholic middle school in Montana when it was discovered that she was pregnant; unmarried teachers — a man and a woman — from a Catholic high school in Massachusetts who were fired when the principal found out that the woman was pregnant.
Writes Daly, “On the one hand, the four employees mentioned above were reported to be well qualified and good at their respective jobs. On the other, all four were publicly exposed as being in violation of Catholic teaching and in breach of the morality clause in their contracts.”
Daly understands the stakes. “These cases are especially difficult because, unlike Catholic colleges and universities, Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools teach children who may be encountering these moral questions for the first time. These teachers have a responsibility to create an environment in which students can learn how to live a virtuous life.”
Daly agrees that there is a need to respect the privacy of teachers in Catholic schools, but argues that the “rights of faculty and staff are limited by the rights of students to receive a high quality Catholic education. This is not to claim that the rights of faculty and staff are to be ignored but that these rights must be placed in their proper context.”
What is the “proper context”? Daly focuses on the question of whether the individual teacher’s violation of Church teaching leads to “scandal.” He maintains that “not every immoral action or mistaken belief is scandalous,” nor need it lead “others to believe that immoral actions and ways of life are actually morally licit.”
I don’t want to put words into Daly’s mouth, but what I think he is saying is that not every teacher who is living in sin in the eyes of the Church — unmarried pregnant women, or unmarried individuals living together, for example — is actively leading his or her students to the conclusion that the Church’s teachings on marriage are in error. For years, Catholic schools have succeeded at a version of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I submit that it has been a wise approach.
Permit me to give a few examples from my days teaching in a Catholic high school in the Bronx back in the mid-1960s. I can remember talking to a well-liked and successful English teacher at the school one afternoon. He was distraught because his wife had just left him and filed for divorce. He was distraught over the divorce, but the topic of discussion that afternoon was his fear that he was going to lose his job once the divorce was finalized. The school where we worked had a morality clause in its teachers’ contract.
I was a young teacher at the time, in my early 20s, and did not know how to respond. But a veteran teacher was also in the discussion. He assured our colleague that he had nothing to worry about.
“No one in the administration has ever asked you about your home-life before, have they? Why should they start now? Don’t bring up the divorce. Don’t make a big deal about it. It is not going to be an issue.”
“But the principal will find out,” my colleague shot back. “Everyone is going to know. You know how the rumor mill works.”
“That’s true,” the veteran teacher responded. “They will. But unless you initiate the discussion, no administrator will ask. Can you picture them putting you in a corner and trying to trap you over this?” The administrators at the school were Marist Brothers.
And that is how it worked. The teacher in question went through his divorce. He remarried, outside the Church. He never mentioned his marital status to his students. I left the school a few years later, but he worked there 30 years more, until his death.
Now it is true that the teacher lived about 20 miles from the high school. He didn’t bump into his students on the street. But I contend that even if lived two blocks from the school it need not have made a great difference. Students and parents might have whispered among themselves about the nature of his marriage. But they would not have known if there was an annulment involved. The only way the divorce would have become an issue would be if the teacher in question used his situation as a way to challenge in his classroom the Church’s teaching on marriage. He did not do that; and no in the administration forced him to. Don’t ask, don’t tell. No scandal.
Looking back on those years, I can also think of two unmarried men who could have been sent from central casting to play homosexuals, everything from a fondness for bowties and Broadway show tunes to an arch speaking style. Picture Tony Randall playing “Felix Unger” in the Odd Couple television series. But they never said they were homosexual. They did not challenge the Church’s teachings on homosexuality in their classes.
And to this day, I do not know if they were homosexual or simply men with effeminate mannerisms. There are such individuals. Felix Unger’s fondest wish, you may recall, was to reconcile his marriage. He was head over heels in love with his wife. Their sexual identity was never an issue. No scandal.
In the same week that Daly’s article appeared in America, a reader we will identify as S.M. forwarded to First Teachers an article from the June 6 issue of the National Catholic Register by Joan Frawley Desmond. Its topic was how Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., handles this challenge.
Frawley Desmond asked Barber to clarify what he meant when he inserted into the teachers’ contract in the diocese’s schools a clause stating that it is the responsibility of teachers to model Catholic values — both in and out of the classroom. She asked the bishop how he would enforce this policy when he also said there were “no plans to examine teachers’ private lives.”
Bishop Barber responded, “What you do in your private life is between you and God. But when what you do in your private life becomes public — either because you put something on Facebook or let all the kids know about it in class — becomes a source of scandal, and it directly affects your responsibilities as a teacher. That is what I am concerned about….I believe there’s a difference between moral stumbles, where we acknowledge a wrong and ask for forgiveness, and instances where we insist our behavior is okay.”
I submit that both Daly and Bishop Barber have found the intelligent middle ground on this issue. Or might I be missing something?
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