Hiring & Firing LGBT Catholics

by Michael Sean Winters

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This weekend, my colleague Michelle Boorstein had a finely done article in the Washington Post about the issue of hiring and firing LGBT Catholics from certain positions in the Church. She specifically focused on the case of a cantor at a Catholic Church here in the Archdiocese of Washington who was fired after he contracted  same sex civil marriage. I say finely done because she let all sides make their case and did not simplify any of the many complexities of the issue. In this new year, I fear there will be many more such stories, less well done, and that the leaders of the Church need to wrestle with how they want to deal with the issue.

The legal case is, mostly, straightforward: Any church, or synagogue or mosque should be able hire or fire ministers as it sees fit. Douglas Laycock, who is probably the most thoughtful commentator on religious liberty issues, told Boorstein: “For the Church, they are employing this guy who flouts their teachings. His presence on the payroll undermines what the school is trying to teach the kids and what the Church is trying to preserve among the adults. These battles over religious doctrine should be fought out within churches, not in the secular courts.” The distinction between secular and religious jurisdictions is a hallmark of our liberal political tradition and while not all religious liberty claims are valid, the danger of government interference in religious organizations is always problematic and often a grave danger, one to which anyone who is truly liberal should be alert. Many there are who claim the mantle of liberalism but who are all too willing to scratch a totalitarian itch in pursuit of a specific policy objective, trampling underfoot one of liberalism’s proudest achievements, the separation of Church and State. (Indeed, I would note in passing that my opposition to the HHS contraception mandate has always rested on this ground, that government should not be interfering overmuch in religious institutions, nor distinguishing between our churches and our ministries, even though this is not the central argument being made by the Church’s lawyers.)

In a post at his blog, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl explained his reasons for supporting the pastor’s decision to terminate the cantor’s employment. To his credit, he speaks as a pastor, not a lawyer, and begins by noting that the whole situation is “unfortunate.” He then immediately affirms that the Church welcomes everybody, including LGBT Catholics, and that “any person who struggles in trying to live according to the revealed truth of Catholic teaching should know the Church recognizes his or her dignity as created by God and that the person need not face life’s challenges apart from the grace of the Lord and his Church, which seeks only the highest good of everyone.”

It is clear from the cardinal’s post that the Archdiocese of Washington will be treating these issues on a case-by-case basis which is, I think, an essential affirmation of the dignity of every person. We do not know in these cases, and because these are personnel matters we will never know, if the person terminated was rubbing people’s noses in his public disagreement with the Church, or if he was exceptionally discrete and fell afoul of some witch hunters in the parish. There are a host of public behaviors that could be disruptive in the life of a parish, and a pastor may wish to keep the gay cantor and fire the witch hunting music director. More on this in a bit.

Cardinal Wuerl goes on to point out that “When a person involved in ministerial activity offers a counter-witness to Catholic teaching by words or public conduct, however earnest they may be, experience shows that it can lead people away from the truth and otherwise have an adverse effect on our mission.” He notes, correctly, that the Church is not the only institution that is entitled, even expected, to hire and fire based on its mission, offering this example: “no official would ever continue to employ someone who in his off-hours publicly demonstrated that he was opposed to the official’s policies or campaigned for the official’s opponent.” This analogy makes an important point, that many organizations hire for mission without being accused of discrimination, but also entails a less fortunate corollary: For the Church, no one is really an “opponent” and we need to utilize analogies that do not entail us vs. them categories. That said, I have not been able to come up with a better analogy, so I will cut the cardinal some slack.

It seems to me that there are some considerations that the Church’s pastors and bishops should keep in mind as they face this issue in the coming year. First, there are a variety of ways that a person could offer a “counter-witness to Catholic teaching by words or public conduct” and it should be clear that the Church is not isolating LGBT Catholics. A lector might also own a large company that makes its money selling armaments. His ownership of the company would be a matter of public record. A woman might serve on the altar on Sunday but during the week be a strategist for a non-profit that advocates the deportation of all undocumented immigrants. If we are going to require all ministers to be upstanding Catholics, it would be good to know that this requirement applies to those who dissent on non-pelvic issues too.

Second, I return to the issue of treating these matters on a case-by-case basis. Readers may recall the case of Fr. Guarnizo, a priest who was working in the Archdiocese of Washington, who denied communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral. The archdiocese issued an apology to the woman, but it did not suspend Guarnizo. Presumably, given the tone of the letter to the woman, he had a talking to at the chancery. But, when he was subsequently suspended because he engaged in what the archdiocese termed “intimidating behavior” towards parish staff, apparently trying to collect affidavits to support his decision. In short, he was the one disrupting the parish, not the woman, and so he was the one who was sent packing.

This is important because the Church does not want to give a heckler’s veto to anti-gay vigilantes who might comb through court records at the marriage bureau and crosscheck them with parish rolls. Something like this happened in the case of an employee at Catholic Relief Services, who was not even out to his family, but a rightwing hate group outed him publicly and demanded his firing. We are the Catholic Church in 2016 not Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692. I remember the case many years ago of a young priest in a neighboring diocese who went onto the pastor’s personal computer and discovered gay pornography, called the chancery and urged that the pastor be fired. The diocese yanked the inquisitorial young priest for violating the pastor’s privacy, although I am sure the pastor had a talking to as well.

The leaders of the Church should resist the advice they will surely get from their lawyers to adopt a uniform policy, instead of handling these situations on a case-by-case basis. Lawyers like to shield their clients from litigation, but the Church must answer to a higher law, one that insists that we respect the dignity of each individual and, in situations like these, where the could be a wide variety of ways LGBT Catholics interact with their parish, no uniform policy is possible. As well, it is important to stop viewing people based on the initials or hypens in their modes of self-identification. “Neither Jew nor Gentile,” Paul instructed us.

Finally, the leaders of the Church should resist the urge to name everyone a “minister” in hopes of increasing legal wiggle room to terminate employees as needed. In one sense, of course, the Catholic left has brought this on themselves, urging since Vatican II that ushers become ministers of hospitality, and choristers become ministers of music. In one sense, of course, our baptism calls all of us to be ministers in the Church: There is a universal priesthood of all believers. But, the attempt to turn a significant portion of laity into “ministers” has now collided with the desire of many on the left to seek equal treatment of gays and lesbians, including the legalization of gay marriage. It would be churlish to take delight in seeing good intentions go awry, although in this protean age, such lessons in unintended consequences are a useful tonic. But, marriage is, by definition, a public act so, in the case of the fired cantor, it is no use claiming that his “private life” got him fired.

The key is to not go looking for a fight. Otherwise, the leaders of the Church will cede control over the discussion to those who wish to undermine the Church’s teaching. More importantly, getting into protracted fights with LGBT Catholics does nothing to make the Church’s teaching on marriage more attractive. Quite the contrary. We need to rediscover a certain “live and let live” attitude about human life in our culture and while that obviously is not primarily the Church’s mission, the Church does need to take the lead in creating a less judgmental and censorious public culture. There is a balancing that is required here and Cardinal Wuerl seems to have gotten it right. Let’s hope his brother bishops follow his lead.




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