The Limits of Church Authority in Catholic Schools

In my opinion, some Catholic schools should admit only Catholic students and only Catholic faculty. Catholics have the right of freedom of religion and freedom of association, and the Church has the right to gather its members, not only in churches, but also in schools. There should always exist in the world some Catholic schools which are “Catholic only”. And then Church and school leaders should take care to ensure that all teachers are believing and practicing Catholics, and that faculty and students who stray from Catholic faith or morals, into manifest grave sin, are corrected. And if they refuse correction, they should ultimately be fired or expelled.

However, when the Church chooses to arrange a Catholic school such that many faculty and students are non-Catholic Christians or non-Christian, it is beyond the limits of Her authority to force those non-Catholics and non-Christians to adhere to Catholic teaching in their personal lives, whether in word or deed, whether public or private. They can be prohibited from teaching, in that Catholic school, anything contrary to Catholic doctrine. But their lives outside the school are outside the authority of the school and the Church.

The Church has the authority to preach the Gospel to all persons, even to non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims, other believers, and non-believers. However, She does not have the authority to rule over all persons, as if She were a secular government making laws for its own citizens. The Church must not impose a Catholic version of Sharia law on non-Catholics.

The Church should seek the conversion of non-Catholics and the correction of Catholics who go astray. But She should not act as if She were a secular ruler, lording it over each person.

{22:25} And he said to them: “The kings of the Gentiles dominate them; and those who hold authority over them are called beneficent.
{22:26} But it must not be so with you. Instead, whoever is greater among you, let him become the lesser. And whoever is the leader, let him become the server.
{22:27} For who is greater: he who sits at table, or he who serves? Is not he who sits at table? Yet I am in your midst as one who serves.

The Church possesses the full authority given to Her by Christ, but that authority has limits. The Church’s role is primarily one of teaching and service, not primarily one of making and enforcing exterior regulations and certainly not one of making and enforcing rules for non-Catholics.

The laws of the Church actually forbid the Church from compelling anyone “to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience.”

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.

So when Catholic schools, such as those in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, require all teachers, even non-Catholics and non-Christians who have no role in teaching religion or morals to the students, to promise to act, in their lives outside the school, as if they were Catholic, at least in any words or deeds that are public, that school violates Canon Law and exceeds the limits of the authority of the Church Herself.

It is blatant coercion to require a teacher, as a prerequisite for employment, to sign a contract governing their publicly-known words and deeds outside of the school. The Archbishop of San Francisco has not been given authority — neither from Christ, nor from the Church — to govern the lives of non-Catholics.

Canon Law states that all persons, including of course non-Catholics, have the duty and right to seek the truth on religion and morals, and the duty and right to adhere to what they understand, in their own minds and hearts, to be truth — even if they should happen to be mistaken on one point or another. It is the right of non-Catholics who teach in Catholic schools to embrace and observe their own understanding of religion and morals, regardless of whether that understanding is expressed in public or private, in word or deed.

And this type of teacher contract (which governs lives outside the school) is particularly hypocritical, since every Bishop realizes that the majority of Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics do not believe what the Church requires them to believe, and that they frequently violate the Church’s moral teaching in their lives, including using contraception or abortifacient contraception, and committing grave sexual sins, without repentance or Confession. Physician heal thyself. Bishop, put your own house in order. Shepherds, tend your own flocks.

Pope Saint John Paul II complained, in the 1993 papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor, that many Catholic teachers of theology in Catholic universities and colleges, and in Catholic seminaries, have gone far astray from Catholic teaching — in what they teach their students and in their published theology [Veritatis Splendor n. 4]. And yet, since the publication of that encyclical, the situation has only worsened. And the teachers in question are not corrected, are not restricted from teaching theology, and are not fired. Nothing is done by the Church about these teachers of theology who teach grave errors in Catholic schools and in public discourse.

Thus, it is extreme hypocrisy for a Catholic school to restrict non-Catholics from opposing Church teaching in their words and deeds outside the school, and to fire them if they violate that restriction, while Catholic seminaries and universities continue to employ, without any correction at all, Catholics who teach grave errors on faith and morals to their students and to the faithful worldwide in their public words, spoken and written.

I do not believe that the U.S. Constitution, in its freedom of religion clause, thereby assigns to the Catholic Church or any other religion the authority to govern the private or public lives of their employees, outside of the workplace. Each of those employees, according to the Constitution and the Church’s own laws, has freedom of religion. It is a clear violation of their Constitutional rights to compel them to behave as if they were Catholic, in their lives outside of the workplace, in order to be employed in a school which has chosen to employ many non-Catholic faculty and to admit many non-Catholic students.

What if a Muslim school employed some Catholic teachers, and required them to avoid saying or doing anything publicly, outside of the school, contrary to the Muslim faith? I think the same commentators who support a Catholic school restricting its teacher’s conduct would oppose the same type of rules, in such a situation. Their attitude is: “We can compel non-Catholics to speak and act as if they were Catholic, but no one can compel us to speak and act as if we were not Catholic.” And that is hypocrisy. Each teacher and each employee should be free, in their lives outside the school, to exercise freedom of conscience and to act according to their own beliefs on matters of religion and morals. Freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right, and the Church lacks the authority to deprive any human persons of that right.

In my opinion, the Archbishop of San Francisco is violating the fundamental human rights, Constitutional rights, and the Church’s own laws by requiring non-Catholic teachers to adhere to Catholic teaching in any public words or deeds outside of the workplace.

See my previous posts on this topic:
Are some Catholic School Teacher Contracts hypocritical, immoral, or illegal?
Archbishop Cordileone: Whitewashing the Tombs

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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1 Response to The Limits of Church Authority in Catholic Schools

  1. missy681 says:

    This is one of the reasons I began homeschooling. Years ago, I found out that our local Catholic school received government funds, so was beholden to the state boe. And one of the “catholic” teachers (7th grade) was pro-choice. And one of the teachers (5th grade) decided to show that Al Gore movie without showing the other side of the issue. We are blessed that the Cardinal Newman Society publishes the Newman Guide each year and makes sure that we know what Catholic colleges and universities are authentic.

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