Catholic schools must refuse to fire LGBT employees

 |  Grace on the Margins

It's beginning to feel like every week brings a new story about the firing of an LGBT employee from a Catholic institution.

The most recent well-publicized termination happened earlier this month at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia. The school declined to renew the contract of Margie Winters, the school's director of religious studies, when it came to light that she is in a same-sex marriage.

Winters, who has been with the school for eight years, says her administrators were well aware that she was married to a woman. It wasn't until two parents complained to the Philadelphia archdiocese that she was terminated.

In the wake of Winters' firing, many commentators have suggested that bishops and Catholic institutions need to show greater mercy and compassion in dealing with its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.

Waldron Mercy did show sensitivity and acceptance of their lesbian employee. They kept Winters on staff and valued her contributions to the students and the school community.

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But once the complaint was made to the archdiocese, Waldron Mercy, like most Catholic institutions caught in a similar dilemma, felt forced to terminate their employee.

Winters' story sheds light on an important and overlooked truth: Even a Catholic institution that strives to be inclusive and nurturing can't protect an LGBT employee. As long as Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful and a violation of God's plan for humanity, LGBT employees will not be safe in their jobs in Catholic institutions.

Nevertheless, it is important to examine why Waldron Mercy's administrators may have felt compelled to fire Winters.

The possible answer can be gleaned from a letter sent to parents by the school's principal, Nell Stetser. According to Philadelphia magazine, Stetser praised Winters' contribution to the school but explained, "As WMA's principal, however, my duty is to protect our school's future. In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current Church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings."

Near the conclusion of the letter, Stetser writes, "I realize some disagree with my decision. I believe, however, I have acted in the best interest of the Waldron Mercy community and preserved our heritage as a Catholic school. We are not alone in this plight."

While not saying it explicitly, Stetser's letter strongly suggests that a serious threat was looming over Waldron Mercy if they refused to fire Winters. Though few Catholic schools will go public about it, the truth is that many of them are forced to fire LGBT employees because the presiding bishop threatens to revoke their canonical status.

According to Canon 803 §3, "No school is to bear the name Catholic school without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority." That "competent ecclesiastical authority" is the bishop who presides over the diocese in which the school is located, even if a religious community sponsors the school.

A loss of canonical status would, of course, have financial repercussions, such as the loss of funding or even the loss of the school's property. Even more tragically, it has sacramental consequences. It is unlikely that the Eucharist or the sacrament of reconciliation could be celebrated at the school, for example.

It is unclear what role Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput had in the termination of Margie Winters and whether he, in fact, threatened to revoke Waldron Mercy's canonical status. In media statements, the archdiocese denied it had any involvement with the firing, but a statement Chaput released praised the school for the action and does suggest that the school's canonical status may have been in jeopardy.

"Schools describing themselves as Catholic take on the responsibility of teaching and witnessing the Catholic faith in a manner true to Catholic belief," Chaput wrote.

"I'm very grateful to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and to the principal and board members of Waldron Mercy for taking the steps to ensure that the Catholic faith is presented in a way fully in accord with the teaching of the Church," Chaput continued. "They've shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon."

We don't know what role the archdiocese actually played in this specific case; however, as anyone who's worked in the church knows, the views and priorities of a bishop or archbishop who is a strong leader, which Chaput certainly is, are well known within his administration. In his post-action statement, Chaput makes clear his thoughts on these types of cases in general: "There's nothing complicated or controversial in this."

If a school feels forced to choose between terminating a person's career and forfeiting its Catholic identity, which the principal's statement seems to say, that would be an especially menacing form of bullying.

Darker still is the irony that a Catholic school would have to prove its identity by destroying an LGBT employee's livelihood.

So what can be done in the face of so much injustice?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." No amount of mercy or increased sensitivity will defeat the injustice and indignity of the church's teachings on LGBT people and same-sex relationships. Only a change in doctrine will protect the jobs of LGBT employees.

It is time for us to encourage school leaders, both religious and lay, to refuse to comply with demands that they fire LGBT employees.

Many Catholic schools were founded by women religious. The sisters have a remarkable history of protesting nuclear weapons, racial injustice, income inequality, prison conditions, human trafficking, the death penalty and environmental degradation.

With such a legacy behind them, why would Catholic schools willingly participate in the radical injustice of terminating the vocations of its devoted LGBT employees and subject them to such financial instability and deep humiliation?

Most Catholic schools seem to have a clear advantage over the bishops. The laity has far more respect for women religious than they do for the hierarchy. The majority of Catholics in the United States strongly support the rights of LGBT people. And more than enough Catholic theologians and ethicists have argued cogently for the full inclusion and equality of LGBT people in the church.

Why, then, not call the bishops' bluffs? Imagine the pushback and negative press a bishop would get if he stripped a Catholic school of its identity for refusing to fire an LGBT employee. Imagine the momentum that could be built and the empowering precedent it could set for other schools facing the same turmoil.

Yes, the risks of disobeying a bishop are serious, but unless we as a community of women religious, Catholic school board members and administrators, parents and students, and progressive Catholics join together to say "no more" to these unjust doctrines and degrading firings, substantive change will not happen.

For the sake of the integrity of our church and the future of Catholic education, it is time to defy the threats and bullying, have the courage of our convictions, and refuse to perpetuate this injustice inside the walls of our Catholic schools.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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