Is Being "Authentically Catholic" the Ultimate Credential for Teaching High School?

Morals of the story

Is Being "Authentically Catholic" the Ultimate Credential for Teaching High School?

Here's a harmless conversation starter for the dinner table: How will the Cleveland Catholic Diocese's "morality clause" impact its ability to hire quality educators?

The so-called "morality clause" was a key (but surprisingly non-controversial) component within the contract recently agreed upon by the Diocese and the 195 members of the Cleveland High School and Academy Lay Teachers Association (CHALTA). That union exists at the pleasure of Bishop Richard Lennon. The contract is negotiated every three years and signed by faculty members annually. Elementary school teachers agreed to the same terms last year.

The clause in question itemizes those moral behaviors to which teachers are expected to adhere. They can't publicly support abortion, for example. Nor can they support in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, or the "so-called homosexual lifestyle." They certainly can't get abortions.  They can't unlawfully use drugs, be "seriously dishonest," view or share pornography, support "transgenderism" or exist in a state of marriage not officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. Cohabitation and sex outside of marriage are also, of course, strictly prohibited, as is membership in any organization "whose philosophy is in any way contrary to the ethical or moral teachings" of the church.   

So it's a pretty detailed clause. On that last item, various interpretations might preclude faculty members from participating in Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop gaming groups -- on this topic, Christian debate rages online -- or even in neighborhood yoga classes. A crotchety bishop in Nebraska last month urged the readership of a Catholic women's magazine to find other forms of physical exercise, as yoga's ancient Hindu origins and emphasis on meditation -- to say nothing of yoga pants -- invited demonic attack. (Demons often enter vaginally in Catholicism.)   

But in Cleveland, the questions that concern at least some of the current teachers at the five schools under the diocesan umbrella relate to enforcement. Specifically: Will the morality clause be enforced? And how thoroughly? And by whom? And depending on the answers to those questions, is the contract worth signing in the first place?  

Is all this high-moral posturing just another example of the church's anxiety about the world's "relentless progress" and the need to insulate itself therefrom? Or is the so-called morality clause actually a prudent legal consideration to avoid costly settlements with high school teachers whose lives no longer accord with gospel values?

These all seem like fair questions, but we mustn't count on answers from the diocese. Communications director Bob Tayek advised Scene that the so-called morality clause had already been in earlier contracts, albeit in less specific form.

"The terms were simply better defined," he wrote Scene in an email, of the so-called morality clause. "It is a provision elementary and secondary teachers have agreed to in their contracts for some time. The diocesan guidelines contain these essential qualifications for a teaching candidate: A person must be of good moral character whose lifestyle is consonant with the teachings of the Catholic church.

"The remainder of your questions," Tayek continued, "are based on assumptions that our school officials say are not borne out of reality."

The remainder of my questions turned out to be the totality of my questions: I asked about standard operating procedure if teachers were found to be in violation of the clause. Would enforcement be left to the discretion of the individual schools or would the diocese be involved? I also asked how strictly the enforcers (whomever they might be) intended to police specific moral breaches. What about teachers in protestant marriages, for instance, or those who'd married divorcees without the imprimatur of an R.C. annulment? And what was the mood of the faculty, to the best of his knowledge? Was there a noticeable divide between older and younger teachers?

When I rephrased my questions to include specific hypotheticals, Tayek said that the Diocese would be sticking with its earlier comment.

Lord knows how all these mysterious school officials were privy to my assumptions, but it's true that principals and presidents don't seem to acknowledge the existence of moral aberrance of any kind at their institutions.

"I don't think I can be of any help to you," wrote David Csank, Principal of Euclid's Villa-Angela St. Joseph. "You are asking for responses to situations we are not experiencing at all, so I really would not be able to provide any insight."

Csank was the only principal who responded by phone or email to the six questions I posed regarding the morality clause. Again, the questions related to enforcement, faculty sentiment and parent and student awareness.

Karl Ertle, however, President and Principal of Walsh Jesuit in Cuyahoga Falls and former President and Principal of Cleveland Central Catholic, promptly responded to my questions by phone and email, hours before his school's baccalaureate. Ertle is also a former St. Ignatius High School administrator. He said, somewhat unexpectedly, that in his six years at CCC (2004-2010), there was never one instance when a faculty member was living outside the teaching of the Catholic Church.

"I was never aware of any, nor was one ever brought to my attention," he said. "As at Walsh Jesuit, I was blessed to work with some truly wonderful people."

On the flipside: Mike DeSantis, who's been president of CHALTA for 17 years, said that he could guarantee that at each of the five diocesan high schools -- Cleveland Central Catholic, Elyria Catholic, Holy Name, Lake Catholic, VASJ -- there was at least one instance of a teacher cohabiting (just for example).

"But it's not a witch hunt," he said, in a phone conversation. "If it were, I would've had a lot more cases."

