Are some Catholic School Teacher Contracts hypocritical, immoral, or illegal?

There is a nice article over at Crisis magazine by Daniel Guernsey on the subject of teacher contracts at Catholic grade schools (K-12). The diocese of San Francisco has a new contract, which drops the use of the word “minister”, but still seeks to limit teacher behavior in their personal lives. The diocese of Cleveland has a more comprehensive regulation of teachers’ personal lives, which Guernsey quotes extensively. That teacher contract forbids many behaviors, including:

* Public support of positions contrary to Roman Catholic Church teaching
* Preparing for or engaging in a same-sex marriage or union
* cohabitating outside of marriage
* Serious dishonesty
* Membership in any organization that is anti-Catholic or whose philosophy is in any way contrary to the ethical or moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church

And from a PDF of the Cleveland Diocese teacher contract:

* Use of social media or electronic means to … send material that is lewd, indecent, sexually suggestive, or pornographic
* Any other actions or speech that are considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be immoral or evil

Now pornography is gravely immoral. But material that is merely “sexually suggestive” is not necessarily even a venial sin. This contract forbids grave sin, but also forbids some acts that are arguably not sinful in all cases.

The Cleveland Diocese refers to all its teachers as “Teacher-Minister”. It is absurd and patently false to claim that all teachers are ministers in the Catholic Church, when many of the teachers are non-Catholic. Even if a diocese had a policy of only hiring believing and practicing Catholics, most teachers would not fall under any reasonable definition of minister. A 6th grade teacher is not a religious minister. A high school math or science teacher is not a minister. This claim and terminology (Teacher-Minister) is being used solely as a way to circumvent reasonable laws regulating the firing of employees. So the Cleveland contract itself violates its own prohibition against “serious dishonesty”. (The San Francisco contract omits the word minister.)

The use of contraception and abortifacient contraception is not mentioned at all in any of these contracts. The reason is that a large percentage of Catholics use contraception. Many of these Catholics regularly receive Communion. Many hold positions of service or leadership in parishes and dioceses. Even so, it is blatant hypocrisy for a diocese to give positions of leadership in the parish to persons who use contraception, while forbidding a wide range of equal or lesser sins among Catholic school teachers. Sending material that is merely “sexually suggestive” (an off-color joke, for example) is forbidden and grounds for termination of employment, but use of abortifacient contraception (a type of abortion) is not even mentioned as a prohibited behavior. Straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

Many Catholic universities and colleges employ teachers, in their theology faculty, who fail to meet the above-stated standards for teachers in K-12 Catholic schools. Bishops have a responsibility over Catholic schools at every level, and yet they generally have not even attempted to remove theology faculty who openly reject Catholic teaching.

And the same can be said for Catholic priests. A priest who publicly contradicts Catholic teaching is often not fired or disciplined. Yet certainly a priest is a minster of the Catholic faith. It is hypocritical when lay teachers who are non-Catholic are held to a higher standard than priests and theology professors.

The Cleveland contract forbids surrogate parenthood. (Usually, the term is surrogate motherhood. I’m not sure what surrogate fatherhood would include.) But some Catholic theologians (myself included) argue that surrogate motherhood is not intrinsically evil and may be moral in some circumstances. In fact, the Magisterium has not condemned surrogate motherhood as intrinsically evil, and a USCCB document states that embryo adoption is still an open theological question (See my post here).

The Cleveland contract forbids behavior that might cause scandal. But under Catholic teaching, behavior that causes scandal is not necessarily immoral. Rather, the scandalous behavior is subject to a judgment as to intention and whether the good consequences of the act outweigh the bad. For example, the teaching of Jesus Christ scandalized the Pharisees (Mt 15:12), yet He did not sin by causing this scandal.

So on three points, sexually suggestive material, surrogate motherhood, and causing scandal, the Cleveland contract forbids behaviors that are not always sinful under Catholic teaching.

In addition, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, in the document Human Life in Our Day (1968), taught that theological dissent from non-infallible Church teachings can be licit (permissible without sin). Yet these teacher contracts clearly forbid all public dissent, including that which the Bishops have termed “licit theological dissent”. How many Church teachings are non-infallible? Perhaps most of them.

So the vast majority of Catholics do not live in accord with the morality clauses of these types of teacher contracts, and the contracts forbid some speech and behaviors which can be moral under Catholic teaching. Catholic dioceses do not enforce a similar morality clause when hiring persons for religious roles in parishes and dioceses. No Bishop enforces this type of teaching contract with theology professors in Catholic colleges and universities. And yet non-Catholic lay persons are hired as grade-school teachers, in subjects not pertaining to theology, and required to adhere to this standard, a higher standard than is required of Catholics working in a parish in a truly ministerial role, priests, and theology professors.

