In a letter to Archdiocesan teachers dated February 2015, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced some proposed additions to teacher contracts and the faculty handbooks of schools in the Archdiocese. As has been the case in other dioceses that have wanted to institute similar clarifications, the proposal has met with resistance. Students at one Catholic high school in the Archdiocese have started a petition expressing their discontent…and confusion. Based on the content of most of the tweets and comments, it’s clear that many of the signatories haven’t actually read the proposal and are merely parroting talking points from outlets and organizations hostile to Catholic teaching.
Employee ethics clauses are not unique to religious institutions. Secular businesses and companies often outline expectations for employees regarding public behavior. The animal rights organization PETA expects some of its employees to be vegan, for example, most importantly those that serve as the face of the organization in marketing and public relations. Even public schools have been known to hold their teachers to standards of conduct by discouraging certain kinds of public behavior and disciplining teachers who publicly exhibit unethical behavior (in a posting on social media, for example).
It’s odd that the Archdiocesan proposal to clarify some aspects of what constitutes the Church’s moral teaching would be met with resistance.
First, this is nothing new. As institutions of the Church, Catholic schools are already (at least in principle if not in practice) dedicated to the Church’s moral teaching as Catholic schools. In the SF proposal, teachers would not be required to sign any kind of “oath” or affirmation of personal belief. The additional language merely clarifies Church teaching on a number of “hot button” issues and reiterates the expectation that teachers will refrain from publicly contradicting Church teaching. In fact, the existing contract already includes the following:
“The Union and its members recognize that all lay teachers covered by this agreement shall perform all of their duties as set forth in this agreement in accordance with the doctrines and precepts of the Roman Catholic Church, and shall conduct themselves at all times during the performance of those duties in a manner in keeping with the standards of the church.”
Second, clarifying some aspects of the Church’s teaching would be helpful for all teachers to know what the organization who signs their pay checks stands for. This in fact protects those who may not hold certain of the Church’s teachings from participating in the mission of the school (ie. seeking employment there) or from unintentionally giving the appearance of duplicity. From the Archbishop’s letter:
“…candid formulation of Church doctrine protects those teachers who don’t agree with the statements. That sounds counterintuitive, but it is indeed the case. In a society in which confusion reigns about Church teachings, highlighting the controversial issues alerts teachers to avoid contradicting Church teaching on these issues either in the school or in some public way outside the classroom.”
It also seems odd 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. This is especially true in this case when teachers are merely being asked to remember the essential Catholic characteristic of the institution and to not contradict it publicly. That this reaffirmation of the Catholic moral teaching which is an indispensable element of Catholic education is controversial should itself be controversial. Some teachers may struggle to understand or live the Church’s moral teaching (yes, the full Christian life is difficult). But what critics of this reaffirmation seem to be calling for is the “right” (if we can call it that) to be allowed to publicly denounce or contradict an essential aspect of the institution whose vision and mission they serve and to do so with impunity; to be paid to assist the Church in Her ministry, while openly advocating against it.
Imagine if a theology teacher at a Catholic high school who taught moral theology were to make it known that he openly lived in contradiction to what he taught on a daily basis, say by frequently indulging his habit of shoplifting. He admits this to his students and suggests that he has no desire to change. It would not be odd if we were to observe that this seemed inconsistent if not duplicitous. We might expect administration to raise questions about his ability to continue to serve the school in his current capacity. Saying “my public support for shoplifting is unrelated to my performance as a teacher” would not suffice in defense. I don’t think many people would argue that point.
One might suggest that theology teachers be held to a different standard than other teachers since their role in imparting the Church’s teaching is more direct. But that’s not an authentic vision of Catholic education. For the Church, all teachers are in fact, ministers. An individual teacher in a department outside of theology may not see themselves as such, but insofar as they are a teacher in a Catholic school, they are that. They are witnesses in word and deed not only to a body of knowledge in an academic discipline, but to a worldview and a habit of being, indeed, to a particular cosmology and anthropology. They are the “front line” of the ministry of the Church through Her work of education. Most teachers will tell you that the interpersonal relationships they develop with students and their families are probably the most important—and rewarding—aspects of being a teacher. And frankly, I don’t know of any teacher—Catholic or public—who says, “oh I just teach math” or “I’m not really personally invested in my students.” That’s not even a realistic vision of education in general.
Students are acutely sensitive to hypocrisy and inconsistency between a teacher’s words and their deeds and even between one teacher and another. It does serious harm to the student, integrity of the teachers, and mission of the school when a teacher, in word or deed, openly contradicts the mission of a Catholic school. The fact is that that being a teacher means being a public figure. And being a Catholic school teacher means being, by extension, a minister of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council Declaration on Christian Education put it: “Intimately linked in charity to one another and to their students and endowed with an apostolic spirit, may teachers by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher.” (Gravissimum Educationis, no. 8, emphasis added)
The central question is, “why do I want to teach at a Catholic school?” Answers will vary, as they vary from parent to parent as to the reasons for sending a child to a Catholic school. Public schools and other private schools do many of the same things Catholic schools do: teach this or that subject, offer programs in sports and the arts, prep students for college, etc. Nothing wrong, of course, in pointing to any of these as a reason for teaching in or sending a child to a Catholic school. But it doesn’t really answer the question. Catholic schools face the same day-to-day challenges as other academic institutions, but with the added responsibility to face them rooted in Jesus Christ and to impart the faith and that responsibility grows more and more difficult as the culture grows more secular.
Full disclosure…I teach at one of the high schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and I love it. I’ve been blessed to live my vocation with amazing people, not all of whom are Catholic, but from whom I have learned a tremendous amount about what it means to be an effective teacher and mentor. That’s not fluff. I mean it. I consider them friends and mentors to me, even when we disagree. I’m on sabbatical this year, living and studying in Rome, and I wish I could be there now with my community, to reflect and to discern with them how we can best be exemplars and models of the joy that comes from our shared vocation to be witnesses—ministers—to the Gospel through the work of Catholic education. Far from being an imposition, this clarification is an invitation, an invitation for everyone invested in Catholic education to self-reflection, personal and professional integrity, and clarity with regard to the primary mission of Catholic schools.
Pope Francis gave this encouragement to teachers in a Speech to the students of the Jesuit schools of Italy and Albania (emphasis added):
“But above all with your life be witnesses of what you communicate. Educators … pass on knowledge and values with their words; but their words will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, their consistent way of life. Without consistency it is impossible to educate! You are all educators, there are no delegates in this field. Thus collaboration in a spirit of unity and community among the various educators is essential and must be fostered and encouraged.”