Moral Witness at the Heart of Catholic Education

Editor’s Note: The article below is included in the forthcoming winter 2021 edition of the Newman Society’s Our Catholic Mission magazine.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the “ministerial exception” applies to certain Catholic school teachers, a ruling hailed as protecting Catholic schools and colleges that uphold moral standards for employees.

While the ruling addresses serious questions of religious freedom, it also raises issues that many dioceses, schools and colleges have been wrestling with for several years: What moral standards should be expected of employees in Catholic education? The Church has repeatedly called on teachers to witness to the faith in both word and deed. But what about non-teaching employees?

Underlying these concerns is the necessity of ensuring that all employees faithfully serve the mission of Catholic education. Clear and consistent contracts and policies are the best means of upholding Catholic identity while avoiding employee disputes and lawsuits.

Ministerial exception

As explained in the Newman Society’s summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School, the Court explicitly forbade federal courts from interfering in Catholic school employment decisions concerning teachers of religion, because that would constitute a violate of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

The Court also signaled that the ministerial exception covers other employees with substantial religious duties, but more litigation will be needed to determine how the exception applies to teachers of subjects other than religion, clerical and maintenance staff, and higher education employees.

Already lower courts are testing and even challenging the ministerial exception. A panel of judges for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the exception only prevents lawsuits concerning hiring and firing decisions, so it allowed a former employee of a Chicago parish—fired because he entered into a same-sex union—to proceed with a lawsuit claiming a “hostile work environment.”

The Newman Society responded with the help of attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom, filing an amicus brief urging the full 7th Circuit Court to overrule the panel decision and to apply the ministerial exception to all employment-related matters. In December the full court took the rare step of vacating the panel ruling and will soon reconsider whether to let the case move forward.

Morality expectations

In 2015, controversy erupted in the Archdiocese of San Francisco over morality clauses in teacher contracts, although the Church’s standards were in the end preserved. Many other dioceses have implemented similar employment guidelines both to protect Catholic schools and to provide clarity to employees.

Catholic school and college leaders should be clear about moral expectations when interviewing prospective employees, and there are a variety of ways of inserting faith and morals clauses into employment documents. These include morality, witness, and belief statements and language in pre-contract agreements, contracts, and employee handbooks.

Catholic schools and colleges can avoid disputes by clearly explaining to employees the fundamental religious nature of all their efforts and the Catholic principles that undergird employment policies. All employees should be made aware of their responsibility to advance the religious mission of Catholic education. There should be no confusion about which faith and moral transgressions can result in disciplinary action or firing.

The Newman Society provides Catholic educators with a review of moral standards for Catholic school employment documents and a compilation of sample policies from dioceses around the country.

All Employees Matter

Moral standards at most schools and colleges focus especially on teachers and professors, which is understandable. Many Church documents highlight the duty of teachers to be witnesses to the faith. They have a primary role in Catholic education and direct influence over their students.

Moral standards should apply to educators in every subject area, not just religion teachers or theology professors. This is true especially in elementary and secondary education, when impressionable children rely on good role models and moral guides for their formation.

“A teacher who is full of Christian wisdom, well prepared in his own subject, does more than convey the sense of what he is teaching to his pupils,” declares the Congregation for Catholic Education in The Catholic School (1977). “Over and above what he says, he guides his pupils beyond his mere words to the heart of total Truth.”

As even secular courts acknowledge by the ministerial exception, teachers in Catholic education are expected to display more than knowledge of a particular subject area—they are to be witnesses to the faith in word and action.

“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,” exhorted Pope Saint Paul VI in Gravissimum Educationis, the Vatican II Declaration on Christian Education.

Many non-teaching employees, too, have formational duties that are essential to Catholic education. These include coaches, counselors and others who are involved with student activities. They work closely with students and should be held to the same high moral standards.

What, then, of the receptionist and the librarian? Or the nurse? Or maintenance staff?

Such positions are often viewed as having primary secular functions and therefore not accountable to Catholic moral standards beyond the ethics of their particular tasks. Lawsuits against schools have increasingly concerned employees who were fired for civil same-sex unions—and many would question the need for a groundskeeper to witness to Catholic teachings on marriage.

Nevertheless, all employees should be held to high standards at a Catholic school, because every employee is a member of the school’s Catholic community that is committed to students’ formation. Although the extent of their interaction with students may differ, any employee of a school can have an impact on students’ outlook and behavior.

The Newman Society is developing standards to help Catholic educators develop policies and employment documents upholding moral expectations for employees. See also our recently published argument for applying such expectations broadly, in “All Employees Matter in the Mission of Catholic Education” by Dr. Dan Guernsey. He notes that even limited student contact by an employee has potential for good or ill, and every employee should serve the mission of Catholic education.

Consider a secular business: every employee serves the company’s objectives, and any action that undermines the company’s success is reason for discipline or dismissal. The purpose of Catholic education is to teach and form young people in the faith and lead them to God, and no employee should ever obstruct that mission.

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