Legal Issues

I’m not a lawyer, and this post is not intended as legal advice. I am presenting my limited understanding and personal non-professional opinion of the legal issues involved in this type of teacher contract.

Suppose that a Home Owners Association (HOA) forbids property owners from parking commercial vehicles in driveways or on the street in their development. But over time, the HOA takes no action against multiple persons who violate this rule. Then, at some point, they try to enforce the rule on one and only one home owner. My understanding is that the court system will not permit this type of selective enforcement. If you make a rule, under a contractual agreement, you cannot only enforce that rule in a limited and selective manner.

The Cleveland diocese teacher contract is very broad in its description of prohibited behaviors, and as a result it is highly probable that most teachers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are in some way in violation of the contract. So when the diocese attempts to fire a teacher under the morality clause, I don’t see how or why the court would uphold the firing.

Another issue is the decision by dioceses to both hire non-Catholic teachers and require them to adhere to the Catholic religion in their personal lives. If the list of prohibited behaviors were few and narrow, the contract would be reasonable. But the list instead is so comprehensive as to essentially regulate all behavior and speech of teachers in their personal lives. The Cleveland contract forbids: “Any other actions or speech that are considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be immoral or evil.” Even Saints sin and go to Confession. The Bishop himself would not qualify to be a teacher in his own Catholic schools under this type of metric.

The legal issue here is our first amendment rights. By its comprehensive regulation of teachers’ personal lives, the contract seeks to impose the Catholic religion on its non-Catholic teachers. The non-Catholic teacher cannot join an organization “whose philosophy is in any way contrary to the ethical or moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” This rule essentially forbids membership in any non-Catholic religion, including a Protestant denomination or the Jewish religion. It implies that a teacher cannot exercise his or her constitutional right to freedom of association. And by forbidding any speech contrary to Catholic teaching, the contract deprives Catholics and non-Catholics alike of their constitutional right to freedom of speech. The first amendment rights of freedom of religion, speech, and association are violated by this type of teacher contract.

Suppose that a corporation forbids its employees from speech and behavior contrary to the religious and moral judgment of its owner, a non-Catholic. The corporation might add a morality clause to its contracts, and fire any Catholics who believe or act contrary to the views of the non-Catholic owner. I think that such a requirement of employment is immoral and is or ought to be illegal. But what some Catholic dioceses are doing with their employment contracts is just as bad.

We should not be trying to impose Catholic beliefs and practices on anyone who is unwilling. I would go so far as to say that these teacher contracts violate Canon Law of the Catholic Church:

Can. 748 §1. All persons are bound to seek the truth in those things which regard God and his Church and by virtue of divine law are bound by the obligation and possess the right of embracing and observing the truth which they have come to know.

§2. No one is ever permitted to coerce persons to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience.

These teacher contracts forbid teachers from “embracing and observing” what they in good conscience believe to be “the truth which they have come to know.” These teacher contracts represent a blatant coercion for non-Catholic teachers to embrace the Catholic faith, since they are required to speak and act as if they were Catholics, when they are not. And while the Catholic Faith permits some licit theological dissent by faithful Catholics, the teacher contracts do not permit any dissent, and go so far as to forbid some behaviors that are, in some cases, moral (sexually suggestive material, surrogate motherhood, causing scandal).

The Supreme Court has unfortunately decided that same-sex marriage is a legal right in the United States. So teacher contracts which forbid not only gay marriage, but public support for the same, are perhaps not legal. The claim that every teacher is also a minister, and so would fall under an exception for ministers of religion, is so broad a definition of “minster” as to be ridiculous and legally untenable.

I suppose that a Catholic school could hire only believing and practicing Catholics, who do not use contraception and do not engage in any of the above-listed behaviors. But there are not enough Catholics who actually adhere to Catholic teaching, on all of the above mentioned points, to staff every Catholic school.

I don’t believe that this type of teacher contract will ultimately prevail in the U.S. legal system. I also think that a diocese is morally wrong to try to regulate the personal lives, behavior, and speech of its teachers in such an extensive manner. These contracts seek to impose a standard for speech and behavior far greater than that required of Catholic priests, Catholic theology professors, and employees of dioceses and parishes.

Are Catholic School Teacher Contracts hypocritical, immoral, or illegal? Yes, all three. It is immoral to impose the Catholic religion on non-Catholics. It is immoral to require employees in their personal lives to refrain from behaviors which are only venial sin or not sinful at all. It is hypocritical to omit any mention of contraception while forbidding lesser sins. It is hypocritical to require lay teachers, including non-Catholics, to adhere to a higher standard than priests, theology professors, and parish employees. And it may well be illegal and unconstitutional to regulate the speech and behavior of employees, outside of work, in such an extensive manner.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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