Christ's example is one for the San Francisco archdiocese to follow

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by John J. Savant

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The decision of some Bay Area ordinaries to impose orthodoxy agreements on all teachers in Catholic schools under their jurisdictions strikes many of the faithful as out of sync with Pope Francis' consistent predilection for mercy before doctrine, for the actions of the heart before the propositions of the mind.

Our explicitly missionary church might well take a lesson from her workers in the field: These in-the-trenches servants are aware that the critical preamble to the revolutionary embrace of Christian love is not a moral treatise but -- the embrace itself! It is an inclusive embrace marked by respect for the integrity of the individual believer or nonbeliever. It is an embrace founded on the conviction that belief and love are genuine to the degree that they are free. It is an embrace implicit in St. Augustine's directive, "Love God, and do as you please, " a directive so assured of the primacy and sufficiency of love as to endure the slow evolution of conversion.

This is not a love, nor a preaching, that can be conveyed by exclusion of those whose lives or beliefs are inconsonant with orthodoxy, nor by threats to the financial security that their employment represents. It is also a love that evolves and educates as it responds to the ever-evolving revelations of nature and human history -- an embrace that today is coming to realize that the designation "Catholic" does not mean the imposition of a single culture (e.g., Western European) upon the glorious particularity of human societies, but rather implies a distinctive, abiding but evolving spiritual revelation receptive to multitudinous cultural expressions. Coleridge's conviction that all great art aspires to "unity in multeity" might well define our emergent understanding of the name "Catholic" -- one we have so long hesitated to release to its fullness. Such an understanding, however, is far more grounded in the mysterious embrace of love than in the strivings of human thought, witness St. Thomas' conclusion that he'd rather his magnificent Summa be put to the match than transformed into the last word on revelation.

Francis' striking affirmation of mercy above judgment assumes this primacy of love. It compels us, therefore, to attend to and honor the individual conscience as it strives to discover the divine will, even as it may err, even as it may compromise itself in that self-interest that afflicts us all. It compels us not to equate disagreement or erroneous judgment with moral failure. Most importantly, it calls for a profound charity -- one manifest in a disposition of mercy whose practical expression takes form in an embrace of all genuine seekers after truth -- even when their convictions clash with those of the church. Moreover, consonant with St. Thomas' recognition that our knowledge of God is contingent upon our ever-evolving understanding of nature (including human nature), we might also conclude that the ongoing revelations of human science and inquiry require a corresponding openness on our own part.

Institutions, by virtue of their mandate, are generally conservative, committed to the integrity and perpetuation of their mission. The church, likewise, must honor her ministerial role, but, mindful that this is a role assigned to the messy and ambiguous gestations of time and history, a role committed to the charge of imperfect women and men who "see now as in a mirror darkly," she must give primacy to the dispensation of love embodied in the sacraments and the works of mercy. In the creative tension that marks all living organisms, she must find her rock in the mystery and embrace of love, even as she remains attentive and responsive to the ongoing revelations of nature and of human learning; indeed, even when these may modify (and occasionally correct) her earlier understandings and directives. It is this primacy of values, I believe, that undergirds the prophetic mission of Pope Francis.

One might argue that, as reasonable as this thesis may seem, it does not apply to educators in an institution whose primary mission entails the moral formation of its charges; that the lives of its teachers, both on and away from campus, are a kind of ongoing catechesis; and hence, that their refusal to adjust their behavior and thinking to church norms disqualifies them for positions in Catholic education.

On the contrary, I propose that more important than the example of any individual teacher is the example of the educational institution itself.

If the Catholic school is, in its very functioning, to be a representation of the loving, merciful Christ -- in a sense, Christ writ larger -- it must embrace all in her employ, even those who may not accept all of her teachings. For our model here, we need look no further than Christ himself, whose compassion and service were indiscriminate; whose embrace was so often bestowed upon the marginalized, upon those not so orthodox in conviction or behavior, not observant of prescribed practices. This is the Christ whose denunciations were far more directed toward leaders obsessed with power and control than toward the multitudes seeking assurance beyond rule-keeping, meaning beyond moral rectitude. This was the Christ who urged, above all else, the community of love before the rule of the righteous.

We might ask whether it is not the manifestation of this Christ that is the principal mission of Catholic education. We might further ask whether, apart from its high-jacking of private conscience and apart from its encouragement of dissimulation under threat of financial duress, the proposed contractual restrictions might not, paradoxically, represent an orthodoxy at odds with its noblest principles: at odds with moral freedom and primacy of conscience; at odds with a faith that risks doubt and dissent as inescapable dimensions of its maturation; and, above all, at odds with its founder's example of a sublime, abiding and universal compassion.

We can imagine the moral confusion that young students might feel when the counsels of inclusion and compassion are somehow dismissed in the interest of orthodoxy. It will be difficult for them to understand how exclusive and restrictive policies can engender the moral freedom for which Christ spent his mission and gave his life.

[John J. Savant is emeritus professor of English at Dominican University of California.] 

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