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?

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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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