DeSantis said that since he's been president, there has only been one teacher termination for a morals violation.  

"And the guy was arrested," DeSantis said. "It was pornography and stuff like that. The clause doesn't say you can't have your own beliefs. You just can't get up in front of the classroom and promote them. If I had said that abortion was acceptable, that it was an acceptable form of contraception, I would be in the same trouble five years ago as I would be now."

As such, DeSantis said, there wasn't a whole lot of controversy when CHALTA voted on the contract earlier this year. There was some concern among members about gay relatives, though.

"That was one of the things we got clarified [by our attorney and the Diocese]," DeSantis said. "Because we wanted to know, could we go to a gay wedding ceremony? And the answer is yes. There's no problem with my going to the ceremony. Now, if I come out and say something positive in the classroom, that's an issue. But that was a misconception."

So why the hullabaloo now?

DeSantis said that because the contract is on a three-year cycle, this is the first time new, young teachers have experienced the negotiations.  

"But our view is, they're spelling out exactly what they expect of us. Our teachers now have a better understanding of what was expected of them in the past. The people on our board look at it as a way of clarifying, of giving them more knowledge."

It's also a legal linchpin because it prevents dismissed faculty members from suing the Diocese for discrimination (more on this in a moment). That happened in 2013, down in Columbus. Carla Hale, a physical education teacher was dismissed when the name of her female partner was published in her mother's obituary. After Hale leveled an official complaint, and petitions and protests were organized on her behalf, she settled with the Columbus Diocese outside of court. Financial terms were never disclosed.

But with the expanded contract language in Cleveland, no longer can terminated teachers claim that they "had no way of knowing" that supporting [the moral violation of your choice] was a fireable offense.

Maria Schock, 30, teaches Spanish part-time at Elyria Catholic. She's a lesbian, and she won't be returning to her post next year.  

To be fair, she told Scene over coffee in North Olmsted, she's finishing up a graduate degree at Cleveland State and is eager to move out of the region, but still said the morality clause would have compelled her to quit regardless.

"I could just lie," Schock said, "but I don't want to live my life that way and I don't want to sign a piece of paper that says I agree with this when clearly I don't. It's sad, though, sad for all of us. You grow so close to the students and the school -- it's heartbreaking really."

Schock grew up in North Olmsted and attended Elyria Catholic in large part because her mother was a Spanish teacher there.

"My parents said that I could go anywhere I wanted for high school," Schock said, "as long as it was Catholic."

She said being gay was a private struggle through her teenage years, a struggle made all the more difficult by the church.

"I was told that if I prayed hard enough, it would go away," she said. "So I did. I went to the school prayer service every morning. I joined the youth groups, the retreat teams. But obviously, that's not how it works."

The Christian websites to which she was directed didn't help either.  Being gay was maybe all right, they informed her, but acting on it (sexually) was the sin.  

She said those experiences and the lack of support turned her away from the Church, leading to what she called "serious depression and substance abuse problems."  She still believes in Catholicism's core values -- "the social justice ideals, being kind to each other" -- but no longer practices: "It's the politics I don't like."

Schock came out in her early twenties and, after traveling the world teaching English, settled down in New York City,  teaching ESL classes for five years.  She only returned to Northeast Ohio when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

"It was the third time and it was stage four," Schock said.  

She had a few spare months before she was slated to begin grad school in NYC, and she decided she'd spend time with her mom by helping her out at school.  

"They thought it would be better for her recovery to be in the classroom. It was what she loved," Schock said.

Schock came in every day, serving mostly as an aide -- passing out papers, running small errands -- and teaching afternoon classes when her mom had run out of energy. By the end of the year, she was teaching the full class load because her mom couldn't leave the house. The breast cancer had spread to the bones and she didn't have much time left.

During the tragic ordeal, Schock said, Elyria Catholic was "so kind and so supportive" and despite her reservations about the faith, she agreed to return to teach after her mother's passing,

In May, after the most recent contract had been agreed upon by CHALTA, Schock wrote a letter to Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States (basically, a Vatican diplomat) to provide her story as testimony and to outline her qualms:  

"As I fell back into the daily school routine, I began to feel as though I had a purpose again and that I was in the place where I could be of the most service. I intended to continue working at the school, which many people were happy about.  However, Bishop Lennon has intervened and disrupted our happy and productive environment with a morality clause that will be attached to the contract of any future employee at our school.  The contract now says that employees cannot show support for homosexual unions.  I do not believe that the love I feel is a sin and I will not sign a piece of paper that says I do.  I am not alone, other teachers will not be returning because of other morality clauses written in the contract (sic).... By adding this morality clause into the employment contract, schools will lose valuable employees who have already proven their worth.  This clause will have no effect except to drive people away.  I feel as though I am continually being called to come back to Catholicism by a higher power, but the Catholic representatives here on Earth keep pushing me further away."

