When Teacher Witness Goes Wrong

The Catholic University of America recently taught students a tough but valuable lesson about witness and responsibility. It’s a lesson the students—as well as the faculty—are unlikely to forget.

On January 30, university president Dr. Peter Kilpatrick announced the firing of a psychology lecturer following a scandalous incident in her classroom. The lecturer, teaching a course titled “Lifespan Development,” had invited an “abortion doula” to speak to the students. An abortion doula is someone who accompanies women as they undergo abortions. Reports claim that the guest not only advocated abortion but also celebrated “childbirth” by “trans” men.

Critics later accused the university of violating academic freedom by firing the lecturer, and no doubt some students and faculty members agree. But by acting swiftly and decisively—and by publicly explaining the necessity of upholding the university’s mission—the Catholic University of America set an important example for Catholic educators.

“In our rigorous pursuit of truth and justice, we engage at times with arguments or ideologies contrary to reason or to the Gospel,” Dr. Kilpatrick acknowledged in a letter to students. “But we do so fully confident in the clarity given by the combined lights of reason and faith, and we commit to never advocate for sin or to give moral equivalence to error.”

It was an excellent letter. When leaders so clearly articulate the mission of Catholic education and moral expectations for faculty members, consequences for bad behavior and false teaching no longer appear harsh. Instead, it is out of concern for truth and the formation of students that Catholic education leaders must discipline and sometimes even remove teachers when they lead students astray. False witness is contrary to the truth that is foundational to Catholic education.

“Our studies aim at producing wisdom, which includes excellence in living and sharing the truth with others,” explained Dr. Kilpatrick. “May our common study help us to understand life, to love goodness, and to promote and protect the dignity of the human person.”


Responding with heroism

In a culture increasingly hostile to Catholic morality, Catholic schools and colleges are likely to face more conflicts with employees who resist moral expectations. But if teachers uphold the faith, their witness can be all the more influential with students—lights in the darkness. And if leaders remain steadfast in the truth when conflicts arise, their heroic witness can be a valuable education for students and the broader public.

Consider the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, Calif. In 2012, the school announced that teachers must obtain catechist certification to ensure the integration of Catholic teaching across all disciplines. One non-Catholic teacher, whose duties included teaching all subjects including religion, failed to get the certification and was fired.

The school’s courageous act of dismissing the teacher, rather than compromising its mission and thereby harming its students, led to a lawsuit claiming age discrimination. On the face of it, this seemed exactly the outcome that school leaders want to avoid to protect their schools. But the lawsuit eventually led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2020, upholding the ministerial exception and protecting the right of Catholic schools to choose teachers according to religious criteria without court interference.

Sadly, Gordon College lost the opportunity to obtain a similar landmark ruling for Christian higher education. The Evangelical Christian college faced a hostile Massachusetts court, when a fired sociology professor claimed that she had been unfairly denied tenure because of her public attacks on the college’s Christian views of sexuality and marriage. Gordon’s leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent the case from proceeding under the ministerial exception, but when the Court declined, Gordon settled the case.

It would be unfair to judge Gordon College’s choice to settle, but standing firm for religious freedom and insisting on the moral witness of all employees is a necessary line in the sand—even if it causes some degree of martyrdom. The ultimate goal of Catholic education is evangelization, bringing students to God by reason and faith. While avoiding lawsuits may keep a school or college going for the short term, defending appropriate personnel policies is necessary to protecting Catholic education for the long term and shows students a powerful witness to fidelity.

In the amicus brief joined by The Cardinal Newman Society, urging the Supreme Court to take up the Gordon case, we attested:

“Faculty are the life-blood of every college and university, without which teaching and scholarship cannot occur. For faithful Catholic and protestant institutions, teaching and scholarship is not an end in itself. Without recognizing the ‘Word’ through whom ‘all things were made’ (John 1: 1-3), teaching and scholarship on any subject is incomplete.”


Leading dioceses

Today many dioceses across the U.S. are instituting personnel guidelines and morality clauses in employee contracts, so that the Church’s expectations are clear to employees. These also help to invite educators to more faithful witness inside and outside the classroom. Still, some employees are unwilling to abide by them.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has made a significant effort to strengthen the Catholic mission of its schools, only to face four separate cases of employees entering into civil same-sex marriages. Two dismissed counselors at Roncalli High School filed lawsuits claiming discrimination, as did a teacher at Cathedral Catholic High School. After a difficult legal fight, the archdiocese triumphed in all three cases.

In the Diocese of Charlotte, a substitute teacher’s contract was not renewed after he declared a same-sex marriage and publicly opposed Church teaching. The ACLU is helping the teacher pursue a lawsuit against Charlotte Catholic High School and the diocese, and a ruling is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

These dioceses know that teacher witness is at the heart of Catholic education. In Ex corde Ecclesiae, St. John Paul II declared, “If need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.” This is true of all Catholic education, which “speaks” as much by the witness of its employees as by classroom instruction. Speaking, however, sometimes requires courage to uphold the truth for the good of the students and all who listen.

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