Morals Clause in Catholic Schools Roils Bay Area
SAN FRANCISCO — It is the issue that is stirring San Francisco: The archbishop has specified that teachers at four Bay Area Catholic high schools cannot publicly challenge the church’s teachings that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law,” that contraception is “intrinsically evil” and that embryonic stem cell research is “a crime.” He also wants to designate teachers as part of the “ministry,” which could, under a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, strip them of protection under federal anti-discrimination laws.
In this city that helped give birth to the gay rights movement, the backlash has been fierce. A top concern is that gay teachers could be fired.
“Our community is in pain; our teachers are scared,” said Jessica Hyman, a senior at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, one of the four schools in the archbishop’s jurisdiction. She spoke at a candlelight protest that drew more than 300 people outside St. Mary’s Cathedral here last week.
The archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone, made the changes this month and has been under fire ever since. Technically, what he has done is to change the handbook that covers the 318 faculty members in the schools in his jurisdiction, which are in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo Counties and which educate 3,600 students. The new language about not challenging church teachings takes effect Sept. 1.
On the issue of making teachers part of the ministry, the archbishop wants to change the collective bargaining agreement with the San Francisco Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers.
“We’re not on a witch hunt; we’re not looking to terminate teachers,” Archbishop Cordileone said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
He said he knew that not all teachers at the schools were Catholic, and he affirmed that a teacher’s private life would remain private. He said his concern was that teachers, in their public lives, “don’t do anything to compromise the mission of our schools.”
Archbishop Cordileone has long been a leading opponent of same-sex marriage. In 2008, he was instrumental in placing Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, on the California ballot. He is also chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. Given his views on gay rights, some San Franciscans expressed surprise in 2012 when he was named archbishop here.
He said he was introducing the new language because “young people are under intense pressure today to conform to certain standards that are contrary to what we believe.” He said he had focused on “hot-button issues” to clear up “the confusion.”
Other church leaders, including those in Oakland, Calif., Cincinnati, Cleveland and Honolulu, have instituted similar teacher morality clauses with far less protest. In Oakland, three teachers quit rather than adhere to the rules. But in San Francisco, in addition to the petitions and protests, eight state legislators from the Bay Area have asked the archbishop to withdraw the clause as discriminatory. Two of them called for an investigation, accusing the archbishop of using religion “as a Trojan horse to deprive our fellow citizens of their basic civil rights.”
The San Francisco Chronicle has editorialized against Archbishop Cordileone’s actions, and a columnist characterized him as “charming, humorous and engaging” and “also dead wrong.”
Amid the criticism, the archbishop has shown some willingness to compromise. Originally, he said he planned to reclassify teachers as “ministers of the church,” which seemed to place them out of the reach of federal anti-discrimination laws. This week, he said he would consider substituting the term “ministry” to describe the job of teachers in spreading Catholic doctrine.
The difference between “minister” and “ministry” is not clear to Michael Vezzali, a teacher who serves as treasurer of the union, which represents most but not all of the faculty. “It remains to be negotiated,” he said.
Expressing surprise at the strong reactions, Archbishop Cordileone said this week that he would form a committee of theology teachers to help “contextualize” the morality clause. But he said that he had no intention of deleting his wording, and that the committee’s recommendations would retain “what is already there.” He added, “This has been a very trying time for all of us.”
While the clause is based on church doctrine, some teachers and students think Archbishop Cordileone wants gay teachers to go back into the closet.
“We pray for the archbishop that his heart is changed,” said Gus O’Sullivan, an openly gay senior at Sacred Heart who spoke at the candlelight protest.
Mr. Vezzali, the union official, who is also chairman of the English department at Archbishop Riordan High School in San Francisco, said that union members were “worried about teachers who are gay and who are not able to live publicly.”
“We want to support our gay students,” Mr. Vezzali added. “We understand we are there to carry out the church’s mission.”
Mr. Vezzali said the archbishop was “a very wise man” and added, “We feel our schools are places where we’re supposed to share the gospel of Jesus and love, no matter what.”
Part of the focus here and elsewhere appears to be online sharing of photos and personal opinions. A number of morality clauses in other dioceses express such concerns, specifying that teachers may not post anything on Facebook or Twitter that contradicts church teachings.
Archbishop Cordileone said that teachers who crossed doctrinal lines would be dealt with “on a case-by-case basis.” Asked if a teacher could post photos on Facebook of her gay son’s wedding, he said that “if someone was upset and reported it,” then “the person with the Facebook page would have to be talked to.”
There are parents and teachers who support Archbishop Cordileone’s actions, but they have been less vocal. He is receiving online support: A petition by Catholicvote.org, a Chicago-based advocacy group, has 14,000 signatures. (A separate petition, organized by Bay Area students and parents who oppose his actions, has 7,000 signatures.)
Archbishop Cordileone’s language “is very, very hurtful,” but “he is representing exactly the Roman Catholic sexual doctrine,” said Lisa Fullam, associate professor of moral theology at Santa Clara University. “Bishops do have a lot of authority in their own diocese.”
Some critics say Archbishop Cordileone should align his priorities more closely with those of Pope Francis, who has emphasized the plight of the poor.
“We sent our kids to these schools because they uphold the fundamental principles of our faith of love, acceptance and respect,” said Kathy Curran, a mother of a Sacred Heart freshman. “This language says some people are not O.K. — and that’s not O.K.”
Michele Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written a book about American Catholics, said the situation in San Francisco reflected the flux in attitudes among people in the faith.
“The church wants people to be aware of official church teachings because they think there is confusion in the culture,” Professor Dillon said. “A lot of Catholics aren’t confused. They simply ignore the church’s teachings.”