Middle ground remains elusive in San Francisco Catholic high school handbook fight

This story appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

by Dan Morris-Young

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The clash over Catholic high school faculty handbooks and teacher contracts in the San Francisco Bay Area seems to be a standoff between those who embrace Catholic teaching as settled and unchanging and those who insist it is evolving and must do so.

At the center is new faculty handbook language developed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone for the four high schools under direct archdiocesan authority.

The text condemns homosexual relations, same-sex marriage, abortion, artificial birth control, "artificial reproductive technology," women's ordination, pornography, masturbation and human cloning.

It also says "administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or no faith are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church doctrine and practice.

It calls on Catholic employees to additionally strive to "conform their hearts, minds and consciences, as well as their public and private behavior" to church teaching.

Educators are warned to avoid "organizations that call themselves 'Catholic' but support or advocate issues or causes contrary" to the church.

Supporters and opponents of Cordileone's initiative are both claiming the pastoral high ground.

Detractors argue that the emphasis on sexual issues is skewed, the new section's language is inflammatory, and that the initiative flies in the face of the pastoral style and tone of Pope Francis.

Those include a group of parents and students from several of the high schools within the archdiocese that organized an Ash Wednesday vigil and candlelight prayer service "in support of the teachers of the Archdiocese of San Francisco" beginning at 5:30 p.m. on the plaza of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in San Francisco.

"This is a respectful gathering at the start of the Christian season of Lent, held in the spirit of Atonement and Solidarity," an event flyer states.

However, Marin Catholic High School President Tim Navone said teachers there "have a clear sense of our mission and the [handbook] language is nothing new to our community. Our theology teachers have tackled these sensitive topics for years, and they are approached with love and prayer and study."

Located in Kentfield, Marin is one of the four archdiocesan-administered campuses. The others are Archbishop Riordan in San Mateo, Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, and Junipero Serra in San Mateo.

Former Marin religious studies teacher Ryan Mayer posted a blog on the Catholic Vote website also endorsing Cordileone's efforts.

Emphasizing that he was commenting as an individual, Mayer said "based on the content of most of the tweets and comments" he has seen, "it's clear that many [protestors] haven't actually read the proposal and are merely parroting talking points from outlets and organizations hostile to Catholic teaching."

Professional conduct and ethics clauses are "nothing new," wrote Mayer, who lives near Rome, where he is pursuing a licentiate in bioethics. "It's odd that the archdiocesan proposal to clarify some aspects of what constitutes the Church's moral teaching would be met with resistance."

"It also seems odd," Mayer wrote, "that someone would willingly make themselves part of an institution that holds to a particular vision and then demand that the institution alter its vision and expectations to suit them, or voice discontent when the institution reiterates what it has always held."

Contrasting views were aired on a San Francisco public radio program, "Forum." Jesuit Fr. John Piderit, archdiocesan vicar for administration as well as moderator of the curia, defended the handbook language and the focus on sexual teachings.

"There is no doubt about it that ... many people's notions of what is appropriate in the sexual area have changed, and that includes many Catholics," Piderit said. "What the archbishop wants to do is reaffirm that ... the four archdiocesan schools as institutions still teach and defend the Catholic faith as it appears in the Catechism. He goes out of his way to say that the issues that he chose are not the most important, but they are important issues, especially for young people, because they are at a time when they are forming their views on these things. But he recognizes that there are many other issues. However, he calls these the 'hot-button' issues -- the issues upon which there has been severe changes in both secular society and in the thinking of many Catholics over the past 30 or so years."

Vincent Campasano, a gay man and the father of a SHCP junior, disputed Piderit, claiming the handbook promotes "hatred and judgmental innuendo" and "a sense of fear."

Criticism has been leveled at the handbook statement, titled "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding The Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church," for its use of the phrases "intrinsically evil" and "grave evil," notably in describing homosexual relations. Piderit pointed out that Cordileone was quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Campasano said during the broadcast: "I have been with my friend, my partner, and thank God in recent years I am able to call him my husband, for 32 years. I live a monogamous relationship, a loving and caring relationship with him. There are so many aspects to our relationship that are no different than what the Catholic church would require or ask of a loving family. We object to this type of language. We are afraid we are going to lose teachers, good teachers, some of the best in the world, because of that fear that I mentioned earlier."

In addition to the handbook language, teachers are pushing back against a clause being sought for labor contracts that would classify them and other school employees as "ministers."

Union leaders and legal experts fear the "minister" designation would greatly weaken their legal standing in disputes by appearing to make them an official part of church apparatus.

Cordileone has indicated flexibility on use of the term.

Nonetheless, on Feb. 13, the California Federation of Teachers released a statement saying it is "alarmed that Archbishop Cordileone ... would attempt to impose the title of 'minister' on the dedicated women and men who work in the [arch]diocese's schools."

The release also seemed to target faculty handbook language: "The personal lives of teachers outside school in particular should be subject to common sense, not fear and intimidation or control by their employers. Archbishop Cordileone's proposals appear to be at variance with the philosophy and direction taken by Pope Francis," it stated, adding that "California has moved to overcome antiquated exclusionary provisions that target teachers based on marital status, political views, reproductive rights, and sexual orientation."

"No one doubts that religious schools ... are free to shape their curriculum in line with the views and mission of the institution," the CFT release said. "However, those views must be questioned and confronted when they fundamentally violate the constitutional rights of individuals who work in these schools. The CFT is working closely with the leadership and members of the San Francisco Archdiocese Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 2240, to address the situation in ways that respect the views and diversity of our members in these schools as well as supporting the mission of providing the students and their families with the best educational environment possible."

Minimal response was received to dozens of email requests for comment sent to various faculty members at the four archdiocesan-owned schools. A handful said they had been asked to refer media contacts to a school's public relations office or to administrators.

Commented a Riordan teacher: "I am deeply disappointed in the text of the handbook for one simple reason -- its tone and its language differ from that of our beloved Pope Francis who has made great strides to heal our fractured Catholic Church."

Wrote an SHCP teacher: "I will simply say that the archbishop's keynote did very little to smooth over any rough spots and I disagree that the heat of the reaction is dying down."

At least some teachers, however, seemed to appreciate that Cordileone had addressed more than 350 of them Feb. 6 during a convocation held at SHCP. The archbishop remained for a 45-minute question-and-answer session following his talk.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: Middle ground elusive in labor issues.

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