In person, Schock elaborated.

"It's like what [does the Diocese] want? Do you want someone who knows their subject and does a good job, or someone who goes to mass every week? I guess you could have it both ways, but they pay so little that the pool becomes really really small."

With respect to what the Diocese wants: Bishop Lennon made that clear in a letter to teachers and administrators.  Whether or not you agree with his hard-line philosophy, you certainly can't blame the guy for wobbling. He said that though Catholic schools are, by definition, schools, they "in fact serve the primary purpose of developing each student as a whole person based on the model of Christ."

Lennon cites a Vatican council, canon law and the keynote address at a Catholic schools' conference to bolster his argument that teachers are not merely instructors, but Christian role models -- ministers:

"A Catholic school succeeds in its mission only if every aspect of the school is inspired and guided by the Gospel and only if instruction across the entire spectrum of studies is authentically Catholic.... The example set by teachers and administrators through their actions and their lives is considered by the Church to be even more important than what they say."

That view is sustained in this year's contract with a key shift. "Teachers" will now be defined as "teacher-ministers."

It's a designation that Mike DeSantis said doesn't lessen CHALTA's leverage as a union. And it's one that the Diocese might argue hews closely to its vision of authentically Catholic educators -- we can't be sure; they provided only one comment -- but it's also one that teachers like Schock find ridiculous.

"I went to school to study Spanish," the Ohio University alum told Scene. "I'm good at it.  I'm not a minister. If I wanted to be a minister, I would've gone to school for that."

(N.B. An additional stipulation in the contract is that faculty members are not permitted to talk to the media, hence the lack of current teachers willing to provide comment for this story.)

But the teacher-minister designation also gives the Diocese much more legal power. The same "teacher-minister" shift occurred in both the Oakland and Cincinnati Dioceses last year and are all in the wake of a January, 2012, Supreme Court ruling which established something called the "ministerial exception" for religious employers. In laymen's terms, the ministerial exception means that anti-discrimination and workplace labor laws don't necessarily apply to people whom religious employers deem "ministers."

So firing someone for supporting the "so-called homosexual lifestyle"?  That's on rock-solid legal ground.

The question remains, though: Who is going to enforce the clause?

Citing history -- one termination in 17 years -- Mike DeSantis argued that just because the Diocese can  legally dismiss employees for morals violations doesn't mean they will.

"It's a last resort," he said, suggesting that if a violation was brought directly to Bishop Lennon's attention, he'd likely delegate to the Diocesan secondary schools' superintendent, who would then meet with the the school principal and the teacher in question to "address the situation" and "work out a simple solution."

"If a [female teacher] is cohabiting with her boyfriend, they might say: 'Would you be willing to move out for the next six months until you're married?" DeSantis said.

But for Maria Schock, and for the three other teachers at Elyria Catholic whom Schock said would be leaving specifically because of the morality clause (two of whom, Schock thought, had already been exploring the job market), the fact that the Diocese may not strictly enforce the morality clause doesn't diminish the fact that they can.      

"If a student has a problem with a teacher, can they go to the Diocese and say they're in violation of the contract? And will they be fired? We don't know," Schock said. "The administration tried to assuage our frustrations and say, 'No no no, of course not,' but they don't know either. The Diocese is just this all-powerful body hanging over our heads."  

Schock said that the Elyria Catholic administration has been supportive, and that if code enforcement were fully in the hands of individual schools (who, at least day-to-day and for the most part, operate autonomously) she wouldn't be worried at all.  

"It's Lennon," she said. "He's the one destroying things."

The Bishop and his diocese have some serious hashing out to do. The Catholic Church (like Cleveland itself, perhaps) is at a pivotal moment, a moment when it must reckon with the divergence between canonical teaching and the predominant views of its flock.  

In Catholic Ireland, voters resoundingly passed a referendum last month to constitutionally permit same-sex marriage.  

"The church has a huge task to get its message across to young people. (It) needs to do a reality check," Dublin's Bishop Diarmuid Martin said.

The very next day, Robert M. Gates, president of the Boy Scouts of America (an organization with which the Catholic Church is often associated) called on his executives to end their ban on gay troop leaders.

"We must deal with the world as it is," he said, "not as we might wish it to be."

In Cleveland, the church is led by a man so old-school and resistant to change that he's never even used a computer. And though there's a certain nobility, a certain grandfatherly charm, to his conservatism, there's also an inflexibility to it. The effect is that of a man deeply out of touch.

And though Lennon says his hands are tied on LGBT issues -- far be it for him to change the word of God -- there are non-doctrinal concessions he can make. Finding a new, less flippant, way to describe "the so called homosexual lifestyle" would be a welcome first step.

Recognizing the value of LGBT (and divorced, and artificially inseminated, etc.) educators, whose personal lives are very far removed from the classroom, would be another.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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