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A Manufactured Controversy

In recent months, several U.S. dioceses have made it known that they expect teachers in their school systems to conduct themselves according to basic Catholic principles in their public lives. They’ve done so through something called a “morality clause” in teachers’ contracts. Though worded in slightly different language by dioceses such as Cincinnati, Columbus (Ohio), Cleveland, Honolulu, and Oakland, each morality clause essentially stipulates that teachers may not show public support for issues that contravene Church teaching on faith or morals. The primary concern here is to avoid giving scandal. That means that if, say, a teacher volunteers as an escort at an abortion center, he would be in breach of his contract. If a teacher serves as president of the local atheists’ union, it’s a breach of contract. If he lobbies for same-sex marriage on a blog or promotes in vitro fertilization on Facebook, he’d be in breach of contract.

Bishop Michael Barber, recently appointed by Pope Francis to the Diocese of Oakland in northern California, went one step further. He’s requiring faculty in his Catholic schools to “model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith” both in their professional and personal lives. The language of the new contracts in the various dioceses serves one primary purpose: to clarify the responsibilities of Catholic school teachers in and out of the classroom. “As an employer,” Bishop Barber told the National Catholic Register (June 2), “my approach to teacher contracts was not to make a list of prohibitive behavior, but rather to set an expectation.” Similarly, in a May 1 letter to pastors of the Cleveland diocese, Bishop Richard Lennon explained that the changes in the contracts “are simply an attempt to be clear about the role that teachers play in the formation of students as Catholics and to lay out in a clear way some of the issues important to the Catholic Church in light of the very real challenges posed by today’s secular society.”

Interestingly enough, diocesan teaching contracts, even before the addition of these so-called morality clauses, still held teachers accountable in their public lives. The only difference is that now it’s spelled out in black-and-white so that teachers may not claim that they didn’t know what the Church teaches on the moral issues in question. George Jones, spokesman for the Columbus diocese, reiterated this point. The contractual changes, he told the Associated Press (June 5), don’t change the intent of the old contracts; they simply explain more clearly what is expected of a Catholic school teacher. “Catholic institutions should inherently reflect Catholic teaching,” he wrote in an official diocesan statement. “While our diocese is open to staff, faculty, and students of many faiths and beliefs, it is entirely appropriate and necessary that these institutions, and the employees who serve within them, strive to respect these teachings as set forth in the Catechism.”

Michael Rockers, spokesman for the Honolulu diocese, which has been assailed by a civil-rights group accusing the Church in Hawaii of running afoul of discrimination laws, also clarified that teachers in diocesan schools are role models whose job is also a ministry. “I think federal and state laws support our right and really our responsibility as a religious entity to hire and educate and support teachers that further our mission,” he said (Hawaii News Now, Mar. 28).

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