We keep reading these heart-rending reports in the paper
Reading about this in the paper the other morning, I thought, here we go again!
First of all, my message to you is: I feel for you! As one who have worked most of my long life for the Church, I know how it feels to be fired by the Church. Maybe it happens to all of us if we stay long enough; to many, at least. Some just leave because things are so bad they can’t stay. They are good people. It even happens to vowed religious. So you are in good company.
Fired by God?
The trouble is, getting fired by the Church makes you feel like you’re being fired by God. Often times that means you’re blackballed for all other church jobs, at least in that diocese. You don’t have much recourse. Most of us are at-will employees.
Often it means no longer being able to attend your parish, having to find another place where you can feel welcome.
What would Jesus do?
I’ve asked myself what Jesus would have done in the person of your superiors. We all know what he told the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” She was brought forward for public humiliation and stoning by religious leaders, who asked Jesus’ opinion of the matter, hoping to uncover some unlawful attitude in him. He gently exposes her accusers’ hypocrisy, but then tells her not to sin again. She’s not off the hook, but given a second chance.
Jesus tells his followers to go one-on-one to someone whom you see to be in the wrong and tell them privately so that they can make a change. Giving people another chance was what Jesus was all about. He would not break the bruised reed.
He showed the Samaritan woman at the well he knew all about her and her five husbands. Yet, there was no condemnation in his treatment of her. Rather, he takes the time to talk seriously to her about who he is and why he has come. All we know about her future actions is that she goes off to tell everyone in her village about Jesus, no longer cowering alone by the well. He has changed her by his love.
That would be where school officials could learn some techniques for managing staff members. In fact, it would be the way for fellow Christians within these institutions that feel called on in the name of their “faith” to rat on their fellow Christians.
Lessons learned working as a church employee
But, as one who have, as I say, worked for the Church, Lo! these many years, I have also grown wiser and, I think, come to understand that role better than I once did. So here are a few things I learned along the way:
1. I was reared in the pre-Vatican II Church, but really came into my ministry in the light of the Vatican II changes. I was always fairly orthodox in my belief, but sometimes seemed left of center to other believers. As a religious educator, I had to be very careful that what I taught was solid, supported Catholic teaching, and not my own private take on what that meant. When I started out, there was no Catechism of the Catholic Church to rely on, but later, when that became available, I would check myself to make sure I was not off on a subjective tangent.
2. I was also involved with the music ministry—still am. The priest is the chief liturgist, as well as catechist, of the parish, and his word goes. I may know he’s not performing the rite correctly, but it’s not my place to correct him on that. (One time a priest, a bit addled during a long funeral for a friend, passed right over the consecration. I did not rush over to let him know about his mistake.) Some pastors are very particular about music they do or do not want sung in their church. I may have to grit my teeth at not singing what, in my heart, I know is the right song for that day, but I have to let it go.
3. Lifestyle is critical, because it’s a public statement of who you are as a representative of the Church. As a single woman, raising three children, it was challenging for me, as it is for any single woman in the Church. If you are a religious, you have your community to support you, even if you have to live on your own. Our culture holds up options for us that really don’t work as a public statement in the Church. For example, I had to realize that remarrying would be tricky unless I had an annulment, so I got that even though I never really had to use it.
4. Being in a relationship, or seeming to be, poses problems. You can see someone, but if it becomes obviously sexual, there can be objections. It depends on the community, but even in the most understanding setting, someone may find scandal there. Moving in together unmarried is a public statement whether you’re gay or straight. (I’ve known a teacher’s contract not to be renewed because she’d moved in with her boyfriend/fiancé.) This might seem overly strict in today’s lenient culture, but remember that this would have been grounds for dismissal as recently as the 1950s even in public schools.
5. Consider that until the 1970s, and even after that, most Catholic schools were staffed by religious sisters or brothers. It should be no surprise that the standard even for lay teachers has remained very high.
6. Finding a roommate is a good way to find friendship and support without violating a code of conduct. I lived with a roommate in one parish where I worked. We worried that we mature women would be seen as lesbians, but we also worked in different parishes and had our own love interests (interest is the key word here!) We were good friends and supported each other in a non-romantic friendship. Back in the 1950s and 60s, that was a normal situation. Unmarried people commonly shared a room or an apartment with a friend, and nothing was said. You had a safe harbor, and any outside romantic interests could be kept at a bit of a distance until such time as was right for them to be acted on publicly.
7. So, yes, sex is the issue. It’s really not just a matter of orientation or of love interest, but sex. This is easier to grasp in the times we live in if you consider what happens if a teacher starts a relationship with an underage student. What if the teacher is found to be involved with child pornography? What if the teacher neglects to report another professional who appears to be interacting with students in a way that could be sexual abusive? Sex matters. Our culture is more permissive about some kinds of sexual expression, but, now, less permissive of others. Harassment was once condoned in public settings, but is now grounds for dismissal in a school setting.
Societal concern over sexual abuse can give us some perspective about sanctioned sexual expression.
Work for the Church long enough and you will discover an instance of sexual abuse somewhere. In our case it was not a member of the clergy, but a would-be youth minister. Make that two. I knew these men well enough to know something about the way they thought. They thought they were right. They felt laws should be changed to make it okay for men to be involved with young boys. At least one of them was a deeply religious man, a lay-reader in his church, which put him on a level with deacon. He was community minded, concerned for the poor and ill, a lover of music, a regular worshipper. But some were not surprised when the police caught him red-handed luring young boys.
As Christians we are part of a unique community: the Body of Christ
Sex is a beautiful thing, bringing two people together in relationship. It is also a mine-field, to be navigated carefully, considering that two people in love are not an island. They are part of a community. If that community is important to them, the couple must find their true happiness together in the larger community. For Christians, involvement in the community of Christ is vitally important.
The Church tries to model the ideal relationship of the marriage of a man and a woman
For the Church, the ideal sexual expression is in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. We know that things do not always work that way, but this is the model the Church has found to fit most closely with the life of Jesus and the early Church. Times do change, and that is a discussion for another day; but this model held true for 2000 years, so I’d say we need to take it pretty seriously. The Church does. So if we work for the Church, like it or not, this is the model we have to give. Not always easy, but possible with God’s grace.
For one who has tried to practice the essential ministry of teaching in a setting where you were not fully appreciated, I hope you will find other settings in which your gifts can flourish, and ones in which you can experience being the child of God you were created to be.